Harsh Master & Jesus, by Rev. Fred Kinsey
This is the last of the parables Jesus tells, before the big reveal, his stunning conclusion, there in Jerusalem, just before Holy Week is about to start. Of course, that’s out of cinque for the seasons of our Church Year. We’re not presently, in the midst of Lent! But, it does fit with the theme of the end times we are about to enter, in the season of Advent, in two weeks.
The stunning conclusion, by-the-way, will come next week – to put it in context – on Christ the King Sunday, with the story of the Son of Man, Jesus, who comes in all his glory saying, “Whoever did it to the least of these – the hungry, the thirsty, the naked – did it unto me.” Christ is the one who suffers along with the outcasts, the downtrodden, all the marginalized of this world. Our calling is to address this disparity, that of the favored few in the center of society vs. the vast majority of those left out on the margins.
That Christ came to save us from our sin, and the structures of sin that create these disparities, so that the kingdom and will of God, may dawn ‘on earth, as it is in heaven;’ that Christ the Bride, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, prepared for her husband, that is, for us, may come to pass – Jesus came to save us, not just spiritually, but in every facet of our lives: physical, mental, economic, social, and political.
So, in this last parable before the big reveal – in our parable today – we see the disparity of Luther’s Two Kingdoms, in this story of a rich landowner, a point 1 percenter (0.1%). He’s about to go off to do business with other multi-nationals, wherever they met in those days. Perhaps Caesarea Philippi, in northern Israel, the playground of the rich and famous that Herod’s son, Philip built in honor of Caesar Augustus. It was a hotbed of paganism, and a swanky retreat of the privileged.
But this landowner was gone a long time, so perhaps he went much farther: to Babylon in the east, or Rome itself in the west? He would have gone off to make connections with those who could further enrich his estate. But before leaving, he has this brilliant idea to give his holdings to his slaves, to see what they can do for him, while he’s away.
To one he gives 5 talents, to another 2 talents, and to the third, one talent. A talent, in the Gospels, doesn’t have anything to do with our English use of the word as an ability, or gift we have. But Talent is the largest portion of currency in the Near East that there is, equal to maybe 10 years of wages, a huge amount for them. When the Master finally returns from his business trip, he is eager to settle accounts with them. And he lines them up, so they can come one at a time before him, to make a report.
We, the reader, already know what they have done with the Talents, but not how the Master will respond. So, the one who was given the equivalent of 50 years of wages, the 5 Talents, brought 5 more, he had traded for, doubling the Master’s money. And the one who was given 20 years wages, did the same, making 2 more Talents. And the Master commends them lustily, ‘well done, good and trustworthy slaves, you have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will put you in charge of bigger things, so you can make more money for me. You have brought me great joy – come and join me in my “earthly kingdom.”
Then the lowly one who had only received one Talent came forward, with no little fear and trembling. He had a different business plan. But he summoned up all the courage he could muster, to (in all honesty) tell his Master the truth: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, procuring your wealth off the backs of others, unaccustomed as you are to the hard work of farming or carpentry; 25so I admit I was afraid, and I decided to go and hide your talent in the ground for safe keeping. So then, here it is, I return it to you intact, every last penny.’
You knew! said the Master, that I profited off of others without putting in an honest day’s work, as you say! Did you?! Well then, why didn’t you do likewise and put it in the stock market and make me a bundle?! You’re just like all the other low life’s who can’t lift themselves up by their bootstraps. I’m going to send you back to the outer darkness from which you came.
Give his one Talent to the richest slave, said the Master. For the rich shall be richer, and the poor shall be poorer!
And so, what’s most upsetting in the parable of the greedy landowner and his laize faire, libertarian values, is the picture of the third slave, the one fearful of this Master, the one who didn’t ‘get it’ how he was supposed to invest his Talent, and how easy it is, if you were to just deposit it in the bank and gain some interest – probably because Usury was against the Levitical laws. But, it’s difficult to digest, mostly because this is the character that Jesus’ disciples would have identified with! Not with the favored other two. The Disciples were relative beggars, having left family and spouse, to follow Jesus, and depend on the kindness of strangers.
From the very beginning of his gospel, Matthew has plainly shown how Jesus is a part of the marginalized, the 99% of society that God sent him to name blessed. Jesus was born in a barn, raised in poor Podunk Nazareth, wandered as an itinerant preacher and healer, and reached out to lepers and prostitutes, fishers and tax collectors. He was faithful to his religious traditions, but he also spoke (a heavenly) truth to power, against the worldly corruption in high places in Jerusalem, both to rulers in his own Hebrew house, and to the Roman overlords.
Jesus did not subscribe to the kingdom of this world that reinforced the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. Neither did he come to claim power by a military coup, though many of his followers, awaiting a Davidic Messiah, apparently expected him to.
Jesus came to fulfill God’s Third Way, the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew called it, the realm of God, already alive, here amongst us. He came to suffer the violence of those rulers, who have rigged the system to profit off the backs of subsistence working class families, and who falsely portray it as sacred and ordained by God, though it is only an earthly kingdom. And he came to go all the way to the cross to reveal how unjust that violence is, distorting the created goodness God intends for all to enjoy as a gift, and hold responsibility for.
How are we called to respond to this kingdom imperative, amidst a world of terror, and terribly unfair violence, and repression? How do we follow in Jesus footsteps and become disciples?
Jesus didn’t just suffer violence as some kind of nice guy, or 99lb. weakling who didn’t like to fight. He “decided” to suffer – made the conscious decision to endure, even death on a cross, to reveal, and live-out, and make manifest like never before, the futility and unjust way that the whole world was living, and that he would give up his life, to be God’s change factor, once and for all!
Paul Nuechterlein thinks this illustrates what might be the most important verse in Matthew’s whole gospel, 11:12: “where Jesus straightforwardly tells us that the kingdom of heaven is revealed in choosing to suffer violence, while human regimes are only happy to take it by force.”
The Disciples didn’t want Jesus to go through with the Passion. They were still caught up in the binary choice of who would rule the kingdoms of this world – them or us. But Jesus shows us a Third Way, the way that makes a conscious decision, for us, a collective decision, to embody God’s realm, as Jesus’ disciples, to not continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence, that always leads to another regime of injustice; Jesus’ way of suffering violence, that ushers in the reign of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
We see how St. Paul did this by starting new communities, new house churches in Jesus’ name, all across the Roman Empire.
Today, we are one of those communities, called to live the ethic of love for one’s neighbor, an ethic of ‘costly grace,’ (as Bonhoeffer said,) speaking God’s truth to earthly powers, yet ready to suffer the consequences. For when they call us wicked and lazy, to use the harsh Master’s language, we know we are close to the big reveal! Because the truth is, if anyone was wicked, it was the greedy landowner; and if anyone was lazy, it was the Master who could take off as much time as he wished, on the backs of his slaves, to venture out to enrich his earthly fortune.
Here then, we see that God is at work in the third slave, exposing the Master as a fraudulent Messiah. We too must reject the worldly kingdom of unjust vengeance. But we don’t have to be fearful either, like the third slave was. For we now know, on this side of the cross, that following Jesus, no matter how opposed that makes us to the world-as-it-is, it is our sacred journey that leads to true joy, and a fulfillment of God’s kingdom and realm that we are called to.
In these dark times, the need for true disciples and followers is greater than ever. Let us be followers of Jesus, that we may reveal the kingdom and realm of God.