Proper 28 (33), Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
19 November 2023
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
You know that I have begun to read a poem as we begin our worship. I have discovered poetry as a form of language that is able to open me when I may otherwise be closed to God and to the world. Without poetry I may just hold my certainties tightly, never expecting God to surprise me or meet me in new ways, or find God in my neighbour, other than at a level of the affirmations that we can and do make about God.
The poet Christian Wiman describes poetry as something that enacts and enables meaning. The sacraments are a case in point. Perhaps that is why the Eastern church calls the sacraments mysteries. We can enter into them even though we do not fully understand them. I can receive the sacrament and know that in the act of receiving Christ comes to dwell in me, that the sacrament creates a union between Christ and me, and with all that belongs to God, for the whole world belongs to God. Yet putting this into theological statements seems to make it less.
Wiman writes this in a review of Michael Edward’s book, The Bible and Poetry,1 and while Edwards argues against what we call systematic theology, which is the attempt to pull it all together and make sense of it, he may have a point in that when we reduce faith and scriptures to propositional statements, we are no longer open to inhabit the metaphors offered, or to allow the metaphors and images to reside in us. And if there is anything I seek in worship it is that God lives in me and that I live in God.
This came to my mind because I find today’s parable difficult and I am not sure if I can offer a single authoritative interpretation, saying that this is what it means and nothing else. One interpreter suggested that this is the text to preach on this week because it is so easy to get it wrong, whereas next week’s Gospel is pretty clear. But I am not sure I will get it right.
There is a rich landowner who goes on a journey and chooses three slaves to entrust his property to while he is away. After a long absence the master returns and settles their accounts. He praises the first two, the last one he calls “wicket and lazy”.
The parable has been interpreted as affirming the capitalist order of things, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, since verse 29 seems to say about as much, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” So by this reading, if you are poor it’s your own darn fault for not working hard enough.
Of course, the rich get richer and the poor do get poorer, we have been observing this for decades now, but aside from all that the New Testament has to say about possessions, there are many poetic texts from the Old Testament that say the same. In Isaiah 58 the Lord says,
6Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
In the Threepenny Opera the German playwright Bertold Brecht tells of a funeral sermon for the crew of a warship that perished due to cost cutting during the construction of the ship. In his sermon the bishop declares that God is indeed harsh and demanding but also merciful because God does not expect the same from everyone, which here means that the poor soldiers paid with their life for the owners to reap profits.
Following the funeral sermon the play tells of the dream of a soldier who in his dream is supreme judge at the trial of Jesus. Jesus is accused of having told a parable that for 2000 years subjected people to those who exploited them. And somewhere in his defence, Jesus admits that he did not have much interest in economic matters and details.
I would argue that Brecht’s critique is not of Jesus, though he may not distinguish between Jesus and the church, but of the church’s interpretation when it has sided with the powerful and with the status quo, thus not engaging the Gospel’s imagination to envision the Kingdom and therefore unable to enact it.
Brecht’s critique seems justified. If that is how we should interpret this parable, it is not good news but bad news. It is true that the church has often lacked the imagination to enact and enable meaning, allowing the scriptures to become embodied in our lives.
There is another, more benign interpretation that has been popular with preachers but also falls short. This interpretation uses the word “talent” as the interpretative key. We would then not think so much of money when thinking of talents but of our good looks and abilities that we should use in the service of God. However, this is nothing but an affirmation of who we already think we are and it removes any potential challenge from the story. We do not learn anything we did not know already. There is no reason for Jesus to tell the story and for Matthew to record it. Besides, the Greek word for talent does in fact mean financial resources. It has nothing to do with what the English language refers to as talents. We may think of an older version of the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Considering that Jesus tells the parable within the context the prediction of the destruction of the temple, and among a number of other parables that understand time as teleological and which expect the return of Christ, it is reasonable to assume the same kind of urgency and the call to watchfulness that the other parables hold up. Here the owner returns “after a long time.” In the previous chapter we hear, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (24:44)
There are three other ways to understand this story.
Two of them suggest that the “man going on a journey” is God.
The first one views the talents not as your good looks, smarts, athletic, or musical ability but as the gifts Jesus gave us when he ascended to the Father. Gifts for our life between now and the return of Christ. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that is the giver of all spiritual gifts, the point of which is to enable us to live as God’s children, and to embody the Kingdom, to live in such a way that our lives make sense only because we belong to God. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul says that these gifts are not for personal enrichment or gain but for the common good.2 In Galatians he lists them as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.3
If these are the talents then the story looks differently. The first two servants are those who used the gifts love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to allow them to live into the Kingdom of God. Remember that Wiman talked about poetry as enacting and enabling meaning. This reading of the parable enables a life that is meaningful.4
A second interpretation of the parable may be this:
The man going on a journey is God. We are the slaves, for we belong to God. The first two are praised not for the profits they made but that they trusted their master. The last one’s sin is not that he did not make any money but that he mistook his master as a harsh man.5 In this reading he could have lost all that was entrusted to him as long as he joined in the action. This way of understanding the parable rests on understanding God not as harsh but as loving and the sin to be not to allow God to engage us.
I like what this interpretation says about God. Understanding God as the One who seeks to engage us at all costs enables and enacts meaning and allows us to live a life that is meaningful.
And yet, while I do not wish to offer a single authoritative understanding of the parable, there are two things that make me want to read the parable as an illustration of God’s economy. In this reading God is not the man who goes on a journey and the first two servants are not the ones to be praised. Rather, the man going on a journey is a landholder with disproportionate and unjust wealth who makes his living off of others. The three slaves are his administrators who uphold and support the unjust system. The first two are praised precisely because that is what they are doing. They are the cogs that keep the machine running. The third is one who has repented of his participation in the unjust economic system, calls a spade a spade and says that the system is rigged in favour of the rich and against the poor. His burying of his talent is an act of civil disobedience. He is the one who in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not to centent to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, but whose act of civil disobedience drives a spoke into the wheel itself.
This interpretation makes sense to me because it is representative of the witness of Jesus and the prophets, because the parable does indeed speak in financial terms, and because usury as the owner suggests in his reprimand of the third slave was prohibited for faithful Jews,6 and Jesus was a faithful Jew.
This interpretation also enables and enacts meaning and helps the church to be the church and not to be the world. It also works with an understanding of God not as one who calls for managers to “grow his business” but as One who calls us to give ourselves in sacrificial love.
The fact that I was hesitant to give you just one interpretation played a role in me giving you these last three. But we may also wonder why we read the same Bible over and over, why every three years the lectionary presents the same readings to us. Is it not possible to figure it out once and let that be the authoritative reading?
If the Bible were only a set of rules and propositions, then we could do that. But as Wiman reminded us, a whole third of the Old Testament is poetry and the Old Testament is often quoted in the New.
And so we receive the Bible not as a dusty old book, as a stale document whose days have passed, but as God’s living Word, through which God speaks to us today, not only in propositions and dogma. That is what makes it possible to come to a scripture text we have read many times yet hear God speak to us anew. That happens because the true Word of God is not the Bible but Jesus, the One who has redeemed us and called us. And such reading that allows Jesus to speak to us anew is how it is possible for the Bible to enact and enable meaning in our lives.
Thanks be to God.
1 Commonweal, Christian Wiman, The Bible as Poetry – There is a reason God chooses poetry to speak to us, October 5, 2023
2 1 Corinthians 12:7
3 Galatians 5:22-23
5 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment, Grand Rapids, MI: 1989 Eerdmans
6 See Ex 22:25, Lev 25:36-37, Deut 23:29