The most devastating thing my parents could say to me, far worse than “I’m angry with you” was “I’m disappointed with you.”   They figured out at some point that children seek the approval of their parents, perhaps even more than they seek their love. It was an effective tactic. Especially with first-born children, who seem to be much more inclined to seek parental approval.  You remembered that feeling.  You didn’t want to make that mistake again.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
November 13, 2011
Judges 4:1-7; Matthew 25:14-30

For me, as for many, that feeling carries over into one’s work life where you want to win the approval of your boss and not disappoint.  I’ve had a number of bosses over my life, some great, some lousy. But I wanted to earn their approval all the same.  The difference between the great and the lousy bosses, by the way, was how much of a clue I’d get as to what it was my boss was looking for in the first place.  The one thing that drove me craziest about the worst bosses was the way their disapproval seemed to come out of nowhere, when I’d do something wrong that I hadn’t been told was an issue.  Or where the parameters of the project had not been clearly defined and I was suddenly held accountable for not having done it the way my boss had intended, somewhere deep in his mind.  With bosses like that, you get to a point where you no longer even hope to win approval, you just try not to screw up.


So, I can sympathize with Slave No. 3 in Jesus’ parable from tonight’s gospel reading.  Put yourself into this scenario and see if you’d have acted differently.

Your boss, who is a tough boss—in the words of the slave “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed”—is going on a journey.  He brings you and three other slaves into the room and entrusts you with a number of talents of money.  Now, it’s important to note here that a talent is anywhere from 15-20 years worth of daily wages.  Putting that in modern terms and using the minimum wage, that’s $217,500 to $290,000.  Slave No. 1 gets $ 1.45 million, Slave No. 2 gets $ 580, 000 and you get $290,000.  You’ve all been entrusted according to your ability to handle money.  So, right off the bat, you know that in your master’s eyes, you have the least ability of your fellows.   Then the master goes away.

Illustration by Kathleen Kimball

Well, those show-offs, Slaves No. 1 and No. 2, go ahead and invest the money and turn a profit.  They double their money as it turns out.  Now, consider this: you’re the least capable of the three, your master is a harsh master, and you don’t want to screw up.  Wouldn’t you bury the money in the ground, too?  Especially in this market?  What—someone gives me $300,000 and I’m going to invest it in the market?   In what?  Tech stocks? Energy futures? Housing? No.  I’m gonna sit on that money, too.  At least that way, I can’t lose any of it.  Sometimes, when you feel you can’t do anything right, the best thing to do is nothing.

When the master comes back, he is really pleased with Slaves No. 1 and No. 2 (those suck ups) but he’s furious with you.  He calls you wicked and lazy.  He yells at you for not even putting the money in the back and earning a lousy 2% APR.  And then he has you thrown out into the “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Now, let’s leave aside for the moment where this “outer darkness” is and if your HR department knows about it.  This is clearly a tough boss.  And this is clearly a tough parable.  Because there is something amiss here.  This reminds us of the parable of the day-laborers, where all the workers are paid the same wage no matter how many hours they worked.  There the parable offends our sense of justice on behalf of the ones who work all day and the master seems a little too socialist, paying everyone the same wage.  In this parable, the master seems just a little too capitalist, damning a slave who doesn’t adequately multiple his capital.

These parables become all the more problematic for us when we realize that in pretty much all of Jesus’ parables the master is usually God.  We’re a little confused with this teaching and not a little disturbed by it, too.


Because we can’t help wondering what the slave does wrong.  His master is a harsh master and he clearly doesn’t have as much ability as the other two.  He ensured that his master got everything he’d been entrusted with.  Didn’t lose a single denarius.  And for this he gets cast out into the “outer darkness.”

We’re not the first ones who’ve wondered about this parable, of course.  Many have looked to interpret what the nature of the talents was and what sin the third slave had committed.

St. Augustine saw the talents as representing salvation and that the slave had sinned by failing to yield any profit from it.  Augustine saw this as found in the relationship between preacher and parishioner: the preacher is the one “putting out” the talents and the congregation is supposed to yield a “profit”, that is, by living well and heeding the advice of the preacher.  That’s a tempting interpretation, to be sure. 1

St. John Chrysostom linked this parable to the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids before it and saw them both as about almsgiving.  He saw the wicked slave as representing those who do not help “our neighbor by all means at our disposal.”  For Chrysostom, a “talent” was any gift that one possessed that could be put to a neighbor’s advantage. [2]

Calvin saw the sin of the wicked slave as representing those who “conceal the gifts of God, and waste their time in idleness.”  That sounds just like the kind of thing a Calvinist would say.  Always about being productive. [3]

One Catholic theologian saw the slave’s sin as representing receiving the grace of God in vain, and responding with “negligence and slothfulness”.

Some modern interpreters saw the wicked servant as the scribes of First Century Judaism who entrusted with the spiritual leadership of the nation and the knowledge of God’s will, had withheld these gifts for their own advantage and in order to stay in power over their fellow people. [4]

Over the years, popular interpretations have arisen that reflect the age in which the interpreter lived.  Earlier in the 20th Century the slave was not industrious enough.  In the 60’s and 70’s the servant lacked ‘self-esteem’.

Some modern Liberation Theologians have seen the sin of the slave as having exposed the power and greed of his oppressor.

It seems in every age, the sin of the Slave No. 3. reflects whatever failing people think is most significant in their day and age.


But there is one detail of this story that often goes overlooked.  When confronted with his inaction, Slave No. 3 says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid…”  As one commentator notes, there is absolutely nothing in the story to confirm this view of the master.  The third slave just says so.  In fact, given the master’s generous response to his other two servants, he isn’t exactly portrayed as one who is a ‘harsh man’.  In fact, if we are to understand the Master as God or Christ (who has departed but will return), then the portrayal of the Master as a harsh man, stealing other people’s property and productivity, does not hold up with our experience of God in Christ .

No, the key to the whole parable is that the slave believes his master to be a harsh, demanding, and possessive master.  In the words of that same commentator, “The message of this parable is that you get the God you go looking for.” [5]

The parable, then, is not really about Slave No. 3 who was afraid of his master, it’s about Slaves No. 1 and No. 2 who trusted in their master’s benevolence.  They felt comfortable taking risks with what their master had given them because they knew their master to be gracious.   When they took that risk, they found that they wound up bearing fruit in ways they might not have ever imagined.


Our God is not a frightful God.  Our God is not a harsh master, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter.  Our God is one who gives us grace freely.  Ours is but to trust in that grace and be willing to take risks.

For, love, when done right, requires risk.  To love is to risk getting hurt.  To reach out is to risk rejection.  To model openness is to risk being taken advantage of.  But without taking those risks, there is no possibility for anything more.  To work for justice is a risky thing: you may find yourself with powerful enemies who seek to preserve the status quo.

We live in a very risk-averse time.  Children play with helmets on.  Lawyers and risk-management types impose rules before there is every any hint of a problem.  We all use way too much hand-sanitizer.  And we hear a lot of talk about security and safety.  I find that last part so interesting, because in City of God, St. Augustine describes the City of Man as a city striving for earthly success, security, and an ordered life.  This stands in contrast to the City of God where citizens live by faith and hope as pilgrims in the world.  That is, in the City of God, the seduction of security, stability, and order is resisted in order to embrace faithful service of others.

It is impossible to live into the Kingdom of God without taking risks.  It is not possible to witness to a vision of a ‘great multitude that no one could count’ without taking risks to love those that the world rejects.  It is not possible to witness to a vision of justice without taking risks to our own status.  It is not possible to witness to a vision of mercy and forgiveness without taking risks to forgive those who have harmed us.

Sowing love is risky, but only it reaps more love.  Sowing grace is also taking a chance, but it alone reaps more grace.  Sowing justice often involves profound risks, but only doing so reaps more justice.

And so, we go out and love someone risky to love.  We advocate for a people risky to defend.  We include people risky to welcome.  Fight for a cause risky to identify ourselves with.  Give to someone risky to share with.  Imagine the possibilities that arise when we rely on the grace of God and risk living out what the Kingdom of God is like.

If we get the God that that we expect to find, then we shall find a God of grace and love who entrusts us with the blessings of the Kingdom and wants us to share in them.  A God who invites into joy those who were willing to risk everything on grace, and in so doing, transform the very world itself.

The Texts

Judges 4:1-7

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”


[1] http://nash.mst.edu.au/index.php/component/docman/doc_download/13-bchenoweth-thesis
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] This observation was made in a sermon preached in the Wesley Seminary Chapel between 1999-2002 by a visiting preacher whose name I have been unable to verify.  In spite of this, I wanted to give credit where credit is due.

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