Because – Living Out of Fear
We are going to look at the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) today. But before we do, check out three important places in Hebrew scripture that set the context for the Parable of the Talents:
- Exodus 22:25 – If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them
- Leviticus 25:36 – Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit.
- Deut. 23:19 – You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.
What do you hear in these passages? Well, Jewish law forbade earning interest was within the Jewish community, right?
Ok, so now read the Parable of the Talents with the context of Jewish law.Matthew 25:14-30
Typically, we read this parable in this way: the first two servants are good and smart, the third servant is lazy and ignorant. The first two servants take a risk to multiply what they had been entrusted. The third servant plays it safe. The risky move of the first two servants pays off and they are rewarded. The servant who played it safe is reprimanded, and pretty harshly at that!
The investment of the first two servants was most certainly risky. Doubling ones money takes time and comes with risk. But think about how it could have gone:
- What if the market had crashed?
- What if their investments fell through?
- What if their risky actions had not panned out?
- What would they have said then?
- And what would the master have said?
- And how would that have changed the story for the one who hid what he had been given and at least come back with the original amount?
The parable would look very different then! So here’s the thing: The third slave actually does what the audience would expect. He takes the safe, reasonable, appropriate and righteous action. The first two slaves are, at best, breaking the law and, at worst, stealing from others.
So, Jesus original Jewish audience would have seen their investment as immoral, illegal, and unethical. In fact, they would have seen the master in this same way. The master admits that he is immoral and unethical, that is, that he reaps where he did not sow. He extracts interest where he should not, and this is a clear violation of Jewish law.
According to Richard L. Rohrbaugh (prof of Christian Studies Emeritus at Lewis and Clark College):
[To ancient Mediterranean cultures,] seeking “more” was considered morally wrong. Because the pie was “limited” and already all distributed, anyone getting “more” meant someone else got less. Thus honorable people did not try to get more, and those who did were automatically considered thieves: To have gained, to have accumulated more than one started with, is to have taken the share of someone else.
We don’t typically see things this way today (even though we know it is true at least in part – if we each have a piece of pie and you want more, then you have to take some of mine in order to get more). Ancient people understood this. Resources were scarce. There often wasn’t enough to go around, and folks knew that to get more meant someone else went without. This line of thinking leads one to see that the master and the first two slaves act with dishonor; he is immoral and unethical. In contrast, the third servant acts in an honorable way.
However, the parable then turns things around. And it all hinges on the word fear. The honorable servant (third one) admits that his actions were out of fear – not justice or righteousness. And so, at the end of the day no one in this parable is really all good or all righteous! Every character is flawed in some way. And maybe that is the point…
Jesus begins speaking in Matthew 25 to tell us something about this kingdom of God: “The kingdom of heaven is like this.”
He begins by talking about the way the world we live in works. Remember the Parable of Bridesmaids we looked at last week The bridesmaids parable shows us that there are people in the world who fall asleep on the job (bridesmaids), who don’t share (wise bridesmaids), and try to lock others out of God’s kingdom (bridegroom).
Then comes that crucial word because that we talked about last week. It can be a game changer as we look for meaning. And here it helps us to understand why people treat one another like the bridesmaids and the bridegroom: because we are all flawed; no one is completely good and righteous. Some of us take more than our fair share, only concerned about our self (master and first two servants) and some of us act out of fear (third servant).
Both of these parables move along like most of Jesus parables. On their own, they carry very different meanings than most all of Jesus other teaching throughout the Bible. But when you realize that these two parables are part of a larger message, then you begin to understand them more.
The bridesmaids parable is not about being prepared because Christ is coming. The talents are not simply telling us to invest and multiply our money (but, I can tell you, it sure is used that way by Christians today!) Instead, both parables help us understand the way the world works. They give us characters we can relate to because we have been in their situation and have struggled with the kinds of decisions they struggle with in the stories:
- The struggle when we have enough but those around us do not: do we keep what we have for ourselves because we might not have enough. Or do we share?
- The struggle with money: do we use what we have to get more even when it is at the expense of others? Or will we be satisfied with enough putting others well-being on equal footing with our own?
- The struggle of right and wrong: Do we have a right to determine who right or wrong? Who is in or out? Who is good or bad? Or is that God work and not ours?
- The struggle of unity and division: is it us and them? Are we different and is that what matters most? Or do we have more in common and can we start with that?
- The struggle of fear: will we act out of fear – and make decisions that are about only our protection and safety and stability? Or will we trust in God and take risks because God calls us to love others, even those we struggle to love
There are no simple answers in either of these parables. No simple message about investing your money. No simple motto that says, “Be prepared.” No simple command to use your gifts and talents or you’ll get left in the dark. No simple message at all.
But the are plenty of real characters to which we can relate. You see, if the first two parables are about the way the world works, then they give us an opportunity to put ourselves in the shoes of one of the characters for self-reflection.
None of the characters are perfect in these parables. They are all flawed in some way. And it is interesting that at the end of each parable, the characters who had the least – who had been treated exactly opposite the way Jesus tells us to treat others – are thrown out into the darkness. And that is exactly opposite of what Jesus wants for us. It is as if to make a point that following the way of the world will leave you on the outside looking in, afraid and out in the dark.
So what do we do?
Well, the answers that we seek to the struggles we see in these stories really come in Act 3 of this 3 part play Jesus is telling us. And act 3 is none other that the parable of the Sheep and Goats. A story that brings with another important word like because. It begins with the word but.
In other words, these three parable work like this:
- Jesus: Let me tell you a story about the kingdom of heaven.
- (Act 1) here is the way the word works. It’s a struggle of who has and who doesn’t, of who is in and who is out…
- (Act 2) Because we are all flawed, none of us are all good (or all bad). We all struggle with selfishness and fear.
- (Act 3) But here is the way the kingdom works: when you serve the least, then you serve Christ, and those who do so will be welcomed by God into the kingdom. (We are gonna talk more about this next week as we look at the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.)
Last week, I encouraged you to hang in there with the bridesmaids and stay awake; pay attention to the way things work around you. This week, I want to encourage you to consider yourself – your thoughts and actions – in light of the character in the two parables we have looked at the past two weeks. We all struggle with things like our needs and the needs of others. We all struggle with resources and money (whether we have a lot or a little). We all struggle with fears: being afraid to make some decision, to take risks for yourselves or other person or God.
And as you consider how these character might be a reflection of your own life remember this: whatever God is looking for from you, whatever decision, whatever action God wants you to take, it most most certainly on the other side of your fear.
And next week we will look at the parable on the other side of the bridesmaids and talents to see all that Jesus has to teach us about what lies on the other side of our fear.