Followers of Jesus then and now earnestly seek to know God, and what God wants of us. All that Jesus said and did revealed answers to these age old questions and spoke to the need to experience the presence of the living God who wants love and justice to reign especially for the poor and the outcast. Jesus was a highly popular rabbi/teacher and a supreme parabolist. Many teachers of his time taught in parables and Semitic teachers and others, even businessmen and politicians in the Near East and elsewhere continue to do this. It is a poetic, mystical and social way to speak. The word parable comes from a Greek word meaning “to put parallel or cast alongside”. Jesus told many stories to illuminate what the reign of God is like for ordinary and not highly educated people. The workers and the peasants flocked around him even as the most well trained in the Hebrew religion also sought him out. Jesus’ parables illuminated what God is like and what God wants of God’s people. Many would begin with “The kingdom of God is like, the kingdom of heaven is like (heaven is a word for God) or the reign of God is like….” Jesus’ parables were short and simple stories and one liners and longer and complex parables that included wit and humor, irony and enlightenment. They often challenged temporal powers and values. They could be offensive as well as moving, exhilarating and hopeful. In Aramaic and Hebrew the words are pelatha and mashal, each carrying the root of “it is like” or “it is similar to”. ( I am indebted to Rocco Errico, Aramaic Scholar and author, for “…And There Was Light”, Noohra Foundation, 1998:42-52, Noohra foundation for his thoughts on parables). One of the difficulties in understanding Jesus’ parables is that we are centuries, cultures and languages away from the original telling and meanings. Later centuries have interpreted meanings which we accept as “the” meaning until we take a closer look. Later meanings can also be significant, but it also helps in our search to consider the original meanings as best we can in such long retrospect.
This week we have another complex parable of Jesus to consider. This one is often called the “parable of the talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). While many people know that talents were large sums of money in Jesus’ time the meaning of the parable has often been boiled down to “use your God-given gifts”,”don’t bury your talents in the ground”, “Use it or lose it”, “don’t be afraid to use your gifts and talents for the kingdom”. All of these are good admonitions but, as we read the whole parable closely and consider it in time and cultural context it might more appropriately be called the parable of Big Money.
Jesus begins this parable with “Again it is like a wealthy landowner who was going on a journey and…” This follows parables that start “the kingdom of heaven is or will be like” so the “it” is to explain or illuminate what the reign of God is and will be like. As we read to the end of the parable this wealthy landowner is also “ruthless” and one who “reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he did not scatter”(reminds us of a Ponzi scheme in another time and place) and “wrathful”. Clearly the wealthy landowner is not the hero here, he is not God nor the Christ figure, he is not the representative of God’s reign. He gives what may now be seen as millions of dollars to three “servants” so they can make some more money for him in his absence. He also expects usury or interest which is against the Mosaic Law. The first two do what he asks and he is pleased with them. The third may be afraid of him but he steps forward and essentially says” you are a cheat and a ruthless wrathful man, here is your money back”. He did not do what the dishonest wealthy landowner asked and he is brave enough to tell him off. If there is a Christ figure in this parable, it is this man. He did not buy into the big money scheme and he risked his life to tell his boss off. So when the cheating billionaire boss says ” Those who have will get more until they grow rich, while those who have not will lose even the little they have…” this is not virtue speaking but evil/sin itself. It is not virtue to become rich making money into a god and “reaping where one does not sow”. It is not virtue for the rich to become richer and the poor poorer-it is sin/evil. The virtuous one is the one who does NOT buy into this system of thinking and getting money any way possible, and valuing money above all. It is the one who sees the system for what it is-dishonest and unjust- and who blows the cover of the richest and most powerful in the land who is the hero in this parable. Jesus’ followers who were just ordinary folks and poor folks, and women, strangers and the outcast, would have identified with and cheered for this hero. Finally, in understanding the meaning of giving talents away and expecting unfair return on them, we get the true meaning Jesus is trying to convey. This is a covert parable about the rich who Jesus earlier said were like the rope (the Aramaic gamla in context meaning rope not camel) trying to pass through the eye of a needle- only with great difficulty will they become a part of the kingdom of heaven or positive actors in the reign of God on earth (Mt.19:23). Jesus’ hearers may well have also heard of him telling “the rich young man” of Matthew 19, who did follow the Law to go the second and third mile and give away his possessions to put his “treasure in heaven” and follow Christ. Jesus offends the rich and embraces the poor. Jesus asks the rich to put their riches into the service of the poor and to eradicating poverty. Jesus message is revolutionary-it turns things upside down. He will be punished for this and once again in almost hidden ways (to some) he is making clear what will happen to him-and indeed to those who offend the rich and the powerful.
The rest of Matthew 25 (25:31-46), in the very next teaching about the sheep and the goats where Jesus shows that when we feed the hungry, clothe the unclothed, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick and the imprisoned, and invite the stranger in, when we serve the “least of these brothers and sisters” we do it for Jesus. Now the parable of the big money makes sense, all of us, but especially those with big money need to invest it in the poor and hungry in order to build the reign of justice and love, the reign of God on earth. This is what God wants of us. this is what the “perfect love” of Proverbs 31:10-31 does, she “holds out a hand to the poor, greeting the needy with open arms”. And this is what children of light DO, the opposite of the darkness described in the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians(1Thess 5:1-6)-this is what the light does, it illuminates the darkness of our souls when we live for ourselves, for material things, and not for building God’s reign of justice and love. This is the “darkness, where there is wailing and grinding of teeth” (and this phrase in Aramaic means to be in” deep anguish and regret”). And it is not the servant who bravely did not follow the corrupt billionaire’s orders,who did not invest his bosses one talent( a LOT of money) who is in deep anguish and regret, it is those who mindlessly buy into the system of building riches however you can, and then building their lives around the riches and not around God’s dream of love and justice for all, especially for the poor and outcast.
Among the top one percent who own over 85 percent of the world’s riches there are some few who do give it all away and live justice. There are foundations and individuals who find ways to make sure the playing field gets leveled. Thank God for them. This is what God asks of us. And according to each of our abilities to give money and time, skills and treasures God wants this of each of us. Let us pray that we will learn how to give ourselves away to those who need us most. Amen.