Matthew 25 Revisited…

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke), despite their rich diversity, share many things in common. Most notable is a distinct shift in theme and emphasis roughly halfway through their narratives. More importantly, and more significantly, is the event that causes this shift in all three gospels, namely, the gathering of Jesus’ closest followers at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asks: “who do you say I AM?” To which Peter—boldly speaking on behalf of the group—declares: “you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God;” or something quite close to that depending on the gospel from which you may be reading. While each gospel contains it own unique outline, all three use this event as a hinge in their stories. The question and confession, then, function as a turning point in Jesus’ ministry.

Up to this point Jesus has been traveling from place to place working many miracles—healing diseases, casting out demons, raising the dead, and so on—these acts of power, these noticeable, miraculous, and electrifying deeds. And he also has been talking a lot about the Kingdom of God through parables, conversations, and other discourses. In fact, his words and deeds are so compelling that the gospel according to Mark notes that people “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”[1] Understandably, all that Jesus has said and done has excited and attracted many people who follow Jesus all around Galilee to see what he’ll do and say next.

Then they reach Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus will ask what his closest followers really think of him, and Peter answers correctly: “You’re the Messiah.” But then, as is often the case with the disciples (and you and I, if we’re honest), they immediately show their ignorance, their myopia, and their lack of true understanding.

At Peter’s confession Jesus suddenly shifts gears, and begins talking about how he will have to journey to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die, and how those who follow him will also suffer and may even die. He also mentions he will rise again, but the disciples either can’t comprehend what he is saying or they don’t hear this part because they are too distracted and dismayed by Jesus’ talk about suffering and dying (and can you really blame them?).

So Peter again speaks up, pulls Jesus aside, and begins to rebuke him. In other words, he tries to set Jesus straight, to tell him to quit all of this nonsense about suffering and dying, and to just keep doing all the miraculous works, the triumphant and exciting acts, because that’s really what the Messiah is supposed to be doing anyway.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I find myself disagreeing with Jesus, I’ve always felt it best to assume that he is right and I’m wrong. It just seems to be a good policy. Yet Peter takes another approach, and voices what the other disciples were likely thinking as well. That’s not what the Messiah is supposed to do, is it? Suffering? Trials? Death? What about all the healings and miracles and teachings? Shouldn’t the Messiah just continue to do all of these things until there are no more sick, or diseased, or demon possessed, or hungry and needy people anymore? If he were truly the Messiah he wouldn’t die, but he would overtake the oppressors of Israel and establish the Davidic monarchy again, wouldn’t he? After all, the Messiah is supposed to bring good news rather than news of death and suffering, right?

The truth is, the disciples and the crowds (just as much as you and I) are attracted to the flashy, the miraculous, the exciting. All of us are enamored with “success” as defined by the predominant culture around us. The disciples and crowds were all excited to follow this man when he was healing people of diseases, raising the dead, casting out demons, teaching with authority, and so on. But start talking about suffering and trials and death and many were ready to jump ship, so to speak.

I imagine you and I, if we are honest, may feel much the same. After all, look at how we all too often talk about how “successful” churches are doing: bigger and newer buildings, larger budgets, increasing numbers of people attending and joining the church, a flashy worship band, a famous pastor, a new building campaign, and so on it goes. Or, look at how we talk about “successful” people: bigger bank accounts, more expensive clothes and fancy cars, houses bigger than we could ever possibly need even if we had 10 children, and on the list could go. All of this we label “success;” and it is, by the standards of our culture at least.

I’m not saying all of these things are necessarily wrong per se, but if this is how we measure success then I cannot help but believe we have gotten way off track as individual and as collective Christ followers. For the reality is that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God—an entirely new way of life that was characterized by concern for the poor, the needy, the outcast, the downcast, and the marginalized—not glorious cathedrals and overflowing bank accounts. He came bringing a new ethic, a new standard of success defined by faithfulness and fidelity to God. And the reality is that this new ethic, this Kingdom of God manner of life, often turned people away.

The truth is, by the prevailing standards of success in his day Jesus was a miserable failure. However, by the standards of faithfulness to God he was the most successful person to ever walk the face of the earth. Therefore, by the prevailing standards of success in our day our churches (and we as individuals) may be the most successful in our city, our state, our region, our denomination, our nation, and our world. However, by standards of faithfulness to God they may be miserable failures. So the better question for us is are we being faithful? Not are we successful—because that carries all the baggage of success as it is defined by the culture around us—but are we faithful?[2] And if we are being faithful, who in the world cares whether others deem us a success?

There is a parable toward the end of Matthew’s gospel that demonstrates what it means to be a miserable failure by all appearances and by the standards of the kingdoms of the world, yet truly be a great success according to the standards of the Kingdom of God. It’s found in chapter 25, verses 14-46.

The story is a familiar one, the so-called “parable of the talents.” I’ve read this passage so many times that I knew, or thought I knew, what the point was. Put simply: we are all given varying amounts of responsibility and gifts by God, and we are to invest them and use accordingly. The truth is, this is almost always how the parable is interpreted, and the only way I had ever heard it presented. That is, until recently. At a conference about a month ago I heard it preached correctly (I believe) for the very first time by a pastor named Amy Butler who serves a church in the Washington D.C. area. She rightly noted the connection between the parable of the talents and Jesus’ statements about the separation of the sheep and goats that immediately follows. When you read these passages as a cohesive whole rather than two disconnected sayings of Jesus, it radically changes how you read this story.[3]

So, the pressing question is what happens when we read these two passages together? What changes? Well, let us explain the parable for those less familiar with the story.

Jesus declares that the Kingdom of heaven is like a man who sets out on a journey, giving one slave five talents, another two, and another one. In short, he gives them each a different amount of money to hold on to while he is away. Now talents are actually a measure of weight, but with some conversion we know that five talents was equivalent to 30,000 denarii and 1 denarii equaled a day’s wages for the common laborer. Moreover, we can be quite sure that this master had even more money than this, because he would not have left even the majority of his wealth in the hands of three common slaves while he was away, much less all of it.

So the point is that this master is already incredibly wealthy, so much so that he is comfortable entrusting roughly 48,000 days wages to his common servants, an amount that would have widened the eyes of everyone in Jesus’ hearing. This master was at the top of society with no worries or concerns. He had more money than he could possibly know what to do with, and he departs for a lengthy vacation, leaving the money with his servants hoping to make a profit from their labor while doing nothing himself.

Upon his return he assesses the situation, rewarding and promoting the first two servants for doubling his money. So now the master has roughly 84,000 days wages, yet when he finds out the final servant only returned his one talent he becomes angry, rebukes and then demotes the slave by taking the talent given to him and giving it to the first servant so he could go make more money. He then sums up his actions with this declaration:

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.

Reading this in the traditional manner, this would mean that God/Jesus is the master whom the third servant reveals is a bit shady: “reaping where he did not sow and harvesting where he did not scatter seed.” In sum, the master is accused of taking what was not rightfully his. You’ll notice the master does not deny this, but accepts the judgment as accurate, telling him that he should have at least gotten some interest on the money since he knew this. He then rebukes the third servant and declares the principle that “the rich will have an abundance and the poor will lose even what meager possessions they have.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds nothing like Jesus who came to show us who God is and what he is like.

So I would submit to you that we have misunderstood the parable under the traditional manner of interpretation, and we need a new way of reading the text that takes into account the story about the separation of the sheep and goats that follows. When we do this, we will find that verse 29 is not an exhortation to use our God-given gifts or lose them—Jesus was clearly talking about money here and not gifts and abilities. Rather, the master’s statement in verse 29 is nothing more than the cultural standard of Jesus’ day and ours writ larger. It is the slogan of the power brokers who will exploit, manipulate, abuse and step upon any and everyone in order to get more. It is the motto of the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the well-to-do, and the mainstream who take from those who have none so that they will have an abundance. In sum, it is precisely the system that Jesus came to expose, it is the way of life that Jesus revolts against by offering another and a better way characterized by humility, service, and self-sacrificial love.

This is why the passage that follows begins with the word “BUT.” But when the Son of Man comes in his glory… Jesus uses the parable to reveal the systems and standards of success in the kingdoms of the world, in order to contrast them with the systems and standards of success in the Kingdom of God.

But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will separate people like a shepherd does with sheep and goats. The sheep are those who cared for the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, marginalized poor—and do not realize that when they did this unto the least of these they had done it unto Jesus. The goats are those who did not care for the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, marginalized poor—and failed to realize that when they did not care for those in need, but instead exploited or ignored them, they were exploiting and ignoring Jesus.

So, who are the righteous servants in the parable of the talents after all? I would submit to you that it is not the first two servants who have been exalted for far too long based on a misreading of Jesus’ parable. Rather, it is actually the third servant, the one who refuses to manipulate the less fortunate in order to make an already wealthy master even wealthier. It is the one who stood up to the powers at be, exposing those who “are harsh, reaping where they did not sow and harvesting where they did not scatter seed”. It is the slave who opposed the systems of oppression, exploitation, and manipulation of his day, which operate by the standard that “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.”

If you feel the need to rebuke me at this point, and tell me how far off I am and how much I have misunderstood Jesus’ parable I imagine you are feeling much the same that Peter felt when Jesus started talking all that seeming non-sense about suffering and dying. I am certainly not comparing myself to Jesus, but simply noting that sometimes you can become so engrained in your culture that the words of Jesus are missed and misinterpreted as a parable about using your gifts and talents instead of a countercultural proclamation that the ways and means of the kingdoms of the world run directly contrary to the Kingdom of God, which is concerned not with helping the rich and powerful obtain an abundance but with lifting up and caring for those who do not have anything.

The radical message of the parable of the talents has been glossed over for far too long, and it would behoove us to be those who live lives that are characterized by Jesus’ radical message of faithfulness to God rather than the comfortable standards of success perpetuated by the culture and society in which we live.

If and when we do that, we may, like the third servant, find ourselves rebuked, tossed out, and condemned. In fact, Jesus told his followers as much: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.[4] And when this happens, as it most certainly will when we choose faithfulness over success, we can at least take comfort that we are in good company, the company of the Messiah the Son of the living God, who was strung up on a tree by the power brokers of his day, but in so doing exposed all of the madness and insanity of the world, and showed us another and a better way of faithfulness rather than success.

Amen and amen.


[1] Mark 1.21

[2] The need to ask the question “are we being faithful?” was presented to me by Joy Yee who pastors Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco, CA. She led a breakout session at the 2009 CBF Current Retreat in Orlando, FL entitled “Success or Failure: How Do We Know Which is Which?” that I had the privilege to attend. I am indebted to her for describing the dichotomy between success and faithfulness (put another way, the need to define success by faithfulness to God) so simply and humbly, yet quite profoundly.

[3] Again, I owe all the credit for my new understanding of this text to Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington D.C. I heard her deliver a message on this text at 2009 CBF Current Retreat, and it has radically changed how I understand the parable of the talents. While I certainly spent some time studying the passage myself to see if I agreed with her reading of the text, I cannot claim any of the credit for coming to this understanding, and will be forever indebted to her scholarship in reforming my reading of Matthew 25.14-46. You can visit the church’s website at: http://www.calvarydc.com/index.html and you can find her sermon on this passage at: http://www.calvarydc.com/Sermons/081116.html

[4] Matthew 5.10

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One response to “Matthew 25 Revisited…

  1. I followed up your religious liberty comments in Ethics Daily, began reading your blog and now my day is in shambles and heart joyful. A limited amount of time/energy but hooked on your comments and insights. I won’t get to some things that must be done today but that’s not unusual. ThanksI

    I have been pastor, campus minister, SBC missionary to Indonesia, and before retiring after 25 years directed Seagrave House, a cooperative ministry for adolecents sponsored by Methodists, Presbyterians and the Orlando Mental Health Association.

    Thanks for sharing names and sources for insights from others you read or hear. You mention being in Orlando recently. I attended the annual conference when it met here several years ago and have friends in the College Park CBF congregation.

    Thanks, again.

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