a lesson of unusual relevance…

Occasionally, we encounter a parable that leaves us scratching our heads – and this is one such story.

Jesus is on a roll – Having (in the previous chapter) described the coming desolation

and having dropped hints about the necessity of preparation

(if the owner had known the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake –

and later, the tale of the wise bridesmaids with their lamps full and trimmed )

he offers this snapshot of the state of things to come;

“Then the Kingdom of heaven is like this…”

another generous, trusting estate manager is off on a journey,

– giving the inmates the run of the asylum –

assigning gifts to his staff according to the ability of each.

The possibilities are almost limitless – how will this look when the master returns…?

for we know the pattern of these stories, don’t we…

We know that there will be a moment of uncertainty – a time of trust and testing

and, in the end, a reckoning – that is how this story goes – and for pattern, we are not disappointed.

the difficulty here is in the conclusion, which seems so unlikely

Is this a true picture of the promised Kingdom?

Are those with the lesser abilities (remember, the gifts reflect the abilities) actually held to higher standards?

The punishment does not seem to fit the crime, in this case,

and we are left to wonder at the compassion of a master

who would condemn this cautious, frightened slave

whose ‘abilities’ earned him only minimal trust.

What could provoke such a response, from an otherwise generous and forward-thinking ‘manager’?

To be sure, this form of dismissal (sent to the darkness where there is (will be) weeping and gnashing of teeth)

is typical of Matthew’s gospel, where it occurs 7 times, but it is not typical of Jesus to describe God’s gracious promises as being available for only those who have achieved measurable success.  

The usual  answer to the problem of this parable, is to say something like this:

“God has been generous with us – we need to manage well those gifts God has given us, and be prepared to give a good account of ourselves when the time comes…”

this is the time honoured, well worn response to this parable.

But what of the third servant?

What explains his fear – his reluctance to “work hard and produce good fruit”?

And nothing in Jesus manner, Jesus teaching, or anything else in Scripture

prepares us for a master who will “throw us into the outer darkness…”

for the sin of returning the gift untouched.

The gift was not stolen. The master received his own; just as it was.

Nothing was gained, but nothing lost either – is growth and gain so important

that not even God is immune from the hunger for more???

I think the solution to this puzzle has always been before us.

God is not greedy as we are greedy – this parable has become the easy way out

for a church rooted firmly in the world of commerce.

The text suggests that one of the slaves – the one who buried the gift – lived in fear of a harsh master

“who reaped where he did not sow, and who gathered where he had not planted…”

Matthew records that Jesus, since his arrival in Jerusalem,

has been revealing the wickedness that has infested even Jerusalem.

There was trouble coming, and Matthew describes Jesus in the last few chapters before his arrest,

as condemning all that he saw around him.

The preceding chapter offered us a parable of preparation (the wise bridesmaids) for the faithful

This parable describes another way of faith.

Two slaves follow the path of least resistance.

Their master is an exceedingly wealthy man.

the path of least resistance is to give him what he expects – to double his money and curry favour with the boss

that is how you get to the top – how you escape servitude – how you “succeed” in business…

But servitude is the norm in Jesus time.

Those who followed Christ were, for the most part, struggling along on minimum wage;

slaves to a system that kept them poor,

ruled by those who, like the master in the parable, had money to burn.

And one man saw the system as flawed.

One man dared to say so – refused to participate in an economic system that heaped misery on the masses.

“you reap where you did not sow – so here is your original investment, and good riddance…”

One man in Jesus story is “thrown into outer darkness” –

the darkness that most of the population inhabited –

one man gives up certain wealth for principals –

and Jesus would have us take note of him.

Should we use, with great care, the wondrous gifts God has given us…Certainly!

Should we share, with great joy, our “talents” (whatever they may be)

in order that God might be glorified…no doubt!

But does that mean that God expects us to multiply all that we touch?

What if Jesus was drawing our attention to a condition that is still far too common;

what if the outer darkness – the place of great sorrow and consternation – is our natural habitat?

Where else can we accomplish those gospel tasks –

of bringing good news to the poor and binding up the broken hearted?

Who but the servants who dare to describe the “system” as broken –

who dare to step out of positions of comfort and safety –

who else can offer comfort and compassion to a broken world?

The world is our master – make no mistake.

We have eased ourselves into lives of ease, and that’s the truth.

But the system is broken.

The accounts are being called – just look at the news from Europe –

and we’re discovering that it is no longer possible

to continually double our investments

on the backs of the ignorant poor or at the expense of earth’s limited and delicate resources

something must change.

Jesus knew it. And Jesus declares that the solution is within us.

For he calls us to live as he lived – and he lived as a gentle, compassionate friend of the poor –

naming brokenness where he saw it; calling power a cheat, and riches a sham.

His outspokenness drew a deadly response from the system.

Our silence smothers the soul.

The choices remain ours to make.

Success is the coin of the realm – the lure of the system that masters us –

But the Gospel, with its emphasis on those who lived outside the system – (aka, the outer darkness) – the Gospel calls us to see the truth of the matter.

Success as Jesus describes it – success in light of God’s kingdom –

may well count as failure in the eyes of the world;

How, I wonder, will the world measure us?


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