Gospel of St. Matthew
The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Nov. 19, 2017
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.
Like so many of our Lord’s parables, this particular story from the Gospel of St. Matthew appears to have changed much in the retelling. This ancient tale has actually survived in three different versions: one in Matthew, one in Luke and one in an obscure extra-canonical book called the Gospel of the Nazarene. In each of these renditions, different aspects of the story are emphasized and highlighted to suit the author’s purpose. In the Gospel of the Nazarene, for example, in addition to the servant who multiplied the investment and the one who hid his talents, there is a third servant who spent his money on harlots and flute-players. The first servant is commended, the second is blamed and the third is thrown into prison. The author of this version of the parable has turned the story into a moralistic fable that sternly warns of the fearsome cost of profligacy. In Luke’s version, the benefactor has become a nobleman who leaves his estate to lay claim to a kingdom. He entrusts ten servants each with ten pounds and when he returns we are told the fate of three of these servants. One doubles the money and is rewarded with the rule of ten cities. One makes half-again more and is given control of five cities and one out of fear hides his pounds in a napkin and his pound is taken away.
Of these three accounts, Matthew’s version actually appears to be the earliest and like Luke, he has chosen to interpret the parable as an allegory of the second coming of Christ. At the last day, when Christ returns unexpectedly to bring forth the kingdom of heaven, all of God’s servants will be asked to account for the gifts that have been entrusted to them. Judgment will then be meted out in accordance with how fruitfully they invested those gifts. To those who have made more, more will be given and to those who squandered or stored their gifts, what they have will be taken away. In the last line of Matthew’s account, the master pronounces his harsh and final judgment on the unfruitful servant: As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Behind these three versions, however, there seems to lurk a simpler tale, a more candid and frank story with a more poignant message. When our Lord told this parable, he was not talking about the second coming but was addressing the religious situation that surrounded and confronted him. This parable, like many of his stories, was directed toward the scribes and Pharisees, those whom God had entrusted with the precious gift of loving salvation. Those religious leaders had abused and misused that gift by refusing to share it freely and openly with others, burying it instead beneath a stifling and oppressive layer of exclusivity and legalism. The true heart of this simpler story is in the rebuff of the cautious third servant who seeks to defend himself against his master’s accusations.
After that servant listens to the successful accounts of his two colleagues, he tries to justify himself and his actions by complaining about the terms and conditions of the bequest, attempting to blacken the character and the intentions of his master. His master is a harsh man, he complains, who enriches himself through the labors of others. He reaps where he did not sow and he gathers where he did not scatter seed. The disgruntled servant seems to be arguing that his actions were totally defensible because if he had made a profit, the master would simply have taken it away and if he had suffered a loss, the master would have punished him. So, he thought, the prudent thing was to do nothing, to take no risk one way or the other and simply return what had been given to him. Given the logic and force of the servant’s complaint, it is interesting to note that the master makes no effort to rebut or dismiss the servant’s charge. That is indeed the actual situation. The servant works and the master takes the results of his labors. The good and faithful servants accept that reality and do their best within it. The servant who refuses to accept that relationship is literally worthless and will lose all that he has. This simpler tale is not an allegory about the second coming of the Messiah, nor is it a morality play on the imperative of making wise investments. It is instead a powerful allegory about accepting some basic truths about the nature of human reality and about making decisions based on those truths.
The basic premise that this parable presents us with concerns the absolute claim that God has upon us. We ourselves, all that we have, all that we own and all that we produce, all belongs to God. This is not a religious theory based on theological speculation but a bedrock reality that we ignore at our peril. Think about it. If you believe in God, if you accept the reality of a divine being, it is an unavoidable and undeniable conclusion. Like the master in the parable, all belongs to God and therefore the true purpose of human existence is to serve God. The reward for serving God is the opportunity for further and greater service and the worst punishment for failing to serve God is simply to be deprived of the opportunity to serve at all. Apart from such service, life is meaningless and we are worthless, walking in outer darkness with much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The second reality that this parable presents us with concerns the master’s journey. Before he leaves, the master entrusts his servants with some talents and then he leaves them to get on with their work. As far as the precise scope and nature of that work is concerned, the servants are left to their own devices. Perhaps the master could have gotten better results if he stuck around and directed their activities, or at least left specific instructions concerning his expectations. It seems, however, that that was decidedly not his intention or purpose. It appears to be very important to the master that the servants make their own decisions based on their own perceptions of their duties and their responsibilities. Doubtless our world would be better managed if God interfered more in human affairs or at the very least gave us more precise guidance, but then we would be a race of puppets and not men and women free to choose to love and to serve God. God has an absolute claim on humankind, all that we have and produce is rightly hers, but God will never force us into service for to do so would deny the inestimable gift of free will and would hopelessly compromise our ability to take freely the risk of love.
In his letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul tells the faithful there that they no longer walk in outer darkness because they are children of the light, children of the day. To be a child of the light is to put on the breastplate of faith and love and take up the helmet of hope for salvation. In truth, those are the very talents that we have been entrusted with by Almighty God, those are our precious legacy: faith, love and hope. We can, of course, bury those gifts, denying their value and refusing to invest them in our beliefs and our decisions. Or like the profligate servant in the Gospel of the Nazarene, we can invest those precious gifts in other things. We can invest our faith in science and technology, believing that the discernible laws of nature define the scope and limits of human existence. We can invest our hope in material gain or professional achievements, believing that success in life is determined by what we own and what we accomplish. We can invest our love in superficial relationships or political causes, skillfully avoiding the daunting demands of loving God or shunning the complex web of human intimacy. With deft ease, we can bury our talents in the dense soil of social, cultural and political values, but to do so is to lead a life that is essentially worthless, no matter how rich, successful or intelligent we think that we have become. For those who make those choices all will indeed by taken away, not simply at the moment of death but here and now for it is God who gives life true worth and value, serving the master in faith, love and hope, and without that investment, we do not live but merely exist.
At baptism, we are all given our talents. We are planted in the rich and fertile soil of a community of faith, a community rooted in the love of God in Christ and committed to living a life founded on hope in the redeeming power of an Incarnate God. God has left us with precious few instructions as to how we should carry out our duties and responsibilities. God has simply told us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to take our talents, our baptismal bequest, and we are to invest them in the risk of faith, in the promise of hope and in acts of love, seeking to serve our master by sharing freely all that he has so generously bestowed upon us. For those willing to make the investment, the return will be no less than a life filled with abundance, an abundance of grace that will carry us across the chasm of death into the kingdom of our Lord and Master where our hope will be realized as we are bathed and enveloped in streams of everlasting love.