A Parable of Stewardship?
When people preach on this parable, they often focus on the concept of stewardship: how we use our time, treasure, and talents while we wait for God to return. And at first glance, it’s easy to see how one might see it that way.
In the story, the master leaves for a trip, and puts 3 servants in charge of managing a portion of his wealth. Upon the his return, we find that two servants have done well with the talents (money) entrusted to them. They leveraged what they were given and earned back double. They were rewarded richly.
The third servant, who did nothing with the 1 measly talent entrusted to him, gets severely reprimanded. The master calls him wicked and lazy. In the master’s eyes, he should’ve done something, anything, with that money to earn interest rather than burying it in the ground (note: Jewish law actually prohibited usury). The servant’s consequence? “Take the money this servant has, and give it to the one with 10 talents.” Give the one who made the most money even more money…and throw this useless servant into outer darkness where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In this parable, the master rewards people based on how well they perform, regardless of the whether they have acted justly. And those who don’t perform suffer the consequences.
This makes good sense to many of us. It’s the cultural gospel we grow up with, especially in a money-driven culture where the sign of success is wrapped up in the acquisition and accumulation of wealth.
The only challenge is this—that was not the culture of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. Theirs was an honor/shame based society; honor was everything.
If we view this parable through the lens of an honor-based culture, not a wealth-based culture, then this parable unlocks beautiful truth about where the Kingdom of God is located.
A Different Perspective
Honor/shame-based cultures typically viewed wealth with suspicion; they assumed it was gained at the expense of others. That especially held true for extreme wealth. Those that took advantage of others were viewed as dishonorable. In other words, the master and the first two servants would’ve been seen as dishonorable people. After all, how did they accumulate all that money?
With that perspective, the third servant is actually the one who is most honorable. He stands up to the master and says, “I know you to be a hard man. You reap where you did not sow and gather crops you didn’t cultivate.” In other words, “I know who you REALLY are. You are dishonest and you exploit others.” By the way, the master doesn’t deny the allegations.
Who is the Master?
And all that leads me to more questions than answers. What if this parable is about the systems that operate dishonestly in the world? What if the master in this parable represents systems and structures that take advantage of those who are powerless? What happens if those who are the bottom of the “food chain” actually speak against those kinds of practices?
It seems the third servant was a whistle blower—something we see almost daily on the news. They are often shamed, cursed, silenced, and sometimes even cast as evil.
It doesn’t easily occur to us that God could be aligned with the third servant, especially when we are conditioned to always put God or Jesus in the position of POWER in the biblical narrative, in this case the master.
But reading this parable through an upside-down lens actually makes more sense here. God is not the angry, tyrannical master who casts aside and shames people. In fact, God is the servant who speaks the truth and acts justly; he’s the one being cast out.
In the very next teaching in Matthew, Jesus confirms this. He reminds us that HE is actually found among those who are cast out and disregarded. He is embodied in the stranger, the hungry and the thirsty. What’s more, these teachings all take place just days before the crucifixion, where God’s commitment and solidarity with those who are shamed, cursed and silenced are on display for all to see—at the cross.
Yeah. We often make the mistake of locating God in exactly the wrong place in this parable—the place of power and privilege. I wonder how often we make that same mistake in our daily life? May this parable be a fresh reminder to look toward the outcast and meet God in the most unexpected places. Who knows…someday that journey could even take you to some run-down stable to meet a teenage mother and her newly-born son.