It is hard to know what to make of the story Jesus tells—a dishonest manager shrewdly casting his employer’s bread upon the waters, illicitly reducing their debts so as to bind them in obligation to himself.
You can almost imagine the fellow trying to slip past the pearly gates, telling St Peter that he is only visiting friends: go ahead and buzz them, if you don’t believe me. The rascal is honestly praised in the story for his brazen and brilliantly manipulative deception.
It gives the lie to the notion that good people do well in this world. We know that story. We have all heard it, whether we believe it or deny it. Work hard, do the right thing, always be honest, and all will be well with you.
In heaven, maybe. Here, not so much. Here, Balzac’s observation that behind every great fortune is a crime seems closer to the mark.
Neither does Jesus meet our expectations. We always hear about his kindness, his patience, how much Jesus loves us, but in this passage Luke captures another side—the satirical Jesus, ripping into the crowd with his sharp words.
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” It’s tweet-worthy. You can imagine it on social media today, a zinger from @JesusHimself perhaps.
What if we are wrong, and there is no afterlife? What then? Paul wrote to the rowdy bunch in Corinth that if there is no resurrection, if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:19) Is an afterlife the only way to understand Jesus? Without a second life of greater reward, are we fools to live lives of honest work and simple means? Perhaps, if this heaven is a future place, that might be so. On the other hand, we might well note that such an afterlife is the one in the expectations of the audience, not one that Jesus elaborates upon in this passage. After all, Luke is the gospel where Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” (17:21) It is the modern church insisting upon future rewards, not Jesus.
The kingdom of God is within you, he said. Present. While we hope for a life beyond death, something new, something more, we are promised something now. One does not preclude the other. There is no either-or, no choice between a future and a present. We need not wait for that second life to embrace the gospel vision of reward. How will you be trusted with the true riches? Who will give you what is your own? Jesus asks interesting questions. And what is eternity if not the present?
God, of course, gives the true riches, and what is our own is within us. All the riches of the world can be taken away, but that which is within you is eternal.
In the parable of the talents, we hear about three people who are entrusted with wealth. We know the story. It gave the English language the word ‘talent’ as we use it today—a gift or ability that one may use and improve upon, or not.
Two of the servants went off and doubled their money. When their master returned, he was very pleased with their use of what he had given them. The third servant, more conservative, or less bold, or perhaps afraid of his master, buried his money in a hole in the ground. It was safe when the master returned, but the man was not. For failing to use what the master had given him, the master took everything away and threw the man out.
Ok, we get the idea. Use your talents. We might not do it, in real life—we might be distracted, or busy, or afraid—but we really do get it. We understand that gifts are to be used. Not to use a talent is the same as wasting it, and hiding an asset away is no better than squandering it.
If we stop there, fine. We’re good with it. We’ve got a meaning we can apply to our lives. Fine. We can walk away.
There’s a problem, though. For all of us who walk away from this parable with a good grasp of the central point, at the back of our minds there’s a God problem. Sure, the guy who buries his one talent in a hole in the ground could have done better, but he doesn’t squander it, does he? He doesn’t go and spend it all. He keeps it safe, which isn’t nothing, right? And his reward? He loses everything. He is thrown out. With nothing. Not even with the one talent he had kept buried.
And there’s the God problem.
“Lord, I knew you, that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter.” The master in the story does not deny any of it, and if the master in the story represents God, there’s our problem. Matthew seems to be painting a portrait of God as demanding, avaricious and cruel.
It’s not even the only time he does it. Try Matthew 22:1-14, the story of the king and the feast. (Here’s an earlier post on that story: Whims of God.) There Matthew gives us a king who’s vengeful and capricious, and once again the king represents God.
So what do we make of that? Did Matthew have God issues?
It is hard to reconcile Matthew’s images of a demanding, harsh master with the Johannine idea that God is love. (1 John 4:8,16)
Maybe we’re reading too much into it. Literally. The parable of the talents is just that, a parable, a story with a point. It is not an allegory, where each element represents something else, at least not completely.
We still see the figure of the master as telling us something about God. We just don’t like what it says. We especially don’t like it because we suspect that out of the three servants, we are most like the one stuffing his talent into a hole in the ground. We’d prefer a story where the master takes the moldy little coin, wipes it off, and praises the poor fellow for at least keeping it safe.
God does not meet our expectations. Matthew describes a God who acts in unexpected ways, outside our social norms, in ways that we find disturbing.
That was the point. This entire portion of Matthew, starting with Jesus sitting in the Temple to teach, is about upsetting our understanding of God. It’s about undermining any complacency we may have about our notions of God.
If we made up the idea of God, if God were made in our image, then we could be happy with the concept. If God is just an idea that humans created, then we can change God, or even throw God out. Who needs to carry that kind of baggage?
If we didn’t make God up, if God is really God, then we may need to throw out some different baggage. Maybe God does have expectations. Maybe God’s expectations don’t match our own. Maybe we don’t understand as much as we’d like, probably about anything.
So now what?
I think about my grandfather. Like many men of his generation, he had been disappointed by bank failures and limited opportunities. From time to time, he would wrap up some money, or put it in a Mason jar, and bury it for safekeeping. It was prudent. Given what he had seen in his lifetime, it was even wise. If he left the money buried long enough, though, there was the danger that he would forget where he put it. Instead of keeping it safe, he might have lost it for good.
We need to get out our shovels and start digging. How’s that for a Gospel message? If we start growing into the people we can be, we’ll have no cause to worry about God’s expectations of us. Never mind the sweet by and by. Get digging, and the kingdom of heaven is already within us.
Maybe our jars don’t hold as much talent as some others.So what—better a small talent that is used than a great one left buried. Regardless of God’s expectations, we will become better people, and those around us will enjoy richer lives, if we go ahead and use the talents we have, great or small. It is true, and it makes our lives better, whether or not we believe in God—an ironic insight from the Gospel.
And Matthew’s story?
We have encountered an image of God that makes us uneasy, but complacency with God would be dangerous. A God that we made up would always meet our expectations, but that would not be a God worth a second thought. Matthew tells us that the God whom we did not make will not always meet our expectations. This is a God who acts in unanticipated ways, at unexpected moments, unbound by our religious rules.
Buried talents and made up gods are safe. An applied talent and a live God are not safe—either one may turn out in ways we do not anticipate, with results we have not dreamed. Start digging.