Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 33 • 16 Nov 2014


Judges 4:1-7
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30


Rev. Chris Udy



Paul’s first letter
to the Church in Thessalonica –
the letter we’ve been reading
over the last few weeks -
is the oldest Christian document we have.
It was written just under 20 years
after Jesus was executed
as a political threat to the rulers of his day.
When Paul wrote this letter
he was utterly convinced
that Jesus was going to come back,
and that his return was going to be
any day now – certainly within Paul’s lifetime.
Last week Bruce read,
from earlier in the letter:
“For this we declare to you
by the word of the Lord,
that we who are alive,
who are left until the coming of the Lord,
will by no means precede those who have died.
For the Lord himself,
with a cry of command,
with the archangel’s call
and with the sound of God’s trumpet,
will descend from heaven,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up in the clouds
together with them
to meet the Lord in the air;
and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” 1 Thess 4:15-17.
The little Christian community in Thessalonica
took Paul at his word.
Convinced that the end of this crooked world
was imminently at hand,
they downed their tools
and broke open their stores of money and food
and gave themselves over full-time
to worship and prayer.
And so Paul had to write
the second oldest Christian document we have,
in which he said:
Now we command you, beloved,
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to keep away from believers
who are living in idleness
and not according to the tradition
that they received from us. …
For even when we were with you,
we gave you this command:
Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
For we hear that some of you
are living in idleness, mere busybodies,
not doing any work.
Now such persons we command
and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ
to do their work quietly
and to earn their own living. 2 Thess 3:6,10-12
 
Sometimes our experience of life
and our discovery of the world
means that we need to re-think,
and even un-learn,
things that we once thought of
as necessary, essential and true.
Not just for the Thessalonians,
but also for Paul and the rest of the early Church
it slowly became clear
that Jesus would probably not arrive tomorrow,
and that a whole new generation of Christians –
people who’d had no experience
of Jesus or the Apostles –
was being born or converted
and joining new congregations of God’s people.
As the years passed
they also came to understand
that the practicalities of life
could not be ignored or indefinitely postponed
while people waited for God to fix their problems.
Christians would need to earn a living,
and have families, and raise their children,
and deal with their neighbours
and understand the Empire.
 
So instead of just writing letters,
or remembering stories of Jesus
they began to write Gospels,
and if a parable they’d been told
didn’t quite fit their experience of life,
or the needs of their community and context,
they adapted it –
sometimes just by changing a few words
and adjusting the application of the story,
and sometimes by turning the story upside-down,
and making it say
almost the opposite of the parable Jesus told.
 
The parable of the talents is one of those
that Matthew’s community adapted.
Generations of Sunday School lessons
and Stewardship programs
have left most of us interpreting the story
as an encouragement to do our best
with whatever God has given us.
We expect all those with big talents
to apply them to God’s purpose
and bring back a big result –
and even those with little talents
are encouraged –
threatened really, in the story at least -
to do what they can with what they have
and be rewarded with pats on the back
and invitations to glory.
Matthew’s community was struggling
with many of the issues
Paul had faced in Thessalonica,
and in this parable they saw a moral lesson
that they thought might be helpful
to a church that was re-thinking
its culture and values.
But there are clues in the story,
and also in the parallel story Luke tells
suggesting that Jesus told the original parable
for a very different purpose.
 
The clues are in the character
of the master in the story,
and in the amounts of money
that he entrusts to each of the slaves.
A talent – or a mina, as Luke calls it –
was an enormous amount of money.
A day’s labour in first century Palestine
was worth 1 denarius –
and one talent was worth 6000 denarii –
so that’s about 20 years of sweat and toil;
let’s say something like 1 million dollars.
So what kind of master goes away
and leaves his slaves
with more than a million dollars –
two million, five million dollars –
of his money?
And is that kind of master,
a master who essentially agrees
when his servant says
“I knew you were a harsh man,
reaping where you did not sow,
and gathering where you did not scatter seed” –
is that kind of master really like
the God that Jesus shows us?
Or is this master more like those
who executed Jesus
because his character and teaching
threatened their power and control?
 
20 years ago
William Herzog wrote a book on parables

(Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed – 1994)

that made us re-think the way we read
these simple stories of Jesus.
Herzog gives this parable a sub-title:
“The Vulnerability of the Whistle-blower”,
and he argues that,
in the parable Jesus told,
the hero of the story
isn’t the slave who somehow turned
five million dollars into ten million dollars,
the true hero is the whistle-blower,
the one who named his master for what he was –
a cruel man, a bully and a thief.
The master in the parable Jesus told
looks very much like King Herod,
who quite often went travelling to places like Rome–
a bit like attending APEC, or the G20 -
to develop his political career.
Rich men like King Herod
quite often gave control of their wealth
to agents – slaves or servants –
who acted as investors in the market,
lending out their masters’ money
sometimes to earn interest –
although the Torah frowned on that – (Lev 25:35-38, Deut 15:7-11)
but more often to become a partner,
essentially to buy shares in a farm or a business –
often a struggling farm or business.
Usually those who were putting up money
also demanded a kind of mortgage –
so if the debt could not be repaid,
and often it couldn’t,
because the expected return on the loan
was often 100% - as in the parable -
the farm or the business was forfeited
and the rich man took over ownership and control.
Then, the farmer
or the person who’d built the business
would be employed at minimal wages
working on their own land,
but now producing, not the food they needed to live,
but the cash-crops the rich man wanted,
grapes or olives or wood they could sell
to make the rich man yet more wealthy again.
“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.”
 
It looks like the first two servants in the story
did what their master wanted:
they did whatever it took
to turn their master’s millions into more –
leaving who-knows-what poverty
and oppression in their wake.
But the third servant refused
to buy into that destructive and shameful system.
He did exactly what Jewish law (Mishnah) required,
burying the money he’d been given
to keep it safe (A Rabbi Looks at Jesus' Parables - Frank Stern – p133)
but he chose not to do things
that would put his neighbours at risk,
and he exposed his master’s arrogance and greed.
As a result, he was punished –
thrown out into the darkness
where people weep and gnash their teeth –
the sort of place you’d also expect to find
those who’d been extorted
out of their homes and land,
people who’d been tricked and pressured
into poverty and slavery.
 
This is a very different way
to hear the parable Jesus told.
It isn’t the only way to hear the story;
Matthew and Luke adapted and re-told it
for their own communities
and for their very different times –
but for us, today,
maybe William Herzog reveals
a parable we need to take note of.
 
We live in a world
where the seductions of wealth and empire
are as powerful and destructive
as they have ever been.
Those few who have far, far too much
are still employing their agents
to do whatever it takes to make them richer
at the expense of those who have almost nothing.
The richest man in the world – Jack Ma –
complained this week
that his $28 billion had not made him happy,
and that he was sick of being surrounded
by people wanting money –
but he says he’s still not ready to give it away.
We hear that the world’s
most wealthy people and corporations
use their agents and international connections
to pay almost nothing in tax –
leaving those who are already under pressure
to pay much more than their share
for the infrastructure those companies rely on
and the education, healthcare and housing
their employees need.
And we know that wars are still being fought –
young men and women are still dying –
for the economic and political goals of empires,
and for those who would like to control them.
 
Maybe, in a world like that,
we need to re-think the way we tell our stories –
as Douglas has done.
Maybe we need to ask
whether we should be doing whatever it takes
to sustain the world’s harsh masters,
who reap where they do not sow,
and who gather where they did not scatter seed.
Maybe it would be good
for humanity and for the world
to leave some of our wealth buried in the ground,
not dig it up and add it to
our already overheated systems.
Maybe choosing to identify –
in a very costly way -
with those who’ve been dispossessed and enslaved,
who’ve been pushed out to the shadows of life,
where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth –
maybe that’s the sort of thing
Jesus might put in a parable;
the sort of thing Jesus would do,
and the sort of thing
he might ask us to consider being part of.