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This Week's Sermon !

November 9 -- 2014 -

1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Psalm 123
Matthew 25: 14-30

Thieves and Gnashing Teeth

Sometimes you read a story and think, “Something must be wrong here”! Occasionally there is a genuine misprint or typo and when you find out what was intended by the author all problems disappear. This was a week of Remembrance Day events and Remembrance Day tweets. Earlier this week a colleague tweeted that 2014 was the hundredth anniversary of the end of WW1. I responded with the word ‘beginning”, and he replied with, “I knew that but typed the wrong thing!” Sometimes, one word makes all the difference!

Today’s Gospel passage seems all wrong. When Jesus told this story, the hearers would know, by the way it was structured that the third servant was supposed to be the hero, and be rewarded, but this story blows those assumptions out of the water! Landing in the outer darkness, is certainly no reward. There is precious little joy out there!

Jesus’ original hearers might well have gone home wondering what Jesus meant by that tale.

What is it about?

A lot of people get hung up on the word “talent”. Its too bad the currency in Palestine was called a talent, and, in English, we call abilities and gifts talents. It can be confusing and misleading. The amounts given to the slaves were absolutely enormous, indeed, ginormous! (If that is even a real word)! Apparently five talents would equal 100 years wages for a day labourer!

The message of this passage could be, “use your gifts, or your resources, and make them grow”, or else!

That is where the problem lies for me. At first glance it was the “or else” part I had problems with but as I delved into it, I began to have problems with the whole thing.


Last week we talked about preparing. Perhaps, this week is geting more specific about what kind of preparations need to be made.

I have a good friend who has an extreme dislike for this passage. I called her earlier in the week and told her that I was preaching on her “fav-or-ite” passage and I intended that she would be able to tell from my intonation that I meant the opposite of what I had said. Without any further explanation she said, “It must be ..... or ...... and she was right! She reminded me that she has had problems with these passages since she was a teenager and that she frustrated her minister by asking him difficult questions he did not want to answer!

One of her problems is: “When someone has little to start with and little ability how are we expect the impossible from them and then condemn them for failure?” Once again my friend and I had an extensive conversation about this passage.

As we approach this story there are a few things we should know; things which everyone in the audience would assume.

One is the concept of honour in a highly class conscious culture. .

Occasionally the news carries the story of a murder which, when investigated, turns out to be what is called an “honour killing”. A family member, or number of family members, are killed to preserve the family honour. You may remember such a case in Ontario about five years ago where four members of the same family were murdered for bringing dishonour to the family. Adultery, having premarital relations, having a mind of your own, and not agreeing to an arranged marriage seem to be common reason for such killings in many cultures. .

People of wealth ans status were careful to protect the family honour but could have their slaves or servants to their bidding without bringing shame to the family. Lower class people apparently had no honour and did not have to worry about the family name.

In the Palestine of Jesus day, apparently an honourable man did not become involved in such dirty activities as currency exchange, lending at interest and expropriation of property when farmers could not pay the exorbitant interest rates that were charged, but they had no problem being the beneficiaries of such activities! They assigned these tasks to their servants, who were lower class and, as I said, had no honour to begin with.

The temple was firmly enmeshed in this system or profit from trading and currency exchange.. You will all remember Jesus casting the moneychangers out of the temple as he overturned their tables. The rich people, and some of them were priests, made a great deal of money out of the selling of approved sacrifices and exchanging Roman coins for ones that could be used in the temple. I suspect it was their servants who sat at the tables and handled the business but it was the elites who profited.

In this passage the land-owner, well off and able to travel, assigned to his servants large amounts of money to handle for him. The first two, very skilled, servants traded and did what was necessary to double the master’s money. Assuming a relatively short absence, the interest rate or profit margin, would have to have been very high, to have doubled the original investment. The third, less skilled, was unwilling to take these kinds of risks. Was he afraid of losing his master’s money. He tells the master, right to his face that he is afraid of him because he is ruthless in his dealings - and profits from the work of others. While it was indeed true that most well off people did not work, making all their money from the labour of others, few lower class people would dare voice this out loud in their presence.

There are a couple of popular shows on TV that are about small entrepreneurs trying to get money from people with money in order to expand their business and “take it to the next level” - Shark Tank and Dragons Den are the two I can think of; there may be more. Just think about those names for a minute. Think of danger and power and being in a confined space with this danger. The who le atmosphere of the show emphasizes this as well.

One of the Dragons, or is he a Shark, or both, “all I care about is making MONEY”. He wont invest in anything other than something which has the best chance of delivering a profit! In exchange for money these entrepreneurs give up a percentage of their profits and full control of their business.

A great deal of the profit in the time of Jesus was made by wealthy people off the backs of the poor; there was no middle class. Working people worked long hours, barely got by and were steps away from starvation. Interest rates were so high they seemed designed to facilitate the transfer of wealth to the elites and that was probably true. People of means worked every angle possible not to have to share with the poor any more than a meagre wage. Widows and orphans were particularly destitute.

As I was writing this sermon I realized that, in the past 50 years or so, the world has become more and more like it was back in Jesus day - where it is alleged the 1% profit off of the work of the 99% and think that is the way it has to be.

Prince Edward Island was carved up in to lots and given to wealthy friends of the crown with the stipulation that it be settled. That sounded good to the crown and to the absentee landlords but the farmers who settled and worked the land, in most cases, had little hope of owning their own farms, after having done all the work. One of the terms of Confederation in 1873 was the buyout of the last of the absentee landlords and the transfer of the land to the farmers who had been there for generations. There is something in the soul of a farmer that requires that they hold title to the land they farm.

As I was reading various resources to try and get a handle on this passage and satisfy my difficulty with the idea that Jesus would agree with this kind of thinking, I came across a resource that proposed an alternative view. This view led me in new directions, directions which spoke to the disquiet this passage caused in me.

Maybe this third slave was just plain unwilling to take part in this kind of exploitation. Because he had to return this money to the master, he buried it, which was, apparently an honourable thing to do, if he had been rich. If he had put it in a bank it would have been safe from theft but he would have been handing the money to someone else to do with it what he had been unwilling to do. He was going against the wishes of his master and refusing to exploit his neighbours. He was exercising a freedom he did not really have.

Perhaps that was the only way he could live with himself.

The master in today’s passage would suit those who believe the rich SHOULD get richer and the poor are to blame for their own lack of ability, lack of education, lack of a leg up, and thus doomed to poverty.

What if the people listening had to make up their own minds - chose the joy of a cruel master or chose the right and choose the outer darkness. Hummmmm.

As a people of faith the issue for us is: how do we live in a world where the expectation seems to be profit at all costs and to heck with fair labour practices, the environment and plain human decency.

What do we think? Where do we want to be?


1995- 2014 The Rev. Beth W. Johnston.

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