Worship Service, November 15, 2020 “The Real Hero of the Story”

Worship Service, November 15, 2020 "The Real Hero of the Story"

Join Holy Trinity church members and Pastor Erik

Sunday morning via YouTube

 

The message for November 15, 2020 by Pastor Erik,

“The Real Hero of the Story” 

can be heard during HTLC Virtual Worship Service on Sunday.

 

 

Anyone with a sense of justice might be offended at the parable we just heard. Anyone with a sense of what is fair might be angry at how the story ends. Anyone with a sense of what is right and wrong might scratch their head and wonder what Jesus is really getting at when he told this tale which has now made it into the Bible because the writer of Matthew thought it had something to teach us.

I say that we as the readers might be offended by this story because the third servant seems to be unduly punished. He seems to be made into the villain simply because he didn’t multiply the money he had been given by the master. The third servant didn’t lose any of the money, he just buried it and didn’t use the money to gain any extra interest. The other two servants are lifted up as heroic examples because they took the money they had been given and made even more money with it. They get to join in with the joy of their master. The third servant, however, has his money taken away and give to the first two. He is called lazy and wicked, then he is thrown out into the outer darkness will there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What?!? How is that fair?

The parable is made even more problematic by the fact that in many interpretations, the harsh master is compared to God or Jesus. In these versions of the story, Jesus is the one giving out the large amounts of money and he is one who then punishes the servant. This Jesus sounds more like a mafia boss than the merciful savior we have come to know. I’m not so sure the master in the story is the one we really want to compare Jesus to. After all, the master actually admits that he is a harsh man who reaps where he did not sow. He tells the third servant that he should be afraid of him.

Who is the real hero of this story then? If we were to look for a character who was most like Jesus who would it be? And what if the point of this parable is not how it has usually been portrayed?

I know I have often preached the more popular interpretation of this parable where the word “talent” gets connected with abilities and the point is to use your gifts for God or God will judge you. Another way to look at it has been to not be afraid to multiply your gifts. In other words, don’t bury them like the lazy third servant.

These ways of looking at the story are not completely wrong and can have their value. Like many preachers, I have used these views to promote stewardship within the church and that is not necessarily a bad thing. They just might not be the most accurate interpretation in terms of what Jesus may have been really getting at. These views also try to soften the harsher images of the parable and don’t really answer the difficult questions that could arise from seeing in the text certain images of God—like is the Scripture really saying that if we do not invest well and double our money during our lifetime we will be thrown into hell where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?

I don’t think this is what Jesus was saying and yet this text has been used by some to lift up the virtues of venture capitalism and playing the stock market. What if, however, Jesus is actually doing the opposite? What if Jesus is exposing a predatory financial system that perpetually takes advantage of the poor? What if this is not so much a story about the kingdom of heaven, but rather a parable where the point is to reveal the cruelties of the kingdoms of earth?

In the story of the Bridesmaids with the oil lamps that we heard last week, which is found at the beginning of chapter 25 in Matthew, Jesus begins telling his tale by saying “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…” This is why many believe the parable of talents is also about the kingdom of heaven, because it directly follows the bridesmaids story. But Jesus does not introduce the parable of the talents in the same way. He does not say specifically say that it is about the kingdom of heaven.

It is also important to note that the word talent was not about gifts and abilities, like a musical talent, in this text. Rather, the word talent was a financial term that had to do with a very large sum of money — between 75-96 pounds of silver. It would take nearly 20 years of work at the basic wage of 1 denarius a day to equal 1 talent. The master had given a large sum of money to the servants.
The breakdown would look something like this:
One talent = wages for 20 years
Two talents = wages for 40 years
Five talents = wages for 100 years

In modern terms we would be talking millions of dollars. To be able to give out this kind of money, the master in the story must have been filthy rich.

That term “filthy rich” has to do with the fact that there are those who get wealthy through dishonest or dirty means, and that may have been how Jesus was characterizing the master in the parable. In his book The New Testament World: Bruce Malina has shown that in the traditional Mediterranean society at the time of Jesus, the ideal for society was stability based in an honor/ shame culture, not self-advancement. Anyone trying to accumulate inordinate wealth endangered the balance of society and was thus understood to be dishonorable. Greed was widely believed to characterize the rich, who extorted and defrauded other members of the community through lucrative trading, tax collecting, and lending money at interest. Lending money at high interest was understood to be responsible for the destructive cycle of indebtedness and poverty. With high interest rates and vulnerability to lean years and famine, farmers often were unable to make their payments, and faced foreclosure.

So the fabulous returns of the first two servants could have seemed shameful to those living in Jesus’ day. For those listening to Jesus as He gave the parable, such a return on investment may have been deplorable because they may have thought it could only have occurred through the most predatory of means: extortion, fraud, tax collecting, and lending money at illegal rates of interest. This means the two servants we often think of as the heroes of the story might have actually been playing the same villainous financial game as the obscenely rich master who threatens his servants if they do not use their money to make more through the same dishonest means that he has.

It may be then, that the real hero in the story is the third servant. As theologians Ched Myers and Eric Debode point out, the third servant speaks truth to power when confronted by the wealthy master. He says “I knew you were a harsh man. You reap where you did not sow, and gather where you did not scatter seed” (25:24). With these words, the third slave becomes a kind of “whistle-blower,” having unmasked the fact that the master’s wealth is derived entirely from the toil of others. He profits from the backbreaking labor of those who work the land. Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, this third slave took the money out of circulation, where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.

If the third servant is the real hero, then maybe this is the character who might actually symbolize God or Jesus more in the story than the cruel master. When we look more closely at the Biblical text, I think this makes a lot of sense. First of all, Jesus would have known the religious laws about not lending money at high interest rates that take advantage of others. He would have known that it says in Leviticus chapter 25 verse 35 to 37: “If any of your relatives fall into difficulty…Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God….You shall not lend them your money at interest.” Jesus would have known the many words of the prophets who often warned those who were powerful that God did not like it when they took advantage of the poor.

Yes, it is true that Jesus sometimes had words of harsh judgment and sought to hold people accountable, but usually those words were for those in authority who were not looking after the most vulnerable. The only time Jesus really acted out in anger or judgment was when he overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, and he did this because they were cheating the poor worshippers coming to make sacrifices.

The Bible says nothing about Jesus playing the market or giving insider trading tips to his followers. It is apparent he accrues very little material possessions and relies on the generosity of others to keep his movement going. He often gives very poor financial advice, like telling a wealthy young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor. I find it hard to believe then, that Jesus would suddenly just tell this one story where he compares himself or God to the cruel master who demands his servants double the money he gives them.

If we need more Biblical proof, however, we can simply look to the story Jesus tells right after the parable of the talents. In this story, Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes in glory he will separate the sheep and the goats and the ones who will inherit the kingdom are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison and welcomed the stranger. In fact, Jesus says, when you treat the most vulnerable with love, it is like you are actually doing it for him.

The parables were not meant to be allegories where each character represented someone or something in particular, but if you were to compare who Jesus might be in the parable of the talents, it seems he would most be like the third servant. Jesus is a kind of whistle blower, calling out the cruelty of the Roman Empire and the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. He is not afraid to speak truth to power and as a result, he is hung on a cross where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and he is cast out into the darkness of death.

But the good news is that he rose again, revealing that God does not endorse the harsh masters of this world who manipulate unjust economic systems that enrich themselves at the expense of others. Rather, God lifts up the servants who speak truth to power and refuse to play the cruel game where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. God reveals that the real heroes of the story are those who break the cycle of greed and walk the path of Christ. Amen.

-Pastor Erik Goehner

 

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