Preacher: Revd Tara Granados, Ibrox Parish Church, Glasgow
Readings: Matthew 25:14-30; Matthew 25:14-30 (The Message)
Parables can be infuriating. They’re little vignettes of stories and we don’t get to ask follow up questions. Well, I suppose we can ask, but we won’t get answers. We can only guess. We’re stuck with the limited snapshot of the story that’s given. And the point of a parable isn’t really the overt scenario presented, nor is it understood to be actual events, they’re stories meant to make you think. To make you wonder, and reflect, and wrestle. For me Jesus’ use of parables to teach is the ultimate refusal to spoon-feed wisdom. Wisdom cannot be bought or forced on you; it’s earned. Wisdom comes after struggle and failure and introspection.
My best wisdom today on this parable… is that I don’t like it very much. I don’t. Compared to the parable of the lost sheep or the prodigal son, this one is rough. It’s not very pleasant or palatable.
You have a master who going on a long journey. And before he leaves, he gives his slaves different amounts of money depending on their ability. The first slave who got the most money invests it and doubles it. The second slave who got the second most amount of money does the same. But the third was afraid because his master was harsh, reaping where he did not sow, and so he buried his money to keep it safe. When the master comes back, he praises the first two slaves, but utterly chastises the third. The master says to those who have much, more will be give, and to those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. And the third slave is cast in the darkness forever.
Issues with this parable, and there are a few: Firstly, the fact in telling this parable, Jesus seems to accept the institution of slavery as a normal fact of life, and does not confront or challenge its practice is problematic. Secondly, the master never gives instructions to the slaves as to what they were meant to do with this money. It’s unclear if he expected them to read his mind or just know from some prior unmentioned conversation what his wishes were. Again we don’t get to know more background. Thirdly, apparently this master regularly takes what isn’t his. Reaping what he did not sow, i.e. he steals from other people who have put in the hard work.
And lastly, the ending says those who already have a lot can expect to get more, and those who have nothing, will lose what little they do have. Which is prosperity gospel 101, which is deeply disturbing. Prosperity gospel tells wealthy, privileged, often white people they should revel in their abundance without feeling guilty or a need to create more just or equal sharing in the world, because their abundance is evidence of God’s blessing in a kind of weird consumerist, capitalist version of the gospel.
So yeah, there’s not a lot to love in this parable. And yet, it’s not only in our Bible and recorded as the words of Jesus himself. But it’s in the Bible twice, in Matthew and in Luke. So what do we do with this very troubling story?
I asked for two versions of this scripture to be read to show what some do with it. The first reading was from the NRSV, which is the closest, most accurate translation we have to the original language, it’s the one scholars use. And the second reading was from The Message translation, which is more a loose, modern paraphrase. And the differences between the two render them almost unrecognisable. Firstly the Message changes the word slaves to servants knowing that modern readers do not accept slavery as acceptable.
The NRSV says: Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid.”
The Message says: ‘you have high standards and careless ways, you demand the best and make no allowance for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you’ Very different.
The ending from the NRSV says: 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. Right?
The Message in translating the same sentence says: And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb.
You would never know those were translating from the same passage in Greek. It’s a master class on spin that any politician would be proud of. And I don’t say this just to throw The Message translation under the bus, it has its place and I’ve used it many times myself. But it’s always good to read from multiple translations, especially for difficult bits of scripture. The Message translation came out in the early 2000s does everything it can to soften and sanitise this very unpleasant passage and make it a bit more palatable for modern sensibilities.
But I wonder if Jesus intended this to be a confusing, difficult, scenario and told it that way for a reason. Rather than disregard, or skip over, or sanitise passages like this, what if we just sat with them in all their confusing and ugliness. I think we can read it, chew on it a bit, admit it doesn’t taste good and read on for now. That doesn’t mean we’re done with it forever. If we accept the Bible, this book of many books as holy and inspired by God, then we don’t get to cherry pick our favourite bits and ignore the rest. We have to wrestle with the whole of it. We have to keep circling back to these difficult bits, reading it again, turning it under the light to see if we’ve missed anything, if something else is illuminated that we couldn’t see before.
The point is not to arrive at the answer, but to learn to ask better, harder questions of the passage and of ourselves. Like for example… I wonder what would have happened if the third slave had risked investing the money and had lost it all. That’s a possible outcome of investment. It can all go pear shaped. Would he have faced an even harsher punishment? Would he have been killed? Or would the master have praised him for trying?
It seemed like only the first two slaves were risking anything, the third seemed to have a near fail-safe way to preserve what he’d been given. But what if Jesus is saying that really the biggest risk is in risking nothing. What if the teaching beneath the surface is about all that we’ve been entrusted with as humans? Our bodies, our abilities, our brains, our voices, our conscience, our humour, our gifts and talents, our hearts, our emotions. If we live in fear of failure, and forever play it safe hiding away what we’ve been entrusted with, that is worst risk of all, because it guarantees we never get chance to grow or learn or change. We’re too busy hiding and being afraid.
What if it’s saying the biggest loss is to spend nothing. The biggest risk is to risk nothing. Or maybe I’m full of it? Maybe we’re just grasping at straws to find any whiff of wisdom in an otherwise problematic parable? It’s very possible…. but it’s the questions that come up chewing on the story this time… maybe next time the flavour will be different for whatever reason. The point is to keep returning, keep wrestling, keep listening. In and of itself, that is still an act of worship.