When I first checked the lectionary for this week’s readings, I remember thinking that I had finally drawn the proverbial “short straw” in the Sunday Scripture Reflection lottery.
As soon as I saw the citation (i.e., Mt 25:14-30), my heart sunk as I thought, “Oh no, God, not this one.”
Perhaps you can imagine how someone like me, who has struggled with clinical depression since he was seven, hears a parable that is ostensibly about the divine wrath awaiting anyone who suffers from paralyzing existential angst in the face of what those with power and authority expect them to achieve.
After a few deep breaths, I forced myself to reread this terrifying parable. And then, just beneath the stinging words “throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” I noticed, in bold typeface, the little word “Or.”
What the “Or” referred to was one of those alternative “short” versions of the reading, strategically abbreviated to give the homilist the option of side-stepping the potential pastoral quagmire of proclaiming and preaching words such as these to people like me.
In a liturgical deployment of what psychologists refer to as “reinforcement” technique, the short reading focuses exclusively on the model first servant who managed to double the five talents of seed money he originally received from his greedy master. It omits all mention of the “useless” third servant and in so doing sends two grim messages. The first is that the traditional interpretation of the parable—one that tells the would-be Christian disciple that paralyzing anxiety is a sin—is the normative one. The second is that people who are prone to such anxiety are simply not spiritually mature enough to hear the “whole” Gospel truth.
As pastorally well-intentioned as this strategy might be, omission of troubling scriptural passages is ultimately a poor substitute confronting and struggling head on with what the great biblical scholar Phyllis Trible once famously referred to as “texts of terror.”
So, taking my cue from Prof. Trible, I committed to this struggle and prayed for guidance. The Spirit responded by reminding me of one of the cardinal rules of interpreting parables: avoid the ingrained tendency to treat them like straightforward allegories. In this case, for example, I should take care not to assume that the figure of the “master” is a cipher for God, and that the “servant” figures are “every-person” stand-ins.
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense not to associate the one whom Jesus called “Father” with the blatantly greedy and unjust master of this parable.
With the blinders of simplistic allegorical interpretation cast aside, I was free to see the figure of the master in the cold harsh light of day. He is basically the Gordon Gecko or Bobby Axelrod of the New Testament—a first-century version of a rapacious Wall Street raider or hedge fund manager who demands that his traders relentlessly strive to augment the yield of the standard 2 and 20 fee structure even while he boards his Gulfstream and is off for a weekend in the Seychelles.
Following the same interpretative logic, I also allowed myself to understand the figures of the first and second servant as anything but actual or potential exemplars of Christian discipleship.
For one thing, they do not seem at all concerned with the inequities of the situation in which the master has placed them, and especially the third servant. Even within the constraints of their shared servitude, they could presumably have opted to help the third servant by suggesting they pool all eight talents and jointly invest to realize the largest return. In this parable it’s “everyone for themselves” in a classic “dog eat dog,” “kill or be killed” scenario.
If, as aspiring disciples of Christ, we are reluctant to identify the greedy master with God, and perhaps even more reluctant to see ourselves in the figure of any one of the three servants, then where exactly are we supposed to see ourselves in the story?
I would propose that we identify with a group of imagined witnesses standing on the sidelines and critically assessing this drama of greed, injustice, intimidation, and fear.
Rather than focusing on the performance of each servant, and rather than being distracted by the theatrical impact of how the greedy master evaluates, emotionally responds to, and either rewards or punishes their performance, let’s ask ourselves what we see if instead we keep our eyes trained on the initial scene, and especially on the social context and internal psychospiritual drama unfolding within the third servant as the “talents” are initially being distributed.
This shift in focus enables us to see the third servant in a different light. Rather than judging them as both a literal and metaphorical “loser,” we resist the normative view and choose to see them as the victim of a blatantly unjust system who is utterly powerless to do anything about it. The third servant’s counterparts are given more to start with. This means that, whatever the individual character strengths and weaknesses of the three might be, the first two servants can afford to make a mistake or two; the third servant cannot.
Like those who enjoy the benefits of caste or racial privilege, the first and second servants can tolerate more risk, and so are in an inherently better position to turn the kind of profits necessary to satisfy their master’s avarice. The third servant, however, has obviously learned the hard way that, as a matter of sheer survival, they must be far more careful.
Think, for a moment, about how the third servant begins their ultimately futile attempt to explain their reason for being so risk-averse.
“Master,” the third servant says, “I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.”
Note that the servant does not say “everyone knows,” but rather “I knew”—perhaps attesting to the brutal experience of serial injustice that the third servant has had to endure throughout their service of this cruel master. Might this not be the servant’s way of saying, “I’m not surprised that, after a lifetime of discrimination and abuse, it would all end this way.”
From the less distracted vantage point of the sidelines, the master appears to be the farthest thing from a cipher for the God of Israel and instead is a symbol of Caesar and the forces of Roman domination and occupation.
Similarly, the third servant is anything but a cipher for the unfaithful disciple, and instead is revealed as a symbol of the beleaguered people of God whom Jesus was sent to redeem.
In this reading of the parable, we learn that, although the distractions and distortions of a broken and fallen world may make it seem otherwise, our God is nothing like the greedy and unjust master who distributes gifts to God’s servants in unfair and uneven ways, cruelly setting up certain marginalized individuals or groups for failure and punishment.
We learn that—even though we may see ourselves as the world sees us—having only one “talent” and everything to lose, while others as haveso many more “talents” and therefore so much less to lose—this is not the truth of the Reign of God.
In other words, unlike the economy of the NYSE, the LSE Group, SIX, the Abu Dhabi, or the Shenzhen stock exchanges, in the economy of God’s Reign, 1 talent = 2 talents = 3 talents = 100 talents = 1,000 talents, ad infinitum.
Read in this way, there is indeed an admonition in this Sunday’s Gospel. It’s just not the one the short form of the reading is designed to soften or shield us from altogether.
Read in this way, the warning of this Gospel is that we reject the conclusion that we are bound to lose because the unjust and powerful are determined to see us lose. If we must resist a paralysis born of fear, it is the paralysis born of the false belief that ours is a God who will treat us like workers on the trading floor of a cutthroat hedge fund.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, I submit that today’s Gospel encourages us to rejoice and hope in the indisputable truth that our loving God has entrusted each of us with all the “talents” we need to respond to our various and wondrous vocations to discipleship.
And not only that. I also invite you to read this parable of the talents as a reminder that, unlike the master of the story who goes off to the “Seychelles” leaving his servants to fend for themselves, our merciful Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier is with us every step of the way, blessing, encouraging, and strengthening us to use our gifts for the welfare of all creation and the greater glory of God.
Dr. Scott Alexander
Director, Doctor of Ministry Program