Matthew 25:14-30 | 15 November 2020
My father was a professional photographer for most of his career. I can’t count the sheer number of photos, slides, and now digital images that he has. You could almost document our family day by day for the last five decades. I have watched my father take portraits, landscape shots, commercial products (his actual profession), and most everything in between. One thing I learned was that changing the lens changes the image. For instance, a wide-angle lens gives you a greater field of view and lets you see more in the image. A telephoto lens gets minute details and draws you into the image. A fisheye lens gives a warped impression of the image, a surreal projection of the world. In each case, changing the lens changes perspective.
In our parable today from Matthew 25, we see something we have seen many times. I myself have preached about it on numerous occasions and each time with a little different perspective than before. One good thing about continuing to study not only the Bible but the world it was written in, is an ongoing learning process. We can never really know enough. Even if we had many lifetimes to delve into the mysteries, we would still fall woefully short of complete understanding because there would always be something else to understand. Case in point, the passage today.
I have always been taught, understood, and even preached this passage as a passage regarding stewardship and making good use of all we have to offer God. I have talked about offering our finances, our abilities, and everything within ourselves to God as good stewards of what he has given us. It is a parable about being enterprising and investing what you have —literally and figuratively—in such a way as to have a good return on investment. In the commentaries that I read on a weekly basis, most of them regard this as a reasonable interpretation. For that matter, my seminary taught similar interpretations as well reinforcing the spiritual aspects over the financial but still the basic idea was the same.
Except it may not be.
This week I began listening to one book and reading a commentary both of which offer a different perspective, one reaching back to the first century and the world the parable was born into. When we read the bible, most of the time we unconsciously read our culture and values into what we are reading. We see ourselves in the story and understand the words and actions through our personal and cultural lenses from our time and place. Honestly, it would be difficult not to. Most of us haven’t been exposed to any other way of seeing either through our own education on the matter or that of someone else who has learned to use a different lens. Today, I’m going to attempt to hold up a different lens, one to help us see the parable we just read with first century eyes.
The first century world, particularly the world of the Jewish people who lived under Roman rule, held cultural values which would seem foreign to us. For instance, the amounts of money that are being thrown around in the parable are staggering. A talent was the amount a day laborer earned in twenty years. Those most likely listening to the original telling and hearing the retelling of the parable were or had been day laborers, even most of the disciples. Given the average lifespan at the time, a talent was a lifetime’s wage. To give a slave five talents or two talents or even one talent to invest was putting incredible faith in them.
More than that, it was wasteful in Jewish/New Testament culture. In Jesus day, the understanding was there was only so much money that existed, a quantity to be used among all the people in the community. This was a concept known as ‘limited good’. One commentator writes,
In ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but also honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well— literally everything in life. 
Have you ever noticed how Jesus normally does not have great things to say about rich people?
“I assure you that it will be very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” – Matthew 19:23-24
Or the story of the poor widow in Mark 12:43-44
“I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”
Or in the Gospel of Luke
“He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” – Luke 1:53
“But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort.” – Luke 6:24
And of course, there is the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The understanding was those who were rich were actually stealing from those who were poor by getting richer, especially since there was only so much money to be had. With a limited supply of resources, anyone who took more than their share was considered greedy and people who added to their wealth in excessive ways—like the rich man and the first two slaves in this story—were considered amoral if not downright evil.
If we think about that in light of the story, perhaps there is a different message, different intent behind it. Let’s see if we can flip the script so to speak and see this from another angle. If we look at it from a first century Jewish perspective, the rich man trying to get richer is stealing from those who have less. Which, given the staggering amounts he is throwing around (seven lifetimes worth of wages), is beyond ridiculous to offensive. The first two slaves are also stealing from the poor since they used the money to make more money thus, taking more money from the poor. But what about the third slave? Is he part of this evil empire of wealth?
No. He’s actually the good guy. In the Jewish understanding of wealth, burying the talent was not only the prudent but lawful thing according to rabbinic law. “Burying an overlord’s money…that it remained intact was, from the peasant point of view, the honorable thing to do. Indeed, rabbinic law provided that since burying a pledge or deposit was the safest way to care for someone else’s money; if a loss occurred, the one burying the money had no responsibility.” Yet, instead of being honored for doing the right thing, the last slave was stripped of the money he returned and “thrown into the farthest darkness.” The people weeping and gnashing their teeth are not doing so because they are suffering punishment for wrongdoing but because they are suffering for being honorable. In the world leading up to the return of the Messiah (which is what each of the stories in Matthew 25 are talking about), those who do the right thing, the honorable thing, may well be punished for it. The rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and according to Matthew 24, this will be one of the signs of the coming of the Messiah and the end of the age.
I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming. In truth, neither did I. When I started studying this earlier in the week, I was trying to figure out how to take this oft preached text and find some new way to express and old truth. What I didn’t know was the old truth was older than the one I knew and far different from what I had always been taught. But then that is the way of the Christian life, to be surprised by God as we are guided by the Holy Spirit in our journey of salvation. So, what do we take from this surprise? What do we learn from this?
First, we have much to learn about the world Jesus lived in and much to understand if we want to truly see the world as disciples of Jesus. While it is a difficult pursuit, we can endeavor as much as possible to learn to see with new lenses in order to understand the time and place the words of the Bible were written. We also need to consider how they might be understood by those who heard the words first. Second, we can look again at this parable with fresh eyes, eyes borrowed from the ancient world. While we understand wealth as a resource that is not exactly inexhaustible (there is such a thing as inflation and other economic ballasts), we do not live in a world where one person’s wealth causes another person to be poor.
So, what we do about it? I think we have to reevaluate how we look at wealth and what that means. Over and over in the New Testament, Jesus said the first will be last and the last will be first. I think what he means by this is we should not look to be competing with people around us for places of prominence. Where finance is concerned, I think it means we need to consider what we need versus what we want. Consider this story about Rich Mullins, Christian songwriter and worship leader,
Rich Mullins took a vow of poverty in the spirit of St. Francis. He called St. Francis his hero and often referred to him in interviews, concerts and writings. In fact, he co-wrote a musical with his fellow “Kid Brothers of St. Frank” called “Canticle of the Plains.” The vow of poverty not only gave Rich Mullins the freedom to give whatever extra he earned to the poor, but I believe it gave him more of a connection with our incarnate Lord who lived and died in poverty.
According to Rich’s financial manager, he only collected a small salary to live on and beyond that did not want to know how much money he made. One time, Rich asked the manager if he had enough money to donate to some charitable cause and of course there was plenty because Rich Mullins was an extremely successful Christian musician.
It’s not so much the money as the attitude about it: how much do we really need? How much can we use help others? For some it will be a widow’s mite. For others, it will be Zacchaeus’ treasury. In either case, the question is really about relationship to God and to neighbor. Once we know what I need, we ask ourself: how do we honor God with what we give, how do we help neighbor with what we give?
 Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Fortress Press (Minneapolis) © 2003, pp. 400-401
 Malina and Rohrbaugh, pp.384-385