Someone isn’t telling the truth. Let’s just get that out on the table. Someone is lying. Either the master is stealing—reaping what he doesn’t sow, gathering where he doesn’t scatter—or the third servant is a deadbeat—wicked and lazy. I just don’t see how both the master and the third slave can be telling the truth. So we are going to have to make a judgment. We’re going to have to get involved.
And this gets to what I consider one of my most important tasks, which is to remind you that these scriptures are your scriptures. They are ancient stories, holy wisdom, holy words, that speak truths not because they were somehow magically transmitted from God to certain other-worldly mystics, but because they are the result of people like you, who were thoughtful and gifted and who were inspired by ideas and wondered about this human experience and were courageous enough to ask what it means to bump up against a mystery. They are inspired because they get us involved. They get you thinking about you and about your place in the world, and about your limits and your dreams.
Parables are about you. They speak to our human condition, to the questions we carry and the highs and lows of life. They ask questions of you and me about what it’s going to take for us to make it through this life with some hope and some sense of what true religion is really about, that we’ve lived well and we’ve left something for those who follow—for those kids and grandkids that have stolen our hearts and live on after us.
So parables are about us, and this parable is about us, but how? What do we make of it? Where do you find yourself in it?
The traditional reading of this parable of the talents goes to how we think about the word talent. We’ve made it about what we do with what we’ve been given—with the gifts and talents we possess, or that possess us, and how we use them in the world. So the master is God, the servants are us—servants who take what we’ve been given and use it. “Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing,” Paul tells the Thessalonians.
What have you done with what you’ve been given? In what ways have I left it out there on the field, and in what ways have I buried it. How have I hidden my light under a bushel? How have you used what God has given you for the sake of others?
But there’s another way to read this parable and it makes a difference. The Zephaniah text calls the question: money will not save you. Money will not save you, this ancient prophet says. And we should ask ourselves whether or not this is still true so many thousands of years later in a culture so profoundly different and yet the same in which those who do the work do not benefit from it, in which wealth is plundered and houses laid waste, in which we are lulled to sleep by Christmas ads before Halloween while the divide between rich and poor grows.
A talent was, of course, a measure of wealth. It was, to use a phrase, some serious “coin”—about 15 years’ salary, give or take. A cool million, maybe more. It was cash, a monetary measurement before it was a metaphor for what you and I bring to the table when it comes to gifts of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness—or the quality of our jump shot, or our vocal range, or our skill at programming or our ability to turn algorithms into predicted outcomes.
In the gospels Jesus is constantly asking what is actually reliable and what isn’t. The language is often stark for Jesus: you can’t serve God and money. He sounds like Zephaniah! And here, in this parable, we are hard-pressed to read it otherwise: it’s a question about what is reliable in our world. It’s a question about what or who we are actually serving.
And that’s where the second reading goes. In this alternate reading the master isn’t God, but the one percent, playing the system, using an economy that is stacked against the 99s to pad his vast wealth. They were around then as they are now, of course. And if that’s the case, then who is that third slave?
The alternate reading says it’s Jesus. It’s Jesus refusing to perpetuate a system that eats its young. It’s Jesus resisting the game that finally destroys us. It’s Jesus taking a stand, turning the tables, forcing a new way that serves all the people rather than just a few, because that’s what true religion does, because that’s where God is. God exists in reality, not in a world of speculation. God is about bread and wine, food and drink, water and justice, joy and wholeness—life in the real world that has everything to do with the world of truth.
Richard Rohr gets at this in his book Wild Man to Wise Man. Until the last century, he says, most [people] spent most of their time making and producing things. Now so much of our time is spent betting the future, playing the stock market, trading real estate, dealing essentially with a lie. “Those who are engaged in making money aren’t making anything at all. Money is a fiction created to facilitate the exchange of goods and services. It is a something that is really nothing—literally, no thing—except power itself. … Money is a game of numbers used to bolster self-image and to perpetuate a false impression of power. ”[i]
And that’s not where God lives. And that’s why the third servant buries the cool million. He’s not going to continue to play the game. He removes the money from circulation and from its ability to take advantage of others, which is exactly what it did in Jesus’ day. Like Gandhi and King and Mulala, he changes the rules. He starts living where God is—at the tables of our homes and our churches, in meaningful conversations along the trail, in real relationships, in lives that are for one another, in movements where people get to reap what they’ve sown, live in the houses they’ve paid for, benefit from the work they have done, rather than have it taken by another because they created a financial fiction that allowed them to profit.
Have you heard of the Princeton Study? It’s been out for about a month, and it comes, by the way, from Princeton, from one of the more elite institutions of our culture. The study makes the stark claim that the United States is no longer a democracy.[ii] We are an oligarchy. We are not a nation controlled by the people, but by a wealthy few who move policy while the average American has little power. So it becomes no surprise, then, that we’ve just witnessed the worst voter turnout in 72 years.[iii]
And so the parable asks a very modern question: what do you do when the system no longer serves the people. And it turns out this is not simply a political question, it is a religious one.
That’s where the third servant comes in, living in resistance to what does harm, removing from circulation what destroys life. And for his troubles he is buried, thrown into the outer darkness. But the thing is, that’s not the end of the story. You see, in this gospel there is new life on the other end. Death cannot hold him. He is a seed planted for new life.
And that’s where we come in. True religion, it turns out, is deeply connected to life on the ground and life in the marketplace. Life in the Spirit knows that we have the power to change the world, that we don’t have to settle for a world as it is. It is a power that begins with us. It begins in us with our two talent and five talent lives and with our power to resist mindless accumulation and invest instead in what makes for life.
It’s money but it isn’t money, as if that could save us. This is about our lives, about our talents, about our commitments, about our loves, and about our power to make a difference together in the world by burying what kills us and giving our whole selves once again for what doesn’t, so that new life, abundant life can be raised again in this time and in this place.
You see, the invitation to Advent has already begun. We have before us a warning but also a promise, a way forward. And it is already evident in you, in the ways you give yourselves. I see it all the time. Trust in these ways. Hold on and believe that the promise is true. Give yourselves to this one who gave himself for you.
[i] Rohr, Richard; Martos, Joseph (2011-07-07). From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (pp. 60-61). Kindle Edition.
[ii] “Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy.” BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746, accessed November 15, 2014. Original study found at: http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FPPS%2FPPS12_03%2FS1537592714001595a.pdf&code=8386644f23b0e4827005a5003ed21b36.
[iii] “The Worst Voter Turnout in 72 Years. New York Times, November 11, 2014: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/opinion/the-worst-voter-turnout-in-72-years.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-top-span-region®ion=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region&_r=2.