Tuesday, June 4, 2013



Today I had the occasion to read, again, Matthew 25, 14-30, which is not all that different from Luke 19, 12-27. Both recount the familiar story of the man who, as Matthew puts it (Matthew 25, 14), “was going on a journey.” He parcels out his possessions to his servants to manage while he is away. In Matthew’s gospel, one servant is entrusted with five talents, one gets two talents, and one gets one talent, “…each according to his ability.” (25, 15) A talent was a coin the value of which varied with the metal used to fabricate it, rather than the whims of the monetary authorities, in those pre-Federal Reserve days of the New Testament. But the use of the talent, rather than some other unit of coinage, may not have been an accident; see the latter portions of this post. Then again, the use of the talent may have been a complete coincidence and the assumed double meaning may have been an accident of translation. In Luke, each servant gets ten “coins,” but the number becomes confusing when the returns are calculated, sort of like dealing with some dealers, but I digress.

We all know the rest of the story. The guy who got the five talents made another five. The guy who got two talents made another two. Think of these guys as the patron saints as hedge fund managers. The guy who got one talent went off, dug a hole, and buried the talent in it, fearing his master…

“…a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter;…” Matthew 25, 24

…and his master’s reaction if the servant were to lose his money.

The master comes home and is pleased with the first two servants, who were “faithful in small matters” (25, 21) and consequently gives them “great responsibilities” (25, 21). But the master, presumably God, is not at all happy with the timid fellow, presumably of limited abilities, who buried his talent in the ground, telling him

“Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?”(25, 27)

This was long before Ben Bernanke came around and effectively abolished such quaint notions as interest on bank accounts, but, again, I digress.

So what does the master do? He takes the talent from the guy who buried it in the backyard, and thus has only one, and gives it to the guy who has ten. Then, to reinforce his point, he orders his other servants to

“…throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (25, 30)

Talk about harsh!

What’s going on here? Is God that harsh with those of who fail? Does he punish those who fail, either out of incompetence or timidity, to reward the bold and the successful? Though some who preach the “prosperity gospel” might make this argument, there are better explanations.

The first of these explanations is that this passage is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The rich do indeed get richer, the poor get poorer, a story at least as old as the Old Testament. This does not mean this human condition is good or advisable…it just is.

A second, more satisfying, explanation is that those who seek to develop their understanding of God and His will for them (their talents) will increase that knowledge and understanding. Those who are indifferent to those plans of God will lose touch with God and drift away from His will or any desire to fulfill it. The result will be a pointless life and a worse afterlife.

This second explanation has elements of descriptiveness; those who work at things, be they athletics, academics, trades, skills, etc., will develop them. Those who don’t work at things will see those abilities or skills diminish. But the more profound meaning is prescriptive: work on your relationship with God and it will grow. Ignore it and it will become a mere veneer, a surface relationship that is unsustainable.

Yet a third explanation is ideally suited to the situation described in this passage. There are some who have somehow achieved positions of teaching authority in various churches who have perverted the message of God’s love. They teach us that God is not a loving Father, but an unyielding tyrant who must be served…or else. And they have taken it upon themselves to determine what constitutes good service of God, which usually coincides with good service, and unquestioning fealty, to them. Those who listen to these self-appointed, and self-serving, “agents” of God are filled not with love for God but, instead, with fear of Him. Rather than take chances, question God, even occasionally argue with God in series of faith enhancing and love building encounters, they cower and they fear. They bury their faith in the backyard and tremble before God. They beg and bow and scrape, terrified that God might be angry with them and their utter worthlessness, as taught and reinforced by those whom they have been taught are God’s agents and teachers. Their faith withers, dies, and is replaced by terror. Their fate is not a good one…but it is not nearly as bad as the fate of those who taught them that God is to be feared rather than loved, that God terrorizes rather than loves.

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