When we read the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) through the lens of race, privilege, and wealth in America, we see a different perspective. It’s a reading that upends a pyramid scheme and calls for non-compliance with an extractive, racist economy.
Eddie, Freddy, and Jevonne were summoned to the boss’s plush office. They knew the boss was leaving for an international business venture for several months. They each sat perched on the soft leather chairs evenly spaced in front of the giant mahogany desk.
The boss surveyed his proteges.
Eddie was shrewd and cunning. He had proved his ability with several shady real estate schemes and was slicker than oil on a snake’s back. The boss knew he could count on Eddie to do everything in his power to increase his wealth. So he gave him $5 million.
Freddy was a newcomer, so he hadn’t had time to really demonstrate his skill with ponzi schemes. But he showed potential. So the boss gave him $2 million.
Then there was Jevonne.
Jevonne underperformed, to say the least. The boss had plucked him out of the ‘hood and taught him all his best tricks for gaining the trust of the Aunties, Madeas, and Grammas, convincing them to give him their money to invest it for them. And then skipping town with their hard-earned cash. He showed promise. But lately, Jevonne seemed conflicted. He was not bringing in the money the way he should. So the boss gave him just $1 million.
No sooner had the boss’s private jet left the runway, Eddie and Freddy were off and running. They wheeled and dealed. They schemed and scandalled. And it was not long before they had graffed, grifted, and grabbed the money of every sucker they could. Their off-shore accounts growing steadily.
Meanwhile, Jevonne took his million dollars and put it in a safe deposit box at the bank.
He just couldn’t do it anymore. He couldn’t play these games with people’s money, with their trust. And he couldn’t betray his people. Eddie and Freddy laughed at him, called him “soft.” “The boss is going to skin you alive,” they warned him. But Jevonne would rather risk the wrath of the boss than to put one more widow in foreclosure.
Six months later, Eddie, Freddy, and Jevonne found themselves back in the boss’s office. The boss flipped open his laptop to view the accounts of all three of his proteges. “Boss,” said Eddie, “you gave me $5 million. Check it out – I doubled it! You now have $10 million!”
“I doubled your money, too!” said Freddy. “You gave me $2 million. Look – I cleared a cool $4 million just last week.”
A slow grinned grew across the boss’s face.
He pushed a button on his desk and a door behind them swung wide. The smell of steak, shrimp scampi, and warm bread wafted into the room. “Boys,” he growled, “you have done well. Go take a seat in my private dining room. Eddie – you first.”
Then the boss looked at Jevonne’s account. Empty! His brow furrowed. “Why you no-good double-crossing . . .”
“Wait,” said Jevonne. He pulled a brief case from under his chair, set it on the desk, and clicked it open. There in the case were neatly stacked bundles of $100 bills.
“I can’t do this anymore, Boss.”
“I’m not doing your dirty work for you and cheating my people. I’m done with this racket you got going here. Here’s the money you gave me. No more, no less. Take what’s yours.”
Nostrils flaring like a bull ready to charge, the boss narrowed his eyes at Jevonne. “You worthless dog! You came from nothing and I gave you everything! I set you up to have it all. But you are worthless. I should have known not to waste my time on your kind. You’re done! I want every piece of clothing on your body (except your underwear). Drop it right here. Because it’s all mine, and you will leave here with nothing. You understand? Nothing!”
When we hear the parable that way, it makes you wonder if we should really use this text for a stewardship sermon, doesn’t it?
I know, I know, we’re used to hearing the Parable of the Talents used to encourage people to use their “talents” for God. And, yes, there is an eschatological quality to the parable in keeping with the Ten Bridesmaids story that comes before and the Sheep and the Goats that comes after. This could be Matthew’s way of urging the church to do good works in preparation for Christ’s return.
But if we follow this logic all the way down, we arrive at some troubling conclusions. Like, if you don’t use your talents or money for God, it’s the outer darkness for you! (Which is the message of the Prosperity Theology heresy we definitely want to avoid.) Even worse, if we go with this reading, God is depicted here as a harsh task master, stealing or at least muscling out of others what he wants (reaps where he does not sow, gathering where he does not scatter).
So we have to ask: Is the master analogous with God?
Or are we looking for God in all the wrong places?
A little background might be helpful here. You see, the way people doubled their wealth in the ancient world was to engage in predatory lending, making loans to people who put up their land as collateral and then seizing the assets when they couldn’t pay.
Here’s what my colleague Wilson Dickinson says about this parable: “Rather than praising the machinations of wealth accumulation, the parable serves to peel back the glamor of the rich and famous to show their malice” (T. Wilson Dickinson, The Green Good News: Christ’s Path to Sustainable and Joyful Life, Cascade, 2019, 97-8).
Further, he says, “While the parable asks us to compare this situation of the slavemaster to the kingdom of God, this comparison is not one of similarity, but of profound difference. These little stories serve to point toward structures of power that organize the material world of their hearers and shape their hearts” (98).
If this is the case, then the Parable of the Talents is not prescriptive but descriptive.
“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” (v. 29). Let’s tell the truth. This is the current reality of the capitalist, extractive economy.
Maybe this parable is not saying, “You’ll be rewarded for assenting to and taking advantage of a system that is built by economic privilege.” Maybe instead it is telling us what happens when Jesus’s followers refuse to participate in this system, but rather step back and step away.
Perhaps Jesus is warning his disciples. These are the consequences for defying the system. Be aware that this is what will happen when you engage in subversive non-compliance with a harsh, predatory system of privilege.
And if we read the Parable of the Talents through the lens of race, privilege, and wealth in America, we see an even clearer unveiling.
The white colonial extractive economy is exemplified by the master and Servants 1 & 2. Wealth is conferred on those in the majority with the expectation that they will use any means necessary to increase their wealth. And just like Servant 3, the BIPOC community receives the dregs right from the beginning because they are designated as having “less ability.”
In this parable, Jevonne never stole anything. He simply gives back to the harsh, unscrupulous master only what was given – no less, no more. For this he is called “wicked, lazy, and worthless” – labels often applied to BIPOC.
So we have to ask ourselves some questions.
How might we hear this parable from the perspective of Servant 3? What might he tell us about the master? What was it like to watch a wealthy man “reap where he did not sow and gather where he did not plant seed”?
How did it feel to be given less than the other two servants? To be judged as having less ability?
What was it like for Servant 3 to watch the others swindle, cheat, lie, and take advantage of others for “a long time” (v. 19)?
He faced a moral dilemma: assent to a pyramid scheme? Or practice subversive non-compliance by burying the talent in the ground and giving it back to the master – like the dirty money it was in the first place?
I want to suggest that we find the Christ-figure in the Parable of the Talents not in the boss behind the mahogany desk, but in Jevonne.
Through the voice of Servant 3, “Jesus names the cruelty of this order and shows how it can be unveiled by marginal figures who resist or whistle blow,” says Wilson (98).
Is not Jesus rejected by the imperialist, predatory system that he tried to subvert by giving out free bread to thousands of people? By overturning the moneychangers’ tables? Is Jesus not thrown into the outer darkness of Calvary for challenging an extractive economy?
The parable reveals “the ways of Empire that are too often invisible because they are taken as normal and natural” (98) – like Eddie and Freddy rewarded for their predatory behavior.
Here’s what I want to propose. Sometimes Christ is “hidden” in plain sight, and so Servant 3 might be the surprising Christ-figure in the Parable of the Talents.
Why do I say this?
Because of the parable that follows – the Sheep and the Goats. I assert that the Parable of the Talents must be read in conjunction with the following parable of the Sheep and Goats. Only when those who are cast into the outer darkness are ministered to by the “sheep” is there any restoration. That’s when the identity of Jesus is revealed.
And you know, Servant 3 would be with those who were served by the “sheep.” He had nothing at the beginning of the parable and ended with nothing. He was derided, rejected, and ejected. Just like Jesus was derided, rejected, and ejected.
The Parable of the Talents tells us that radical non-compliance is the only logical response if we are to attend to the gospel’s message.
And the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats tells us that caring for the vulnerable, honoring our neighbors, protecting the weak, and restoring dignity and a sustainable community is the antidote to the current reality in which we live.
So how might the church make space for listening to Servant 3? How might we create a forum for Jevonne to tell his story?
Can we be a church that engages the difficult but necessary conversations about what it means to be living in a twisted economic paradigm that rewards greed, privilege, and taking unfair advantage over others? How might we, the church, function as a place that invites dialogue about these issues – the brutality of our economic system and the realities of race, wealth, and privilege?
Maybe this parable is showing us how NOT to structure our society and to treat others – harshly, greedily, with insults and finality of judgment.
Maybe Jevonne, Servant 3 exemplifies the values we should embrace.
- Defiant non-compliance with the economic system.
- Prophetic truth-telling: “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. You fill me with fear.”
- Courage to accept the consequences of non-compliance, knowing that we will be demonized and cast out.
Next week we will read the conclusion of this sequence of parables with the Sheep and the Goats. And we’ll be asking, how can we model basic decency, compassion, caring for the vulnerable, honoring our neighbors, protecting the weak, and ministering to those who have decided to step away from this abusive, corrupt, and racist system?
That parable is going to show us that ultimately, there is a power that is greater than a destructive ego (the master). More effective than violence (being thrown into outer darkness). And longer-lasting than the hatred of those derogatory epithets. It is the power of generosity, curiosity, creativity, joy, acceptance, and peace.
Let there be no doubt – the master, Eddie and Freddy will be with the goats. And they will be judged by the king.
But the Sheep will find Jevonne.
They will listen to Jevonne. They will believe Jevonne. And they will honor Jevonne’s humanity and courage. The Sheep will be with Jevonne. And then – surprise! The Sheep will find themselves with God. Amen!
This sermon about the Parable of the Talents was preached as part of a workshop on racism and the church that I led with Rev. Sonniya B. Key. I am indebted to her hermeneutical principles for preaching and race that yielded important insights for this sermon.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her latest book, co-written with Jerry Sumney is Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (Wipf & Stock, 2020).
Leah is also co-founder of the Clergy Emergency League, a grassroots network of clergy that provides support, accountability, resources, and networking for clergy to prophetically minister in their congregations and the public square in this time of political upheaval, social unrest, and partisan division.