The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is an interesting one. We have always liked to read it with the understanding that God is the wealthy landowner and wants us to use our talents to God’s service. However, if we read this parable that way God doesn’t come out looking so hot. The “Wicked” servant says that the landowner takes what doesn’t belong to him and is a harsh man who treats others badly. Rather than deny this, the landowner confirms it. So if this is the description of the landowner, why is it we read God into that place? Doesn’t that run against our tradition and the entirety of scripture?
Let me suggest another way to read this parable. If you go back to Matthew 23, you will note that Jesus is heavily critiquing the Pharisees for their hypocritical ways—Jesus is absolutely brutal in his angry rant against them. The reason Jesus is so angry is that the Pharisees teach the law of Moses, but then turn around and set a bad example. Not only that, but they use the law to exclude others and to gain wealth and prestige for themselves. 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” Jesus rails against them for casting people out of the Kingdom as well as for casting people out of society. The next few chapters are a series of parables and prophecies that talk about their kingdom and Christ’s kingdom.
Here is the trick: some of these are Christ’s visions, and some of them are what the Pharisees mistakenly say are the ways into the kingdom. If you look at the beginning of chapter 25 (this weeks text) you find the Greek phrase “Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be compared to…” as if someone else is doing the comparing. Note that it doesn’t say, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” or “I tell you that the kingdom of heaven is…” This isn’t what Jesus is saying it is, it is what others say it is. The ten bridesmaids story that follows emphasizes being wise, being prepared and hoarding—Does that sound like Pharisee actions or Jesus actions? If this is about God’s Kingdom, where is the Grace? We have to be wise, prepared hoarders to get in the gates? Then we have the parable of the talents that emphasizes making profits, ruthless business practices, and seeking the favor of the powers that be—Does that sound like Pharisee actions or Jesus actions? If this is about God’s Kingdom, where is the Grace? We have to be ruthless, overachieving, successful businessmen to get in the gates?
These two parables are followed by the story of the sheep and the goats. Jesus sorts his sheep and goats into two pens. The sheep are not the wise, prepared, hoarding, ruthless, overachieving successful people. The sheep are the ones who took care of the least of these. Matthew 25:35 “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ …”Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Doesn’t really sound like the two previous parables now, does it? If these are the sorting criteria, I am guessing that those 5 wise and hoarding bridesmaids and that wealthy landowner won’t be in the sheep pen.
So what is this really all about? I think this is pointing to the fact that we really have a hard time with grace. We don’t like the fact that there are no requirements placed on God’s love, so we rewrote these parables to uphold capitalist ideals, instead of Jesus’ teachings. We want to emphasize how important it is to be prepared and wise, to be wealthy and successful, to be ruthless and powerful. We have a hard time hearing that in the end—none of that will matter. God loves you, and me, and everyone—no matter what!