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Parables depict a world that seems upside-down. They are meant to startle us awake like a Zen koan that points to truth beyond our ordinary, logical thought processes. There can be a cutting edge that severs the knots of our preconceptions. If we are looking for the kingdom of heaven to be a haven only, then Jesus upends that notion. Yet I believe this is done out of love. Last week’s and this week’s difficult parables are placed immediately before all the events that take place in Matthew 26: the conspiracy to arrest Jesus and kill him, Jesus’ anointing with perfumed oil, Judas’ plan of betrayal, the Last Supper, and finally all that takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So, is this parable meant to be Jesus’ investment advice? Many chapters earlier in Matthew Jesus tells us not to worry about our lives, what we will eat or wear. The birds are fed directly by God; they do not plant or harvest the grain. He points to the lilies in the fields, saying, “…Even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Jesus reassures his listeners of their intrinsic value to God. What they are to do is to seek God’s kingdom first; then everything they need will be added. This is the same Jesus who speaks to us today.

At the beginning of today’s parable, we hear that the master entrusts his property to his gathered slaves. The Greek means to “hand over.” Each slave is given an amount according to the slave’s ability. We do not know if this is wisdom on the master’s part: not giving the slaves a task that is beyond them, or simply practical discernment. We do not learn what the master’s expectations are. The master goes away for a long time. When the master returns, he asks for an accounting. The first two slaves both manage to double what they have been given. The master praises them as being trustworthy. They will both be put in charge of many things. It is not clear what that will entail specifically; however, the master promises them joy. The Greek word for “joy” used here has the sense of the kind of joy experienced in God’s presence, or when one receives grace.

What is it that the slave with the one talent do that was so reprehensible? Is it simply that he did not offer the master any return on his investment? What struck me is that this slave hid the talent. He digs a hole and buries it! The slave tries to justify his actions–thus digging himself into a deeper hole—by protesting that the master is known to be a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter. He produces the one talent he has hidden in the ground, and hands it back to the master. We only have the slave’s words to tells us the master was harsh in his dealings. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. It doesn’t seem to tally with the master’s promise of joy, with his apparent trust in the slaves. The scattering and planting of seeds shows up so many times in Jesus’ teaching that their appearance here doesn’t seem accidental. I think a glimmer of God’s abundant grace has crept into the parable.

The talent is taken from this fearful slave and given to the slave who has ten. This judgement is then pronounced: “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.” Matthew 25:29) This seems profoundly unfair, doesn’t it? Yet I think I have experienced the truth of these words.

More than twenty years ago I found myself deeply in debt. Simply making the monthly payments with interest gradually leached away what I did have. Routine repairs to my car or household appliances became major emergencies that had to be paid for with plastic. Denial is powerful, yet useful. It can keep us going until that still small voice can be heard: “Fear not. Stop. Digging.” I kept getting little nudges: a story on NPR about Debtors Anonymous, a reference in a magazine to a book called How to Gt Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously—that, thankfully, turned out to be a cheap paperback. It took a few years to pay off what I owed. Yet I realize now that the moment when I was lifted out of that fearful hole was in that quiet moment when I finally sat down and admitted to God and to myself that I was powerless over money.

What was then restored to me really had nothing to do with money.  One of the most valuable gifts I received  from “letting go, and letting God” was a renewed ability to pray. I had not realized how much inner noise my anxiety about money was creating. Gently and surely, God reoriented my life. When I heard God’s footsteps in the Garden, as once Adam and Eve did, and his voice saying, “Where are you?”, I stayed to listen. I could begin to hear—and trust—the “still, small voice.” I could embrace the sweetness of Jesus’ words: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)

It is easy to think of the third slave as pathetic in comparison to the other two who seemed to have so much already, and then were given more. I can hear my inner 8-year-old saying, “But it’s just not fair!” Yet in Jesus’ time even one talent was of enormous worth. I learned that if Jesus is referring here to the talent-weight of silver, one talent would be approximately $300,000; if gold, upwards to $3 million in today’s exchange. In God’s economy, God isn’t fair. God’s love for Creation is more comprehensive than that. “…[God] makes [the] sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” All living creatures need light and water to live. In the parable of the vineyard, the workers who show up at the end of the day receive the same wages as those who arrive early. (Matthew 20:1-16) What’s important is showing up to the kingdom.

Last week we heard that the foolish bridesmaids would be shut out in the cold. This week we hear that the slave who buried what he had been given was to be thrown into the outer darkness. Yet isn’t he already there? Jesus came into this world to heal those who find themselves on the wrong side of the door, to lift up those who have fallen into a dark hole.

After Adam and Eve eat the fruit giving them knowledge of good and evil, they clothe themselves with fig leaves. They hear God walking in the garden; they are afraid and hide themselves. God calls out to them: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8-10) In the garden, Adam and Eve have been given everything they need. Yet when they hide themselves, they have cut themselves off from their source, their Creator. Or so they believe. It is this fear that I believe Jesus came into the world to overcome. We do not know what has engendered such fearful behavior on the part of the third slave. Is he merely intimidated by the master, or were there other circumstances in his life that caused him close in on himself, to hide what he had been given? It is hard not to feel compassion for someone so trapped.

I attended a quiet day on Holy Saturday one year. The person facilitating had brought an icon known traditionally as the “Harrowing of Hell.” Holy Saturday is a mysterious day. Jesus has been entombed; the tomb is sealed and guarded. We don’t see him again until after the resurrection. Yet, even though the world has seemingly come to a standstill,  Jesus is still at work. In the icon Jesus is depicted going through the gates of hell, and leading Adam and Eve out. Jesus can lead us out, too. There may be a difficult journey ahead. Yet in the words of Zechariah’s beautiful prophecy: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79) What are we to do in the meantime? Stay awake. Don’t hide.