You may have heard that the US House of Representatives recently passed a tax bill which is so dreadful that some religious groups have issued statements against it. It offers tax cuts to people who already have plenty of money and will require higher taxes from people who struggle to keep their heads above water. But, you know, rich people stick together. There’s not much that regular people like us can do.
It’s ripped from this week’s headlines, but the story is as old as… well as old as the gospel of Matthew, probably older. Before we dive into the parable, though, let’s set the scene:
This is an economic parable set in first-century Palestine. The Roman Empire cast a shadow on every aspect of every life. It was important to maintain one’s honor and not to incur shame. Economically there were the rich, the poor, and the enslaved. They worked in three main areas: Agriculture, construction, and trade. Agriculture was really starting to take off. Herod, apparently, “did a lot of deals” because he had building projects which employed a large number of people. And, of course, there was trade. The rising merchant class took full advantage of new and faster ships which set sail from emerging cities like Caesarea, Joppa, and Ashkelon. It was an exciting time. One thing that we don’t talk about a lot is slavery, but that’s part of the economic story here. Those who could, obtained slaves to do work for them. Another thing a slave could do, though, is take onto themselves the shame that the owner didn’t want to incur himself. We will read about an example of that in the parable.
Like last week’s parable, this parable is about how we order our lives between now and the time when the Reign of God will blossom. Often when we read the Bible we hope to find some eternal truth, something for the ages. But Jesus was preaching and teaching a way of life for people who were just waiting. It’s an interim measure, not the real thing. Of course, it has been 2000 years and the Reign of God still seems pretty far away. But when we say, “This world is not my home,” what we mean is that we are waiting for the fullness of God’s Love Kingdom. It’s not about going to the sweet by-and-by. There is no sweet by-and-by. As followers of Jesus, our mission is to create the sweet here-and-now. But, we are waiting. Waiting. Hopefully working, and waiting.
So, here’s a recap of the parable:
There was a very rich man. He had some slaves. He went on a trip, but before he went he entrusted some money to three of his slaves. It was quite a lot of money. The rich man went away. While he was gone two of the slaves took the money entrusted to them and used it to make even more money. The third slave buried his money in the ground. The third slave did not make any additional money. When the rich man returned home he rewarded the slaves who had made money for him, but he kicked out the third slave who had buried the money.
That is what the text tells us. Here are a few things the text doesn’t say:
In the peasant world of this time and place — much different to our own — seeking more was morally wrong. In the peasant’s minds, all the wealth had already been divvied up. It was a zero-sum game. Obtaining more for oneself meant taking from someone else. It was thievery.
Being a thief brought shame.
Burying money in the ground was considered the safest thing to do with it. It was entirely honorable. In fact, later rabbinic law considered it to be so safe that if the money was somehow lost, the one who buried it was not to blame. It was the safest way to care for someone else’s money.
Slave owners frequently used the bodies of their slaves to endure the shame that might otherwise accrue to them. Slaves were sent to fight in wars for their owners, to serve their owner’s prison sentences, and to bear any shame which the slave owner wished to avoid.
Thus, when the third slave said to his owner, “I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” he was calling his owner a thief. But, instead of punishing him, the owner agreed with him. The slave owner expected his slaves to be dishonorable so that he wouldn’t have to be. It wasn’t even a secret!
Because of his refusal to participate in this immoral economic system, the third slave was cast out. And not just cast out, but cast out into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
So, while we work and wait in this lengthy “meantime” until the blossoming of God’s Kingdom, we have to decide how we will live. Will we participate in a system that reaps where it does not sow? It taxes the tuition of graduate students and penalizes those who couldn’t afford to buy health insurance in the first place. It selectively enforces laws which creates a class of mainly brown “citizens” which is just one half-step up from slavery. It takes what it does not have a right to. It takes money, dignity, freedom. That is our current system. Will we allow ourselves to be part of that?
The alternative is outer darkness. There is weeping. There is gnashing of teeth. If you haven’t heard the weeping and gnashing of teeth, you’re either not listening or you’re so allied with empire that you can’t hear anything but the dog-whistle of your masters. The good news is that you can break free of that. Yes, the good news is that you too can go to the outer darkness!
You were not put on this earth to serve empire! You are a kingdom builder. Every kindness, every loving thought is another brick in the streets that are paved with gold. When you notice the change of season, allow the sea breeze to enfold your body, pay attention when a child speaks then the kingdom of God draws nearer. And when you actively resist evil, other kingdoms quiver. You don’t have to be a saint or (Heaven forfend) a martyr. You just have to be yourself, true and authentic, God’s beloved pearl. Yes, it’s that easy. Also, there is darkness. Weeping. Probably teeth gnashing.
There is one other thing that the slave owner said in this parable. He said that the third slave was worthless. Empire will not see your value. You may think that your life isn’t very important, and events may conspire to help convince you. Events can be convincing! But nobody gets very far on a spiritual path without encountering some “outer darkness” and tears. It’s alright. That’s just part of it. In this parable, Jesus tells us not to participate in the evil systems of empire and to learn how to live and work in outer darkness.
We are working for the light. We are working for a new empire, an empire of love. We are working and waiting. And in the long meantime, we are not of this world. It’s dark. And it’s OK.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
You can read about some of Herod’s building projects here. The link is actually an advert for a very expensive book, but it’s worth reading for the information in there. I doubt the book is worth 195 US Dollars, though. I’m going to wait for the Kindle edition at $9.99.
The Library of Ancient Israel edited by Douglas A. Knight has a chapter on The Means of Existence. Check out page 92 for more information on farm tools. It is not available for Kindle, and pretty expensive unless you’re really interested. If you are, though, pay the money. It’s really readable and easy to look things up in.
This is not directly related, but I enjoyed this article on ancient agriculture so much that I thought I’d pass it along. I am not personally a real farmer, but I sometimes dream about it.
If you want to know more about slavery in early Christianity you can read Slavery In Early Christianity by Jennifer A. Glancy. It’s a very readable and interesting book. The Kindle edition is about 13 bucks, or get a used copy for about eight.
A lot of people on the internet will tell you what they think 1 talent is worth. You can read that if you want to. If it is a weight, it’s about 34 kilos, which if that’s gold… well, it’s a lot. If it was strictly an amount of money, it was still a lot. I think it’s pointless to try and figure out exactly how much it might be in today’s dollars. It was a really, really, really big amount. You might even call it hugely. It was enormous. If I had that much money I’d be on an island somewhere… it was that much.
My thoughts about the peasant mindset were largely influenced by Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. I have mentioned it before but it’s worth mentioning again. Available in several formats, including Kindle, and worth whatever they’re charging for it.
I am also, always, indebted to William R. Herzog II for Parables As Subversive Speech, Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. It is not the only parable book I have, not by a long way, but it is the one I love best because Herzog has a way of teaching the reader how to tease out some modern meaning from ancient stories.