A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 16, 2014 (Proper 28, Year A)
Buried treasure normally invokes pirates. Blackbeard, swashbuckling, saying things like “scurvy dog” and “Arrrgh!” But we encounter a very different kind of buried treasure in this morning’s gospel passage and the whole encounter is rather troubling. Jesus tells a story about a rich man heading out on a journey — perhaps he’s off to sail the seven seas — and he gives one of his slaves charge over a pretty large amount of money, the slave buries it to keep it safe, and upon the master’s return, he gives him back the full sum. The master is furious the slave didn’t invest the money and basically forces him to walk the plank into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Well, I guess that part of the story does sound stereotypically pirate-like. Arbitrary violence, greed, booty. But we need to take a deeper look at this parable because things aren’t always as they seem. Before we do that, though, let’s define the word “talent” — that’s always a source of confusion when this parable shows up. In this case we’re not talking about the ability to crochet or play the ukelele. A talent was a sum of money; a huge sum of money, actually. One talent was the equivalent of 20 years of wages for the average laborer. So as the master doles out five talents to the first slave, two to the second, and one to the first, we’re talking about 150 years worth of wages. Basically the guy was a first century tycoon.
One other thing to know is that burying money wasn’t as odd as it sounds to our ears. There was no FDIC or drive-thru banking or ATM machines on every corner. Many people buried their money or hid it under the proverbial mattress. Remember that parable where Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to treasure buried in a field? “When a man found it,” he says, “he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” So burying your money was a common practice of safekeeping and security, not the actions of an anti-government, anti-banking, conspiracy-fueled eccentric.
Now, in many of Jesus’ parables the master or landowner or king or father figure represents God. That’s certainly the case with the prodigal son where the father welcomes him back with arms wide open in welcome and forgiveness. And the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard where the landowner displays divine generosity and grace, paying those who worked for just a short time the same as those who worked all day. Time after time Jesus shares attributes of God through these parables and we start to see his Father as loving, forgiving, and merciful.
So it makes sense that we start out listening to this story assuming the man who has entrusted his three servants with his property is a stand-in for God. Why wouldn’t we? It fits the pattern and as the first two servants have taken the money he has given them and made more money, the man sounds very God-like in his praise. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
Perfect — another parable about the Kingdom of God. Some sort of lesson about the Protestant work ethic and using our gifts for the good of the community; let’s move on to communion.
But hold on just a minute. Keep reading and this guy doesn’t sound much like the loving God Jesus has made known to us through his life and teachings. That third slave — the one who buries the treasure and gives it back gets treated miserably, abusively. He doesn’t lose the talent or squander it on wine, women, and song — like the prodigal son or your average pirate. He doesn’t try to hornswaggle his master — that’s pirate-speak for swindling, by the way. No, he returns it intact; he’s protected it and kept it safe.
Now, we also hear that each slave was given an amount based upon his ability — so maybe this guy just wasn’t great with money; maybe he had no idea how to read a spreadsheet or e-Trade. Maybe he had other talents, if not a future on Wall Street. Yet this poor slave is publicly humiliated, stripped of all he owns, and thrown out onto the street. “Shiver me timbers!”
Look a bit closer and we also learn something from the text about the master’s character — he’s someone who reaps where he doesn’t sow, he’s greedy, he has a temper, and he’s characterized as a “harsh man.” I think we can all agree these are hardly the attributes of a loving God. The moral of the story isn’t to be a financial wizard or else lose everything and be cast into the outer darkness. Produce a profit or get permanently downsized; the rich get richer; it takes money to make money. God isn’t in the creation business to make a nifty profit or reward those who care only about the bottom line, whatever the human cost.
So what’s going on here? Why is Jesus even telling us this story? Well, I’m convinced he sets this parable up to highlight the absurdity of the master’s approach to life. Life is not about acquiring material things or accumulating money or squeezing the most we can out of others. And hearing this counter-cultural message would have mattered especially to Matthew’s community as they were all struggling to live faithfully in this very in-between time between Jesus’ birth and his return; between his arrival in a manger and his coming again in great glory. Remember that first generation of disciples expected Jesus’ return to be imminent, but by the time Matthew wrote his gospel — at least 50 years after Jesus’ crucifixion — it was clear that the interval would be a lot longer than they had originally anticipated.
And we’re still here; living in this in-between time. Along with Jesus’ disciples in Matthew’s community, we too are wondering how to live faithfully. So this passage is a commentary on how we are to live in the meantime. And we don’t always do it very well, as evidenced by the fact that the caricature of this landowner is all too familiar. We build monuments to people who acquire such wealth, consequences be damned. Just two weeks ago on All Saints’ Sunday we highlighted those who weren’t necessarily successful by our human standards but were faithful by God’s. That’s the definition of a saint and this man stands in direct contrast to the kingdom values Jesus invites us to embrace.
So in light of this passage, Jesus asks us to reflect upon how we are to use this in-between time to live faithful, fruitful lives in God’s service. We know it’s not about sowing where we haven’t reaped or being harsh towards others. Again and again Jesus encourages us to use our God-giving talents to help those in need, to treat one another as fellow children of God, and to use our financial resources to make the world a better place. There are many things in this life we can’t control but choosing to live a life aligned with the values of Christ’s kingdom is one thing we can. We don’t have to raise the Jolly Roger — we can simply point to the cross of Christ.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck