Rich get richer and . . .

“Talent Twist”

“Talent Twist” Matthew 25:14-30
Delivered to Church for the Highlands Sunday, November 15, 2020
Rev. Dr. John Henson

Have you ever looked for something and, in the midst of your search, you find something else you had been looking for? This happens all the time when I look under my car seat and find something I thought was long lost or when looking for a wayward shoe in the bottom of my closet. There’s great joy in finding something I wasn’t even looking for. That’s what happened in my sermon study this week. I was looking for some images to use for this text and ran across an article about this text that had to do with Biblical archaeology. It led me on a trail of discovery that helped me see this parable in a whole different way.

The parable of the talents is probably as familiar to us all as is the parable of the prodigal son. We can just hear the name and think about what it means. When this parable comes around in Worship, it’s usually part of a stewardship campaign or on a Sunday about volunteering or signing up for a new place of service. It works great for these kinds of needs. The message is usually along the lines of “God has given you a talent and expects you to use it to grow the church or to enlarge the budget.” To not use your talent responsibly is to be like the third slave who buried it and did not increase it as the other two slaves did. Most of us preachers never go all the way with it, but the implication is that if you don’t use your talents in the church, then you will one day learn what weeping and gnashing of teeth are all about. But digging into the context helps us see a different way of understanding it than how we usually think about it. But what if that’s not really the point Jesus was making?

Once we look more closely at the parable and understand how the people there with Jesus would have understood it, we have another way of interpreting this, one that actually fits much better with the other parables we have been hearing this season in Matthew. The article I ran across mentioned how different people around Jesus would have heard this parable. They certainly would not have thought Jesus was saying to be like the first two slaves. And, by the way, the fact that he was telling a story about slaves and a master is a good indication that he wasn’t intending them to see God as the master and them as the slaves. The first two slaves were doing something they knew was wrong according to the Law, charging people interest. The third slave was actually the one they would have seen as like themselves, not breaking God’s law and not participating in the usury of the Master. They also would have identified with what happened to him, having their money taken away from them and given to the ones who were making money and suffering the violence from their oppressor. As one commentator (Sarah Dylan Breuer) on this text has said, the real message of this text was, “The rich get richer, and the destitute lose everything.” This is a good lead into the next part of Matthew when Jesus talks about the sheep and goats, emphasizing the reality that God will judge the people who have exploited the poor and neglected to give them food and clothing.

That’s great and all but what could this possibly have to do with our context today? If this isn’t about us each being given a talent and what we are to do with it, what does it mean for us, especially since we live in a world run on interest and investments. The first thing I can think of here is what this has to say about the widening gap between rich and poor in our society. We may not identify with the economic system of Jesus’ time, but we do still live in a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In fact, the gap between the rich and poor has increased so much in recent years that there is a diminishing middle class in our nation. A recent study by the Community Foundation of Shreveport shows the level of poverty here in our city and compares it with comparable cities. As you see, we are in last place on this list when it comes to median household income and in 9th place when it comes to the poverty rate, which is an improvement from last year. As a part of the analysis, the study quotes Robert Shiller, one of the three Nobel Prize Winners in Economics in 2013, stating, ” “the most important problem we are facing now today… is rising inequality in the United States and elsewhere in the world.” In that regard, we may have more in common with Jesus’ crowd than we thought.

Another application this parable has for us is that we can know that the God Jesus represents in his world is one for ours too, a God who is on the side of people who are in need. Just as the poor people hearing Jesus tell this story felt heard and seen, so the poor and needy among us in our city and world can today. What a great word of encouragement for people today in this pandemic who are suffering even more from poverty and oppression. While we don’t have all the answers at this point and don’t know what we can do at times, what we can know is that God is with those who are in need.

A final application of this parable is that if we find ourselves as those who have things that other people don’t have, we are in a position to share with them rather than taking from what little they have. As James Cone stated (God of the Oppressed), “The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word “Christian” with the liberation of the poor.” I think you get that, which is likely why you are a part of this church. As our mission statement put is, “We exist to bless . . . ” We have always seen that we are here not to be takers but to pass on what God puts into our hands. That’s why our teams are focused on the needs of this neighborhood. Even during a pandemic, we continue to work at giving food to the hungry, financial resources to the poor, clothes to the underclothed and hope to the hopeless.

Like with the joy of discovering something you weren’t actually looking for, perhaps you and I may find something even better along the way as we hear this story from Jesus. Now, what will we do with it?

[A helpful source for me with this interpretation of the text is Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary ]

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