Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
The Parable of the Extortionist
Have you ever felt like an outcast? What attitude or chain of events caused your feelings?
Think back to your childhood or adolescence. At one point you may have felt ostracized by your peers. They may have wanted more than you could give. Or, they may have rejected you for whom you were and what you could offer them. They may have taunted you mercilessly. Their barbs may have stung deeply. For a while you might have felt that the world stood against you.
Now, from your memory, engage your imagination. Envision God as the bully. Impossible? Then, consider Jesus' parable of the Ten Talents.
Jesus said to his followers:
14 "The Kingdom of God is like this story. As a rich man planned a long journey, he called his employees together and gave them the power to invest his money. 15 He gave each employee the amount of money the rich man thought each one could handle. The rich man gave one employee five bags of money. The man gave another employee two bags of money. The man gave the last employee one bag of money. Then the rich man left. 16 Right away, the employee with five bags went out, invested the money, and doubled it. 17 The man with two bags did the same thing and doubled his money. 18 But, the man with one bag went out and buried the money in the ground. 19 After a long time, the rich man returned and talked to them about the money they invested. 20 The one who invested the five bags of money approached the rich man first. "Here are another five bags of money," he said, as he handed all the money back to the rich man.
21 "Congratulations!" the rich man exclaimed. "Because you did well in this small matter, I will promote you! Let's celebrate together!"
22 The employee who invested two bags of money approached the rich man next. "I doubled your money!" the employee said.
23 "Great!" the rich man shouted. "Because you did well with this small matter, I will promote you, too! Let's celebrate!"
24 The employee who hid the bag he received approached the rich man last. "Sir," the employee said, "I know you're a tough man. You take crops you did not plant and grain you did not process. 25 I was afraid. So, I hid your money in the ground. Here it is."
26 "You lazy man!" the rich man replied. "You knew I took crops I did not plant and grain I did not process. 27 You could have at least put my money in the bank. Then, when I went to withdraw the money, I could have received interest on it." 28 The rich man turned to another employee and said, "Take the money from him and give it to the man with ten bags of money. 29 For, the person who has a lot will get more until it's more than enough. But the person who doesn't have much will have the little he owns taken from him. 30 Now, throw that worthless employee outside into the dark night where people cry and grind their teeth."
Jesus said to his disciples:
14 "For, (the Kingdom of heaven is) like a man, traveling abroad, called his own servants and handed over to them his holdings. 15 And to one, indeed, he handed over five talents. But, to another he handed over two (talents). But, to one he handed over one (talent). (The man gave) to each one according to his ability. And he went abroad. Immediately, 16 having gone out, the one, having taken the five talents, invested the money and earned another five. 17 In the same way, the one with two (talent) earned another two. 18 The one, however, having taken one (talent), having gone out, dug (a hole in) the ground and hid the silver of his master. 19 After much time, however, the master of those servants came and raised the subject with them. 20 And approaching (the master), the one having taken five talents presented the other five, saying, "Look, another five talents I earned." 21 His master said to him, "Well (done), servant, good and trustworthy! Over a few things you were trustworthy. Over many things I will place you. Enter into the joy of your master." 22 Approaching (the master), also, the one with two talents said, "Master, you handed me two talents. Look. I earned another two talents." 23 His master said to him, "Well (done), servant, good and trustworthy! Over a few things you were trustworthy. Over many things I will place you. Enter into the joy of your master." 24 Having come forward, however, the one having received one talent, said, "Master, I knew you are a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow (seed), and gathering where you did not winnow. 25 Being afraid, I, going out, hid your talent in the ground. Look. You have yours (back)." 26 Having answered, however, his master said to him, "Evil servant and lazy (one)! You knew that I harvest what I do not sow, and gather where I do not winnow. It was necessary, then, (that) you threw my silver to those at the tables. And, having gone, I could earn mine with interest. 28 Remove, then, from him the talent and give (it) to the one having ten talents. 29 For, to everyone possessing, will be given (more) and it will overflow. But, to the one not possessing what he has will be removed from him. 30 And, throw the worthless servant into the outmost darkness. There will be crying and gnashing of teeth (in that place)."
25:14 "For, (the Kingdom of God is) like . . . " Literally the phrase is "just as, for, . . . " The two particles are inverted for English use. "(The Kingdom of heaven is) . . . " was added for the context which the Greek assumes.
25:15 ". . . (he gave) . . . " was added for English use. Verse 15 could be translated as one sentence where the Greek assumes the verb "to hand over" of "to give" is the same in every clause.
25:16 ". . . invested the money . . . " is literally ". . . worked in the money . . . "
25:19 ". . . raised the subject . . . " is literally ". . . raised up a word . . . "
25:28-29 The verb "remove" is literally "lift up." The master ordered a guard to lift the money from the man's sachet.
In the last week's parable (Matthew 25:1-30), Jesus compared his followers to an unlikely image: unmarried teenage girls. Imagine the faces of the men in Jesus' audience who heard this parable. Utter amazement and shock. In a society that segregated by gender and that lived in clans ruled by patriarchs, the thought of men being compared to silly young girls seemed outlandish. How dare the Master berate Christian men like that?!
If that image stopped males in their tracks, imagine the power of the image in this week's gospel. The Kingdom was like an extortionist and his three henchmen. The shock must have been unbearable.
Contemporaries of Jesus believed all the wealth of the world was limited and the distribution of riches was preordained. In addition, the economic systems of the ancient world existed for many generations and had grown rigid over time. While someone could quickly amass a fortune, the general populace suspected that person of theft, bribery, or extortion. In a culture wary of change, only the devious and immoral could rise up the economic latter.
When Jesus began the parable, he created additional suspicions. The rich man most likely lived abroad (i.e., he was a foreigner). As he prepared for his journey home, he delegated his underlings to invest his fortune. While the eight silver talents described in 25:15 had a current value of $3 million, such wealth seemed uncountable to the impoverished contemporaries of Jesus. [25:14-16]
The two of the man's employees doubled the money they were given. How could they do this? Since the story assumed the rich man and his employees were non-Jews, they could lend money at exorbitant rates (30% to 50%) and enforce repayment with the threat of prison. If someone could not repay, he was jailed until his family could repay the loan (this was actually a ransom). The populace hated such lenders for their power and their wealth. They drained the poor people, taking an unfair share of a harvest or grain production as repayment. [25:24-25]
(Another explanation made the extortionist and his men tax collectors who could demand any surcharge they wanted. 50% surcharges were common. The tax collector had the power of imprisonment to enforce his levies. The poor hated these collectors as much as lenders.)
What would a cautious, honorable employee do? Bilking money from the poor was immoral. Without government controls or insurance, no investment was truly safe. So the honorable man would bury his master's money. Hidden away far from one's dwelling, no thief could find a man's gold or silver. And, since inflation in the ancient economic order was unimaginable, money maintained constant buying power from generation to generation. Even Jewish rabbis insisted that anyone who buried his master's money was not liable for it, since this was the most prudent course of action. [25:18]
Yet, Jesus belittled the prudent man and praised the extortionist as the image that revealed the Kingdom. Why would Matthew's audience be attracted to this parable? There are three possible answers. First, God worked outside the boundaries of good taste or the moral edicts of the self-righteous. God even used evil for his own ends (witness the crucifixion). Anything, even the greed of evil men, could reveal the Kingdom.
Second, Jesus ministered to the outlaw and the outcast. These people helped to form the original Christian communities. The outlaw and the outcast identified with principles in the parable as their own.
Third, Matthew's audience lived on the fringes of society. Excommunicated by Pharisaical Judaism, the Jewish-Christians of Matthew's community felt persecuted by their Jewish brethren and ignored by the non-Jews. The believers in the evangelist's community only had each other for financial and moral support. To be sure, the early faithful heard the words "Christian" and "sinner" whispered in the same sentence. For, they suffered the same public ridicule as the extortionist and his underlings.
How did Matthew's audience understand the parable? Let us look into Matthew's gospel for clues. Since the master gave his servants wealth, he meant those riches invested, even risked, for increased returns. The only parallel to an increase occurred in Matthew 13:3-9, the parable of the sower and the seed. Jesus interpreted these images in Matthew 13:18-23, where the preacher represented the sower and the Word represented the seed. The increase of the harvest represented the power of the Word in the hearts of people who became Christians.
If we draw a parallel between the two parables, the uncountable riches were the Word and the servants of the master were evangelizing Christians. Since God's Word was dynamic, the results of its use were equally dynamic. Those who preached the Word enjoyed its fruits and the promise of the Master's favor.
The most difficult parallel lay between the foreign master and God. How could anyone envision God as a ruthless extortionist? Yet, early Christians did foresee the coming of the Kingdom in violent terms. The final judgment would come swift and sure. Those who rejected the Lord would be, in turn, rejected. These included "lukewarm" or "fence sitting" followers, Christians in name only. [25:30]
The moral of the parable revealed God's ways. "...the person who has a lot will get more until its more than enough. But the person who doesn't have much will have the little he owns taken from him." [25:29] Like the extortionist, God expected much from his creatures, far more than occasional lip-service. To those who responded with loving service, he would give more, including the very life of his Son. But to those who gave little love, even that small amount would dry up and wither away. Through the eyes of the world, God ruled without mercy. But, through the eyes of his faithful, he ruled with justice and love.
Catechism Theme: He Will Come in Glory: Part II (CCC 673-677)
While we might not realize it, we live in the end times. Ever since Christ ascended to his Father, Christians have waited anxiously for the return of their Lord in glory. For the past 2000 years, the Church has recognized the current moment as a time of favor, yet a time of judgment.
As we discussed last week, the risen Christ is fully present to us, his followers, yet we struggle against evil as they journey to meet the Lord. Sometimes, we might fall to our own self-delusions of holiness, sometimes to the lure of worldly temptation, sometimes to wiles of the Evil One. Ultimately, we will undergo a final trial, a choice between ". . . apparent solution to (our) problems . . . " and the truth. (CCC 675) A pseudo-messianic persona or force the Church calls the "Anti-Christ" will led the battle against us. This persona or force can include cults of personality or ideologies. In the end, the "Anti-Christ" (has and) will challenge God's People. Only God can deliver his faithful from the final test. We cannot save ourselves.
"The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil . . . " (CCC 677)
How have you waited upon the Lord, in spite of the challenges you face? Has your waiting been active? Explain.
God has his ways. Sometimes we feel his blessing. Sometimes we feel his distance. There are even times God may feel like the enemy. We enjoy times of intimacy as graced moments. But we might fail to realize that in times of distance and estrangement God offers us his life.
God demands much from us. Indeed, he demands everything! His edicts may sound unreasonable and may turn others away. Outsiders may view Christianity as extortion.
But, he gave everything in return, the very life of his only Son. For, he is the door to eternal life.
Do you know of someone who is angry at God? Do they believe he is unreasonable or uncaring? How can you minister to that person? Place that person on your and your friends' prayer list this week.