This past week, I met a United Church minister named Min-Goo Kang from Victoria during a conference at the Vancouver School of Theology. During a presentation on intercultural ministry, he told us about an initiative through his church where they choose a food or theme common to different cultures and then host a series of cooking nights to learn how to make the different foods. One year, they chose “wraps” as their theme, inspired by bojagi, colourful squares of traditional Korean wrapping cloth used for carrying.
Min-Goo described how many cultures were brought together over the cooking series, including Japanese, Tamil, Korean, and Mexican as people gathered to share the various foods that are “wrapped” in their culinary traditions (nori, banana leaf, tamale, to name a few). As I listened to Min-Goo describe this ministry, more and more I began to see it as one of holy resistance, encouraging common ground and engagement across cultures in a world that can often press people to be in competition with each other.
I’m telling you this because I have tried a hundred different ways to make sense of our gospel reading this morning, and the only interpretation that has even begun to help me understand this difficult parable is to think of the three slaves as “wrapping” the talents given to them by their master in three different ways, and the last slave, wrapping theirs in a way that points to a kind of holy resistance.
“Talent” is a first century word that represents the financial equivalent of 20 years of wages. We can see how receiving even a single talent from your master would have meant the chance at freedom—the opportunity (maybe) to have worked your way out of debt to your slave-holder. New Testament scholar, William Herzog, describes the relationship between master and slave this way: the wealthy master lent money to the farming poor in their constituency at exorbitant rates, ultimately stripping the farmers of their land. Often, the farmers who took out these loans did so “out of desperation, putting their fields up as collateral in last-ditch efforts to save their livelihoods.” Soon enough, drought would hit, or someone in the farmer’s family would fall ill, and the interest rates would kick in leaving the farmer with no choice but foreclosure. The farmer’s ancestral land would be given over to the wealthy elite and he would “join the multitudes of landless day laborers [sic] who couldn’t know from day to day where their bread would come from.”
And, this is where the slaves come in. The slaves “are the wealthy master’s ‘retainers’ or household bureaucrats — essentially, the middle-men who oversee the land and the workers, collect the debts, and keep the profits coming while the master travels on business.” If the slaves made a little extra on the side, the more profit they would bring into their master’s hands, and the more comfortable their own lives would become.
In our gospel reading today, the first slave receives this incredible sum of money and thinking that his master might grant him his freedom if he manages to double it, he goes and roughs up some of the farmers who haven’t paid back their debt. The second slave does the same, and both the first and second slave double the master’s talents.
Now, the third slave keeps the money out of circulation altogether, something that would have been a faithful response for Jesus’ Jewish listeners, who by their own Law, were forbidden from helping the elite get rich off the backs of the poor. The third slave literally wraps the money in the ground, burying it. His master comes home, learns what he’s done, and “casts him into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
So, what are we to make of this parable? It is stewardship season, and we are used, perhaps, to hearing (and preaching!) sermons to encourage members of the congregation to double the financial and volunteer talents they have been given by their heavenly Master. That’s an okay interpretation if we leave out the third slave and ignore the reality of these first century relationships between wealthy masters and the farming poor. I wonder if it’s possible, though, that God in this story is not in fact personified in the Master, but through the third slave?
What if the third slave were a kind of foreshadowing of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, the third slave the prototype for the kind of turning over of unjust systems that would be spoken about through Jesus’ death and resurrection? It is Jesus telling this parable, after all.
Earlier in this same gospel, Jesus will teach his disciples how to pray. It’s a radical prayer; maybe you know it? It goes, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, or earth as in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors, and do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one.”
Jesus tells his disciples not to pray this prayer on the street corners like the hypocrites do so that everyone can see, for they have already received their reward (and, sure it may be a good reward—double the money they went in with, even). Instead, they are to hide away, to bury themselves with and in this prayer. For, this is a prayer that radically reorients their allegiance to God, not to their earthly masters; this is a prayer that radically reorders their financial priorities, not to hold on to debts like the high-interest lenders do, but to forgive them.
The parable of the talents is Jesus’ way of reminding his disciples that they cannot serve both God and money. The first two slaves in the parable earn double the master’s investment and enter into the joy of their earthly master’s ways; they have already received their reward. But the one who hides it away, refusing to have anything to do with the economy of their earthly master, receives the reward of the heavenly master. And, what is the reward of the heavenly master? Liberation from rather than participation in the unjust systems of the world. The putting to death of all that we do whether in big ways or small ways, to keep human beings enslaved—in debt—to one another.
In today’s parable, the third slave is cast into “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The place spoken of here could have been Gehenna or Sheol—a place where the dead go: Gehenna, where the dead were literally buried and Sheol, representing a more metaphorical period of stillness and darkness following death. Again, we’re sometimes susceptible to reading this parable as the third slave cast into this place because he fails to increase the gifts entrusted to him by God. But, if the third slave is an allusion to Jesus’ own death, burial, and resurrection, then the words of the old Creed we know well ring true: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead [he was cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth]. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
If we read the parable this way, then we can imagine Jesus’ being “cast into outer darkness” as Jesus’ own identification with human suffering, especially those who suffer because of human greed.
I told you at the beginning of this sermon that the only way I could make sense of this story was to think of it through the lens of bojagi—traditional squares of Korean wrapping cloth. The first two slaves “wrap” their talents, and let’s face it, their freedom, in the harsh and greedy ways of their master. The third slave “wraps” what has been given to him, and let’s face it, his freedom, in the way of the heavenly master, which is the way of resistance. I wonder what it is in our lives that we need to wrap in the way of resistance? Amen.
William Herzog, “Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed” (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), referenced in Debie Thomas, “The good kind of worthless” in “Journey with Jesus: A weekly webzine for the global church” accessed online on 18 November 2023