One of the beautiful things about the parables of Jesus is the way the parables can look from different points of view. In the same way, you can appreciate the beauty of a diamond by holding it in the light, or admire the design of a high-performance automobile by looking at it from different angles. Parables are not morality stories with only one interpretation. Parables announce truth.
The parable today begins with talents, which is not about skills or actions, but a measure of money. The Greek word talanton means a measure of gold weighing thirty pounds. This is about the amount of money that a manual laborer would earn after working for twenty years.
It’s an absurd amount of money. Who would ever even see that amount of money, all at one time, in real life? Really really wealthy people. And the parable opens with a wealthy man giving away eight such talanton, betting it on his servants’ ability to trade and increase his fortune. This man has enough money to play with it this way.
We’re used to hearing this parable in our own social context, where wise investments are rewarded. We can imagine these financial investments correlate with our faith—if we don’t use our faith, it won’t grow, doubling in size as the returns on the money the servants invested. If we bury our talent by neglecting to trade with it and use it, as the third “wicked and lazy” and “worthless slave,” then our faith doesn’t grow, and we rightfully deserve to be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Maybe you’ve heard this parable as an allegory for stewardship—an abundance of money is entrusted in the same way God bestows upon us an abundance of grace. If we could only trust God enough to rely on this abundance of grace, rather than relying upon our own resources, then we, too, would be invited to enter into the joy of our master.
Sometimes it’s helpful for us to be reminded of God’s abundance, and it’s good for us to be reminded that God gives us everything we need and we are commanded to use our gift to benefit the reign of God. None of this is wrong.
But the beauty of a parable is that you don’t have to look at it in only one way. In these interpretations, there are questions we don’t tend to ask. Are the first two servants, the ones who invest the talents, are they really the heroes? Why do we assume the master is a good, honest, trustworthy person? Is the master really supposed to represent God? Are these talents distributed to the servants really amounts of money you’d feel good about working with?
What if the third servant is really the hero of the story? It’s possible to look at the parable this way without changing any of it. This is what makes parables so beautiful—you can admire them from different angles if you’re willing to listen to someone else’s interpretation from a different vantage point.
There’s a whole arena of theology devoted to liberation. Liberation theology flourished in South America beginning in the 1960s after the second Vatican Council. People who had been oppressed spoke about the Bible from their viewpoint, and theologians listened. They identified Jesus as one who aligned himself with the poor and marginalized, speaking of the reign of God in such a way that the tables are turned: the ones with monetary wealth are not the heroes, and people without monetary wealth are the ones possessing wisdom.
When Ernesto Cardenal spoke with peasants in Solentiname about this parable of talents, the peasants identified the wealthy master as an exploiter, getting money by taking advantage of people. The first two servants are praised by the master for doubling his investment, because they also took advantage of people. The third servant refuses to play the game, burying the talent, which means his portion of money was out of circulation, unable to oppress anyone else. Then he tells off his boss.
William Herzog titles this parable “The Vulnerability of the Whistle-blower.” Because, at the end of the story, where does the last servant end up? In “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Herzog points out that gnashing of teeth can refer to the sound of chattering teeth caused by shivering in the cold, without adequate food or shelter, or it can refer to the sound of teeth grinding out of deep pain or anguish. This third servant is kicked out of the mansion to live in the street, alongside other people in poverty.
Maybe the question of this parable isn’t how to avoid judgment and consequences. What if this parable about the price of keeping one’s integrity?
Because consider this parable in the light of Matthew’s Gospel, which begins with Jesus’s giant sermon on the mount. What does this parable look like in the light of the beatitudes shining on it? Listen again to Jesus’s words: “…Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
If Jesus is who he says he is, then the outer darkness, with all the weeping and gnashing of teeth, sounds like the kind of place he would go to. If it came down to it, where would you rather be: wealthy and enjoying the good life by spending stolen money? Or suffering in the darkness because you dared to live with integrity?
The reign of God shines light on the systems we live by and begs us to look and identify the truth and start asking questions: Is this world, as it is, really acceptable? Is this the world I want to live in? How will I participate—or refuse to participate—in exploitation, in systems of oppression?
Most of us will never have access to the kind of wealth or capital that the wealthy master possesses in this parable. Even if we have experienced some measure of security by way of our wealth, we’re acquainted with the possibility of financial ruin or crushing debt. That’s why we keep insurance policies.
But even insurance policies have limits, as anyone can tell you who lives with the stress of medical debt or education debt. And if you’ve ever been in debt, you know what weeping and gnashing of teeth sounds like, what it feels like.
God calls us to live differently. Just as faithful Jews were directed to lend to the poor without interest, Christians also are to look out for the poor, with material wealth and goods and advocacy. That’s the truth-telling part.
Our churches are meant to be similarly organized. This is not a pay-to-play system. No one buys their way into leadership in a congregation. Our financial giving is modeled on tithing, giving 10% of one’s income. Maybe you’re accustomed to that, maybe you’re able to give more than 10%, or maybe you’re barely covering your bills and can’t imagine how to give any money at all.
Whatever your financial status, you are welcome here. God provides everything we need, and we testify to this all the time. This congregation uses pledge cards as a way of considering money in light of God’s gifts—that’s why we have a glass vase on the altar today: a way to see clearly these expressions of faith, these commitments to trust in God. We’re not judging one another’s giving—whatever is written remains private and respected—but we’re inviting each other to faithful stewardship. We’re not investing all our money for profit in the financial system—we’re trying to live in God’s reign, experiencing the freedom and joy of God rather than the hollow assurance of wealth. We’re trying to live by the values of God’s reign, caring more about liberation than we care about sustainability.
It is possible to follow the example of that third servant, the whistle-blower and hero, who refuses to participate in the oppressive system. And just like the parable ends, we may also get thrown into the outer darkness, and we might be weeping and gnashing our own teeth too.
But don’t forget that puts us among those whom Jesus specifically blessed: blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Jesus himself went to the cross as a criminal, crucified outside the walls of the city—essentially in the outer darkness, where the firelight of familiar life could not even reach.
As we know well, death is not the end of the story. Integrity may get you nowhere in an unjust system, but it gets you everywhere in the reign of God. Darkness and even death may come, but Jesus Christ is already there. Resurrection awaits. May God’s reign come, on earth as it is in heaven.