Through our contemporary lens, the parable in our Gospel reading today confronts us with some troublesome images of the reign of God. The punchline of the parable, that those who have much will receive more while those who have little will have it taken away, doesn’t seem to jive well with Matthew’s insistence that the last will be first and the first last. Moreover, the parable seems to suggest that the reign of God can be likened to an economic system embodied in a master-slave relationship, something that our contemporary minds have trouble making sense of in light of the devastation that slavery has caused and the continuing presence of white supremacy in our communities and around the world. What are we to do with this parable?
In the narrative arc of Matthew’s Gospel, the unit of text in which our parable is located is the last major teaching section before Jesus has his final meal with his disciples and his subsequent arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus has already made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, after which he upset the religious elite by driving out the “buyers and sellers” from the temple, and then successfully parried three attempts by the chief priests to trap Jesus in his words. He then turns to the crowds and warns them not to follow the example of the scribes and pharisees, denouncing them as hypocrites and accusing them of neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus laments over Jerusalem and describes the house of Israel as desolate. As they leave the temple, the disciples point to the buildings as if to question how Jesus could call such grandeur and beauty desolate. But Jesus tells them that not one stone will be left upon another. The disciples puzzle over this as they walk across the Kidron Valley and when they finally stop on the Mount of Olives, they ask Jesus to explain.
Jesus has already been teaching them for quite some time that he must suffer and die, indicating that there would be a time, rather soon, when he would no longer be with them. Now, he warns them of the suffering that they will have to endure in his absence. It will be a time marked by violence, famine, natural disasters, and persecution, all of which will test their faith.Jesus warns that some will even abandon their faith during these trials and tribulations. But there will be an end, he promises, and that end will occur when he returns and brings with him the fullness of God’s reign. Perhaps reading their thoughts, Jesus goes on to explain that they need not fear missing his coming again – though the hour is unknown his return is certain, and it will be unmistakable. So, he encourages them to not lose faith in the face of the suffering they will have to endure. They must “keep awake” and stay vigilant until he returns.
Each of the parables that follow in this section of Matthew’s gospel are intended to drive home this point. The lesson of the faithful and unfaithful servant teaches the disciples that faithfulness means obedience to all that Christ has commanded. The lesson of the ten bridesmaids teaches the disciples that they are responsible for maintaining their own lights. As Mo. Mary explained last week, no one can shine our light for us. Being vigilant means being responsible to keep the light of Christ burning within us so that we might recognize our Lord Jesus Christ at his return. And then comes the parable of the talents.
Already, it seems that the knot of troublesome images with which we started is beginning to unravel. With the themes of Christ’s return and vigilant discipleship now in our minds, we can begin to hold the parable of the talents a bit more loosely. What is important here is not the kind of economic practice the master or his slaves engaged in the story, nor is it the social structure of the relationship between the “master and the slave. ”Rather, it is the pattern of behavior exemplified in the slaves. Those who were deemed faithful were judged as such because they had imitated the practice of their master, investing what had been generously entrusted to them and turning a hundred-percent profit. They had experienced the actions of their master as an invitation to creatively engage with the expansion of their master’s estate and were willing to risk their hopes to do so. The third slave failed to do the same. His fear drove him to protect his own interests as he anticipated the return of his master. He perceived his master as harsh and that perception paralyzed him, preventing him from recognizing the talent entrusted to him as an invitation. Instead, he experienced the generosity of the master as a burden he had to protect. True discipleship is not driven by fear, it is fueled by anticipation and hope and is shaped by the pattern of life that Jesus has set before us as something to imitate. And that pattern comes into focus when we shift our attention to the next and last parable in this literary unit, the parable of the sheep and the goats.
Throughout the discourse of the larger context, Jesus has warned his disciples of what they will soon face and instructed them in the ways they are called to be faithful as they await his return. They must not understand any delay in his return as a sign of abandonment but must maintain the faith that he will return as he has promised. As they anticipate Christ’s return, they are to remain faithful to the pattern of life he has set for them through his own teaching and example, a pattern founded in the proclamation of the gospel and shaped by his ministry of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, forgiving sins, and liberating the oppressed.
This is the pattern of discipleship that Jesus invites us into, entrusting us to live into it and to produce the fruits of justice, mercy, and faith. It is fueled not by fear of impending judgment and doom, but by hopeful anticipation that the One who inaugurated the reign of God will return and bring with him the fullness of God’s reign. Until then, Jesus calls us to practice our faith with vigilance, to embody the blessed hope we profess in every meal we provide the hungry, every drink we give the thirsty, every person we help clothe, every sick and imprisoned person we visit.
As we begin to turn our eyes toward Advent, toward the season we prepare for the coming of our Lord, let us seek to be faithful in all that God has entrusted to us. And may we each be empowered by the Spirit of God to live into the pattern of discipleship that Jesus has given us so that we can enter fully into the joy of our Lord.