The Parable of the Three Servants


It is convenient that the unit of money used in this parable gets transliterated as “talent.” So we don’t have to talk about money; we can just talk about our talents and how we should use them and not bury them—because surely we all want to enter into the joy of our master—God.

Of course, it’s hard to maintain this allegory when we get to that troubling part at the end where the master says, “To whoever already has more will be given and to those who do not have, even what they do have will be taken away.” Also the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

We get stuck in this story. But the rural peasants that worked with Ernesto Calderon in Nicaragua immediately recognized this as a story of exploitation. This master is not God, he is a wealthy elite—therefore an oppressor–and the first two slaves are his henchmen.

If we take a step back from the hyper-capitalism of our culture, we can see that they are right. I mean really, how does one earn 100% interest? If our church treasurer announced that our investments had doubled this year, we should have a lot of questions. Like which horses did we bet on? Or what kind of drugs are we selling? Or how old are the children working the off-shore factory? Because there is really no secure and ethical way to make that kind of a profit.

Likewise in the first century. The peasants listening to Jesus knew how those first two servants made such impressive returns. They loaned money to subsistence farmers at exorbitant interest rates. This practice was the mechanism that made the rich richer and the poor poorer.

This type of economic exploitation assured that those who already had a lot would get more and those who had next to nothing would loose even what they had—to the point of having to sell themselves and their family members into slavery.

These first two slaves can only be seen in a positive light if we view the master as good—a stand-in for God. That is, of course, the conclusion we jump to, but all we really know about this master is that he reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he has not scattered seed. The third slave accuses him of this, and he doesn’t deny it.

To a good capitalist, this description can be read as a commendation. He is efficient, industrious, a good businessman. But to rural peasants, he is just a thief. He is taking the crops that they have planted and tended. He is selling those crops to buy unnecessary luxury items for himself while the ones who grow the food live on the brink of starvation.

In reality, it is the third slave who is to be commended. We know this slave had been a trusted member of the master’s household because the master gives him a talent—estimated by some to be the equivalent of fifteen year’s wages. But this time, for some reason, the slave decided not to participate in the oppressive economic system that had supported him all these years.

I wonder why. I wonder why, this time, he followed Jewish teaching and buried the money rather than doing what he knew was expected of him. I wonder why, this time, he chose to stand up to the oppressive master?

We don’t know because that’s not part of the story. We only know the consequence of his action. He was thrown into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. He is completely cut off from his community and from any means of supporting himself. He is, essentially, given a death sentence.

While we Westerners fumble about with our discussions of talents and responsibility, our Christian brothers and sisters living as subsistence farmers in Nicaragua and other parts of the world know that Jesus is simply talking about harsh economic reality. He’s talking about the judgments of this world. About how strong the pressure is to live out the values of the wealthy and powerful, even when those values are counter to the ways of peace and justice demanded by God. And Jesus is talking about the consequences of not living up to those worldly expectations.

It’s not a pleasant story. And it’s no wonder we like to read it as if it is about singing in church instead of about money and power.

When we look at it from the perspective of the peasants, we have to wonder why Jesus even told this parable. How is this possibly good news? To find the good news, we have to keep reading. And preferably in Greek, because the English translations leave out the word “but” in verse 31.

The earthly master throws out the justice-conscious slave, but “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

And we know this part, right. We like this part. Jesus welcomes into God’s kingdom all those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, welcomed the stranger. When the Son of Man judges people, it is the third servant who will be welcomed by God and will receive his inheritance—greater riches than those taken from him by his earthly master. While the master and his henchmen will be cast out of God’s presence.

Taken together, these stories contrast the judgment of God with the judgment of the world. I realize that judgment doesn’t sound like good news. The judgment of the master surely isn’t. But, says Jesus, the judgment of God is not like the judgments of the world. God’s judgment is not based on a dollar figure or a ranking of your effectiveness and productivity.

The judgments of God are based on relationships. Did you feed me? Did you visit me? When you finally figured it out, did you refuse to participate in the exploitation of the poor? God’s judgment is about the condition of our relationship to others in the world.

This is good news for our immortal souls. And this is good news for our earthly life.

By looking further in the biblical text, we see the good news of God’s judgment. If we look further in the parable itself, maybe we will see more good news–another ending. The third slave is thrown into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth; at least that’s what the master imagines. But maybe the master is wrong.

Maybe that third slave has fed farmers who were hungry and provided clothes for those who needed them and visited them when they were sick. And so maybe, when the third slave is cast out into the darkness, there are people waiting with lamps lit to welcome him into their homes. Maybe instead of weeping and gnashing of teeth there is singing and food and laughter that the master, with all his wealth, will never know.

This post is adapted from a sermon preached October 28, 2007, at Peace Mennonite Church, Lawrence, KS.

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