McFarland

Wednesday Bible Study by Pastor Kelli

Light a candle

Read Matthew 25:14-30

If ever there was a Gospel reading you wanted to skip, it would be this one.  Well, maybe the story about Herod ordering the execution of all male Hebrew babies and toddlers, but anyway.  This story has less murder but still carries plenty of weight.  This is an incredibly difficult and challenging text.  Any story that ends with someone being thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth is going to be a doozie.

We hear that a landowner’s servants are entrusted with five, two, and one talent.  But what is a talent?  Depending on the scholar, it was a solid piece of gold that weighed somewhere between 30 to 100 pounds.[1]  It was the financial equivalence of 15 to 20 years of wages for the common laborer.[2]  Just “under a million dollars at today’s gold prices.”[3]  This incredible, inconceivable amount of money is just one talent.  So the first servant is entrusted with 70-100 years of wages, the second with 30-40 years of wages, and the last is entrusted with a lowly 15-20 years of wages.

Since this is a difficult text, I dug into resources and found two interesting perspectives on this story that we can chew on this morning.

The first – the amount of money that was entrusted to the servants was so great that, to those listening to Jesus’ story, they would have laughed.  According to scholar Matt Skinner, the “extravagance that destroys the plausibility of Jesus’ story is a hint.  […]  Jesus doesn’t send his followers into the world with a morality tale to warn against the evils of laziness.  This is a story about the responsibilities that come with incredible abundance, not about a cowardliness born out of scarcity.  It’s a story about our calling.”[4]

So we are left to ponder what we are doing with the abundant resources we have been given.[5]  Are we hiding them, fearing their scarcity?  Even if it is not financial capitol, with what else are we brimming?  Generosity of spirit?  Creativity?  The capacity to care?  And we can take this beyond the individual level to the family or congregational level.  What gifts have we collectively been given, and how are we sharing them with the world?

This is one way to approach this story.  Another way is to remember that parables are not prescriptive but descriptive – they don’t tell us what to do but describe the current reality.  They are not real stories but, rather, narratives to make a point.

Many of us bristle when putting God in the place of the master in the story.  The idea of God tossing fearful people into outer darkness does not sit well, nor does it connect with all that we know about God, the one who faithfully stays with and forgives God’s people throughout time.  Author Debie Thomas suggests that because of this dissonance, maybe God is not the master.  Maybe this is a description of the broken reality in which Jesus’ audience was already living.

To summarize Debie Thomas’s incredible article[6]: the only way the landowner was able to accumulate so much wealth was by giving loans to people on the brink of poverty.  Due to the outrageous interest rates, they would inevitably default on their payments and the master would then get ownership of their land.  The person would lose the plot of earth that had belonged to their family for generations and they would become a day laborer, hoping to be chosen each morning to work and, therefore, able to feed their families.

The three servants in the story would have been middle-men who help manage all of these debts.  As long as large sums were given to their master, they were free to skim off the top.  The master and the managers were exploiting the vulnerable in order to become wealthy themselves.

Debie Thomas hypothesizes that when the master in our story leaves, the third servant refuses to further participate in this broken economic system.  They protest an organizational scheme that profits at someone else’s expense.  Then they have to live with the result of that choice.

This interpretation of the parable leaves us to ponder the systems in which we participate, whether intentionally or not, and if those systems are benefiting some while hurting others?  How can we act to interrupt that system and that continued abuse?  What might this refusal cost us?  (Again, thank you to Debie Thomas for this incredible interpretation.)

There are many ways to look at this text and each one leads to fruitful – though potentially difficult – reflection.  This is not easy work, but we trust that it is guided and shaped by God’s Spirit.  I thank you for your continued engagement with God’s Word.

[1] 30 pounds from: Matt Skinner, “Easter Imperatives: Advocate,” Westminster Presbyterian Church (website blog), May 17, 2020, https://www.westminstermpls.org/2020/05/easter-imperatives-advocate/. 80-100 pounds from: Debie Thomas, “The Good Kind of Worthless,” Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, Since 2004, November 8, 2020, accessed November 10, 2020, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay.
[2] 15 years from: M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vo. 8 (Nashville: Abindgon Press, 1995), 453. 20 years from: Skinner.
[3] Skinner.
[4] Skinner.
[5] Karoline Lewis from: Working Preacher, “Brainwave 754 – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary 33A) – Nov. 15, 2020,” November 10, 2020, video, 30:39, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hm_Lij8OxYo&feature=youtu.be.
[6] Thomas.

Reflection Questions

1) As an individual, with what abundance have we been entrusted?

2) As a congregation or community, what gifts do have to share with the world?

3) What are the systems in which we live and operate? Who is benefiting and who is hurting from that system?

4) Are there ways we can refuse or limit our participation? What might be the cost of that refusal?

5) How might God be calling you to respond to this passage?

Extinguish the candle