The courage to be worthless

The parable of the talents challenges us to speak truth to power, whatever the consequences. (Listen.)

The parable of the talents is an incredibly odd little puzzle. Every way we turn it, we find another way of reading it: and so people have been turning it and wrestling with it for millennia. Even so, one interpretation has dominated the church. You probably know how it goes. God gives us talents—money, skills, capabilities—and if we don’t use them to achieve dramatic outcomes, God will throw us away. But this doesn’t sound much like God. So let’s unpick this interpretation, for we might discover a very different reading which is an encouragement to us all.

The parable was first told by Jesus to his disciples: peasants who have just spent three years travelling with him and sharing in his poverty. To peasants, then, he tells a story about an obscenely rich man. The man is so rich that he can entrust one slave with a hundred years’ wages; another with forty years’ wages; and a third with ten years’ wages: ‘to each according to his power.’ Then the rich man goes away.

While he is absent, two of the slaves double their money. As every peasant knows, this means exploitation: for it means lending money to subsistence farmers, then seizing their land when crops fail. In the first century, people didn’t become wealthy without exploiting the poor; just as, in our own age, Monsanto sells terminator seed to farmers then bankrupts them; and the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic were leveraged to make the rich richer and the poor poorer today.

So the first two slaves played the system, but the third opted out. He chose not to exploit the poor. He didn’t even deposit the money with bankers and earn interest, because lending money at interest was illegal for a Jewish person: precisely because it exploited the poor. Instead, this slave took the money and buried it in a field.

When the master finally returned, he praised the two who had exploited others and doubled his wealth. Then he turned to the third. ‘Show me the profit,’ he said; but the slave could not. He was afraid, but he steeled his courage and called his master out. ‘I knew you were a harsh man, who reaps where he does  not sow and gathers where he does not scatter seed,’ he said, ‘so I was afraid and hid your money.’ And then he gave the money back.

At this, the master exploded. He called the slave lazy, wicked and worthless, then cast him into utter darkness, showing through his harshness that the third slave knew him very well.

So, does this master sound like God to you? The God who is infinitely forgiving, endlessly giving, and known for sowing seed with reckless abandon even in the most unpromising soil? Does this sound like the one who says the poor are blessed; the suffering are blessed; and those who are persecuted are blessed? Does this sound like the one who spent his life with the marginalized, rejected and worthless of this world?

No, it does not; and in fact nothing in the parable says that the master is God. Instead, the master is a typical bloated rich man. He’s harsh, vitriolic and vengeful; a member of the one percent who expects his investments to double with no work on his part.

So the master is not God. There is, however, a Christ-figure in this story. This is the person who refuses to exploit the poor; who courageously denounces his master’s rapaciousness; who gives up any claim on power, wealth or security; and, for his pains, suffers rejection and violence. This is, of course, the third slave, and it is into his image that we are called to live: we are called to be like the third slave.

In other words, this story is NOT saying that we are all fabulously blessed, rich and talented, and that we should use these gifts to do something beautiful for God—or else we’ll be thrown away. That is a serious misreading both of the parable and of the character of God.

Instead, this story is telling us that following Jesus and incarnating his presence in this world take a special kind of courage.

It’s the courage of an employee who names their employers’ destructive greed, knowing they will be fired without reference for speaking out.

It’s the courage of a whistle blower who leaks evidence that a government is lying, knowing they will be punished, jailed, or worse, for their efforts.

It’s the courage of a person who works among the vulnerable, trading money, power and social status for a deep and lonely sadness at the suffering of the world.

It’s the courage of a victim-survivor who testifies, risking re-traumatization and rejection as they seek to protect others from a perpetrator.

It’s the courage of a person who calls out a family culture of moneygrubbing, racism, or domestic abuse, knowing it will lead to awkward family Christmases or no family Christmases at all.

It’s the courage of a gay or genderqueer person who names their truth, knowing they might be excommunicated by family or community.

It’s the courage of a teenager who speaks up against prejudicial attitudes, knowing they might well be teased or ostracised.

It’s the courage of a person who goes hard on climate, knowing they will be mocked by neighbours and friends.

And it’s so many other forms of courage.

I look around at this congregation, and I see this courage in spades. It’s the courage to be afraid, and yet to speak out anyway. It’s the courage to be labelled ‘worthless’ and to endure loneliness and rejection. It’s the courage to journey into grief and despair; and it’s the courage to come out the other side and to risk new life and a new community of love.

It’s the courage, in fact, to be just like Jesus. For he tells this story of master and slaves shortly before his own life was declared worthless; shortly before he himself was condemned to death, dragged outside the city gates, tortured, killed and thrown on the trash heap.

He knows what it is to be labelled worthless; he knows what it is to be cast into utter darkness and the abyss of grief and despair. Just as we do. For many of us have been declared worthless by family, friend, or religious authority. Many of us have been despised and rejected by the very people who are supposed to love and protect us. Many of us know deep grief and despair; we know weeping and gnashing of teeth: like Jesus, many of us are people of sorrows.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul wrote: “I want to experience Christ and share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, so that somehow, I’ll get in on the resurrection of the dead. Not that I have it all together, or that I’ve already been made mature, but I press on …” (3:10-12).

And in his first letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote, “God chooses the foolish, the weak, the lowly and the despised according to human standards to proclaim the message and to accomplish God’s will …” (1 Cor. 1:21).

And so, my friends, if you feel like the third slave: if, despite your fear, you have spoken a dangerous truth and have been despised or rejected by family, friend, neighbour or church, then take heart. You are exactly the sort of person God chooses to proclaim the good news and to accomplish God’s will.

So do not deny the darkness, the suffering, the sorrows of this life: but do not stop there. Instead, press on. Keep reaching towards maturity in Christ; keep mustering the courage to enter into the fullness of life and the new community of love. For these are the rewards of the worthless slave: and they are the true rewards. In the name of the rejected one himself, Jesus Christ our Lord: Thanks be to God. Ω

Reflection on Matthew 25:14-30 was given to Sanctuary on 15 November (Year A Proper 28) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Andrey Mironov (2013) (Wikimedia).

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