by Sarah Stadler
In interpreting Matthew’s parable of the talents, pastors and biblical scholars alike have long proclaimed God a master who, though generous with talents, is stingy with grace.
The principle thrust of the parable being: Invest your talents—an ancient form of money! Make more money thus entering into the joy of your master! As for the one who fails to invest his money, the one who buries his talent in the ground, God reprimands him and takes back what God had given saying: For to all those who have, more will be given. But from those who have nothing, even more will be taken away.
Really? Really? This is the God in whom we believe?
I have never been able to figure out especially that last line until, this year, my colleagues and I asked the question: have we been interpreting this parable incorrectly all these years? This picture of God does not square with the rest of the gospels, not even the gospel of Matthew. For while judgment is no stranger in the gospel of Matthew, this parable’s blatant disregard for those most vulnerable certainly does not reflect the themes of Matthew or the person of Jesus. Indeed, in the very next parable, Jesus reveals himself in the “least of these,” in hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned people. This, this is the God we know and love—the one who champions those living in poverty, those who have little to invest, those who reveal themselves weak and frightened.
But in the parable of the talents, where those who invest are praised and those who save without accumulating interest are scorned, who is the master? Who is the one who cares little for those most vulnerable? Who is the one who finds joy in the multiplication of funds? I feel almost indelicate asking: Is the master of this story just a master? Or maybe a world that applauds us when we invest, when we participate in greed, when we leverage our resources? Is a world ruled by greed this master, one who takes away the resources of those who have little and rewards those who already have enough and more to spare?
And what of the slaves who invest? Who are they? Are they us, the ones enslaved by the master, the ones enslaved by greed? Are these slaves, are we applauded by a world or a master who only values us when we are clever and facilitate return on the investment?
And who is the slave, the weak one, we might say, who buries his talent? Who is the wise one, we might say, who recognizes the cruelty of the master? Who is the resistant one, we might say, who refuses to participate in the devious plan of the master to reap where he does not sow and to gather where he does not scatter, who refuses greed? Who is the one thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? Could this be Jesus? Could Jesus be thrown into the outer darkness because he refuses to participate in a system of greed?
This reading of the parable shocks me.
And brings relief.
In this reading of the parable, the outer darkness is not a place God sends disobedient servants but rather a place to which the world relegates those who question the ethic of greed. In this reading of the parable, the outer darkness is not hell, not eternal condemnation but marginalization within our dominant culture. In this reading of the parable, the outer darkness is not a place for the godless but for God Incarnate, Jesus, and for all those who are members of his body, us.
In this reading of the parable, giving away talents—opposed to investing them—would be an act of resistance, a sacred act. With this reading of the parable, we dare ask: Why must we expect return on our investment? Could we not simply give with no expectation of return?
Okay. Heads swirling. Hearts baffled. I know.
But here we sit in the outer darkness. All of us. In the outer darkness of our culture. That we come here on Sunday mornings and pray to and praise a God whom we cannot see, that we receive bread and wine and see and taste in it the very body and blood of Christ, that we share words and acts of peace with the confidence that, through our bodies, God touches others, these things do not make sense in our culture. And perhaps most of all in a culture obsessed with the accumulation of material possessions and blinded by greed, we sit in the outer darkness because we give of our hard-earned money without expectation of return. Now, those of us who give without expectation of return, we do receive back. We most certainly do—but we don’t receive funds in our bank accounts necessarily. Instead, we receive intangible gifts of joy born of generosity, rich and meaningful lives, peace that comes of open hearts and minds, and connection with others who freely give. And we give not just of our material resources; we give of our time and our skill and our presence. We give of ourselves in relationships without expectation of return. We might be banished to the outer darkness of our culture, but if that is the place of generosity and joy, love and meaning, peace and connection, I don’t want to be anywhere else, especially if that’s where we find Jesus. From the outside, the outer darkness might seem to be a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth—but only if we find value solely in material gain.
A host of images of saints come to mind, saints who eschewed the joy of a greedy master to instead serve the One who gives without expectation of return, saints like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero. But saints abound in this place, people of God who give without expectation of return, who give of themselves even though others don’t know exactly how or what they give. And I won’t embarrass them by sharing their names, but these are saints who mow the church lawn and trim the bushes week-in, week-out, who scrub the floors and the toilets of Hope Hall without complaint, who joyfully set their hands and feet to any task asked of them, the saints whose work surprised the health department when they visited us recently because of the cleanliness of the kitchen. There are those saints who show up every Sunday to sing or play instruments, who count the offering but are never seen, who come early and stay late, who give rides to those who need them, who exhibit tireless thoughtfulness, who organize parking lot fundraisers so that our youth can go on mission trips, who spend hours and hours in front of their computers at a variety of tasks that make ministry possible, who place their offering in the plate or have the bank send in their check each week or month. And then, there are those saints who, in addition to the ways they give here at Grace, give of themselves in the community, at work, at school, in their families, among their friends. All these saints give without expectation of return, all these saints in the outer darkness of our culture. Here we are gathered with the One who was banished from the inner circle into the outer darkness. From the outer darkness with Christ, we quite unusually proclaim: