God is not like that!

We met in the park on a dull but warm summer’s morning accompanied by beautiful bird song.

Our began worship with:

We gather this morning in the name of the Creator,

who creates time and space,

galaxies and stars and planets.

In the name of Jesus Christ, born on planet Earth,

and in the name of the Spirit who fills Earth with his presence.

Creator God,

in this time we call “now”

and in this space we call “here”

we worship you.

Make you presence felt among us.

We then read the following parables, which I renamed for a bit of fun!

Matthew 25: The Parable of the Bags of Gold.

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. Here take back what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

 

Luke 19:  The Parable of the Ten Bags of Silver.

12 Jesus told them this story: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten bags of silver. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the silver, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your silver has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your silver has earned five more.’

19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your bag of silver; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his bag of silver away from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

 

The Parable of the Talents (or Bags of Gold) (Matthew 25:14-30) and

The Parable of the Ten Minas (or Ten Bags of Silver) (Luke 19:11-27).

I must have heard these passages preached on at least a dozen times and always from the traditional interpretation,  which appears to promote a master who is hardhearted, ruthless, greedy, avaricious and violent and who treats the third servant/slave very unjustly. It seems to me that the traditional interpretation is used to justify ideas that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings. I want to protest that God is not like that! I am convinced we have been reading the parable “upside down”, or the “round way round”.

Matthew 25:14 in the KJV reads:  “For the Kingdom of Heaven is as a man travelling into a far country……” The KJV translators added “For the Kingdom of Heaven is..”, they are not original, Jesus did not say these words. So these parables are not parables of the Kingdom, but parables about the state of the world.

“There is an old saying in Biblical studies that a text without a context is just a pretext for making it say anything one wants.” Amy-Jill Levine.

“If we get the context wrong, we’ll get Jesus wrong as well.” Amy-Jill Levine.

What would the crowd listening to Jesus have understood by the word Talent?

In a biblical context a “Talent” is coinage with one of the largest monetary values in the ancient world of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.  It is a colossal sum, equal to 6,000 denarii – a day labourer’s wages for about 20 years!  The lowest guesstimate for the current value of a Talent is about £500,000.   (A Minas has a current value of about £60,000).

Here Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point – the amounts are breathtaking and would probably have produced a reaction of utter astonishment from the crowds.

The returns on the investments are huge.  Could they have been achieved by just and legal means?  Or would they have required usury, fraud, exploitation and extortion?  (Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37, Isaiah 5:8, Micah 2:1-2). What would have been the reaction of Jesus’ audience to these returns?

“For those listening to Jesus as he gave the parable(s), such returns on investment would have been deplored because it could only have occurred through the most predatory of means: extortion, fraud, tax-collecting, and lending money at illegal rates of interest”.  Chad Myers & Eric Debode.

“Large landowners often made loans to peasant farmers based on speculations of future crops. With high interest rates and vulnerability to poor crops and lean years, peasant farmers were unable to make their payments, and faced foreclosure. After gaining control of the land, the new owner could continue to make a killing by hiring the landless peasants as day labourers to farm his cash crops.” Chad Myers & Eric Debode.

“Whereas a modern, Western audience would applaud the first two slaves for trading and investing well, an ancient audience would have approved of the third slave’s behaviour and condemned that of the first two slaves because they profited at the expense of others.

In ancient Mediterranean cultures, seeking “more” was considered morally wrong. Because the pie was “limited” and already all distributed, anyone getting “more” meant someone else got less. Thus honourable people did not try to get more than was fair, and those who did were automatically considered thieves: To have gained, to have accumulated more than one started with, is to have taken the share of someone else. The scenario played out in the Talents’ parable of a master leaving his property in control of his slaves – was not uncommon. In the ancient world, greedy people who did not want to get accused of profiting at someone else’s expense, which was considered shameful, would delegate their business to slaves, who were held to a different standard. Shameful, even greedy, behaviour could be condoned in slaves because slaves had no honour nor any expectation of it.

Accordingly, in the Talents’ parable, the master leaves his money with his slaves in the hope that they will exploit the system and increase his riches. The first two slaves do just this, but the third honourably refrains from taking anything that belongs to the share of another.

This slave also does not invest his money at the bank, through which he would have earned interest. The master further reprimands the slave for not doing this, seeking interest from another Israelite was forbidden by the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:19–20), and, elsewhere in Luke, Jesus says that we should lend ‘expecting nothing in return’ (Luke 6:35).

Should then the actions of the third slave be condemned or lauded? Reading the Talents/Minas parables with ancient eyes suggests that the third slave is the only one who behaved honourably.”  Richard Rohrbaugh.

In the version presented in Luke we have a harsh and violent nobleman who travels to a distant land to be made king [presumably by the emperor], but whose citizens also send a delegation to ask that he not be made king because of his cruelty. Is this a reference to Herod Archelaus who was appointed king by Augustus, but was removed by Augustus in 6AD because of his cruelty and brutality.

What is the ruler like? How can he possibly represent Jesus or God?

“Why are we so keen to equate the rich man with God? What does it say about our theology if we assume that a rich, greedy, violent and tyrannical figure must represent God?”  Symon Hill.

At the “accounting” does the third slave “speak truth to power”? Is he a “whistle-blower” who exposes the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the exploitation of others? By burying the money could he have been taking it out of circulation so that it could not be used to dispossess more peasant families?  (see Isaiah 5:8).

I love the slave’s comment at the end of verse 25 in the Parable of the Talents. Some translations read: “Here, take back what is yours!”  It is interesting that the master does not refute the slave’s analysis of his world, nor does he refute the slave’s description of him as being hardhearted, greedy, and ruthless.

“The third slave names what he is asked to do as exploitation and will not participate in it. He is a whistle-blower on greed, corruption and exploitation against the abuse of power over the powerless – the poor. And like most, if not all whistle-blowers, having spoken the truth is totally vulnerable. Vilified. Shamed. Humiliated.”  Barbara Reid.

Verse 30 in the Talents’ parable is usually interpreted as the slave being banished to hell.  Is that the correct interpretation of the verse?  Or could it mean banished to hell on earth – dispossessed, and thrown out on the streets – homeless and destitute?

What is your reaction to the third slave? Could he be the hero of the parable by not taking part in the master’s world of usury and greed? Could it be that he doesn’t invest the money because that would involve him in usury?

“Interestingly enough, Jesus seems to be saying it is when we have the courage to name exploitation for what it is, rather than to seek the reward, we are re-imagining the world, as is the realm of God imagined.  Hearing the story this way can make the powerful angry and defensive, and the powerless empowered!” Barbara Reid.

How could verses 28 and 29 in the Talents’ parable possibly be anything to do with the Kingdom of God?  Aren’t they a description of the way the world works, both then and now?

Amy-Jill Levine says we have “domesticated” the parables of Jesus. Is that in order to make them palatable to the rich and powerful?

Do you think the master could represent a ruthless rich and powerful landowner, collaborating with the Roman occupation?

Isn’t it interesting that Matthew places the story of the Sheep & the Goats immediately after the “Talents”, and Luke places the meeting of Jesus with Zacchaeus immediately before the “Ten Minas”?

“Justice was at the centre of Jesus’ spirituality And he did this by inviting people to re-imagine the world to regain control over their lives and their livelihoods.  It is a conceit of conservative Western middle-class Christianity and politics “that Jesus… limited himself to spiritual matters”. Barbara Reid.

“So what if we are instead supposed to read this story as a negative contrast with the kingdom of God? What if the ruler is actually cast in opposition to the values of Christ’s kingdom? In this reading the “hero” is the “lazy” servant who refused to take part in an unjust system – who dared to defy the evil king by refusing to break God’s law. Perhaps this is why in Matthew’s gospel he follows up his version of the story with Christ’s parable of the sheep and the goats and his command to take care of the “least of these” (i.e. the hungry, the poor, the sick, and the oppressed). At any rate, it is a whole new way of looking at this passage and yet one that seems to deeply resonate with a gospel of love and justice.” Mike Clawson.

Isn’t this a cautionary tale about the world and not a parable of the Kingdom?

Do you think an alternative understanding of the parable makes more sense in the light of the whole message and life of Jesus?  Doesn’t it also fit in better with the “call for justice” found throughout the Old Testament and in the synoptic gospels?

“These parables are surely a warning to the rich to stop exploiting the poor and to encourage poor people to take measures that expose such greed for the sin that it is”.  Barbara Reid.

“Understanding Jesus as a person involved in conflict with other movements of his day leads to a picture of him as deeply concerned  to transform the historical existence of his people so that it embodied the compassion of God, a passionate concern grounded in his own experience of God as the embracing Compassionate One.”  Marcus Borg.

“Christians find a basis for justice-making in their understanding of God: To know God is to do justice.” (see Jeremiah 22:16) Dorothy Yoder Nyce.

After a time of prayer – remembering those in need before God, we shared bread and wine using the following liturgy:

It would not have been God’s table.

On their own the bread and wine are nothing.

To become a foretaste and a promise of love made real,

of the Kingdom in its fullness and the world made whole,

they need a story and a people who believe…..

It would not have been God’s table if they hadn’t all been gathered around it:

the traitor and the denier,

the betrayer and the friend,

the fickle and the faithful,

the power-hungry and the justice seeker.

When Jesus poured the wine and broke the bread:

when everyone could eat –

the outcast and the beloved,

the arrogant and the gracious,

the wrong doer and the wronged –

the table became a foretaste of love made real,

of the Kingdom in its fullness and the world made whole.

And the promise is that when we are together,

when we tell the story, when we break the bread and pour the wine,

we will discover a foretaste of love made real,

of the Kingdom in its fullness and the world made whole!

Cheryl Lawrie.

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