Let’s keep it simple. This Matthew parable is often talked about in Christian circles, but very rarely understood. So let’s keep it simple:
What would you do with a bag of money?
Does that sound like a weird question to be asking?
Actually, it isn’t all that strange.
I’m sure at one point you have been asked this hypothetical question:
What would you do if you had a million dollars?
It’s a fun question to answer; it’s like a game.
What would you do with a million dollars?
Of course, a million dollars gets our attention and also is an amount that 99% of the people in the world will never see. So we know that when we answer such a question we are just imagining a fantasy that will never actually happen.
But this Matthew parable is not asking us what we would do with a million dollars. It’s not a hypothetical, fantasy-type question. This parable story is a follow-up to the other parables and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
The lead-in is: Here is the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted all his material wealth to them while he was gone.
One person gets five bags of money.
Another gets three.
The last person gets one.
Each bag of money, in this case, was equivalent to a whole year’s salary.
So the master has given away eight years’ worth of salary.
The first two people invest and put the money to use; they double it.
The third person buries his money in the ground and gets nothing.
Then the master returns.
The first two who double their money celebrate, are joyful, and are entrusted with more.
The third person is full anxiety, fear, and sadness and is left empty.
Like I said, let’s keep it simple. Let’s avoid jumping to common conclusions and status quo interpretations.
Let’s not make the master God or Jesus without blinking. Let’s not change the Greek word in the story to the English word talent. The master gives away his material possessions. The reason we get confused is because our English word talent [that means skill or gift] was derived from the Greek language. But in Greek, talent is an amount of money. So let’s keep the original meaning; this is about material wealth.
A man entrusted three people with a fortune.
Two of them did something with what they were given; one did not.
As a consequence, two people ended up joyful and fulfilled.
The other ended up sad, fearful, and empty.
Another thing to keep in mind.
The story right before this one is the parable of the 10 bridesmaids and the business with the oil. Just like in this story, a person goes away and people have to wait; in the meantime they are supposed to do something with what they have. The bridesmaids had oil; the servants has bags of money.
The parable of the bags of money is a sequel to the parable of the bridesmaids with oil.
And the parable that follows in Matthew is the well-known one about the king of the least of these, which says:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Keeping this context in mind will truly help us understand.
In all of these Matthew stories, people are entrusted with doing something in an in-between time. Bridesmaids wait for a groom to return; servants wait for their master; a community waits for its king.
How they live during that waiting—in that in-between time—makes all the difference.
In this story about bags of money, notice that only the third servant thinks that the master is cruel; he’s the only one with fear; he refuses to take a risk. It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also keep in mind that none of the three servants know what the others get. There is no envy or jealousy. Each person is given something to work with. They all have a choice.
They can choose to see what they have been given as generosity.
They can choose to take a risk and to put their resources to work.
They can choose to be out in the open.
This is not about judgment—who is better or worse, who is left out or let in, or who gets more and who gets less.
This is about how we see what we’ve given as individuals in this life and what we do with it.
If you imagine God as some keeper of rules who rewards and punishes people, well, then you will most likely live in fear and take very few risks. Religion will be nothing more than a legalistic dogma or doctrine full of cosmic causes and effects. Whatever you feel you have–you will bury it in the ground and keep it to yourself. You will pay way too much attention to other people and what they have; you will think that everyone has it better than you do; and you will feel pretty empty. Anything bad that happens in life you will blame God for it. If anything good happens to others, you will assume that God is favoring them and not you.
But I hope that is not the choice you will make.
Instead, I hope that you will consider a more compassionate choice for yourself. What if God is inherently compassionate, full of grace and mercy, and anxious to love you? What if this God has given you enough to live and to love and to share this with others?
Don’t get me wrong—I am not downplaying those in this world who do not have enough to eat, are homeless, or who live in unsafe conditions. I am not saying that they will “be fine” if they just change their attitude. People who are in those type of desperate and awful situations are there because they have been pushed there. Everything we do on this planet affects others. Jesus, even so long ago, recognized this and that is what the king of the least of these parable is about. We are supposed to take risks with what we have been given; we are called to put our resources to use; we are entrusted with resources so that we can help others who are truly in need.
So friends, as individuals, I challenge you to recognize what you have been given. I challenge you to take risks. I encourage you to see mercy and grace before you see judgment and rules.
And in the midst of the Advent season of waiting, an in-between time, let’s not look at all that is happening in the world and choose to bury what we have in the ground. Let’s not ignore the cries of oppressed, the mothers and fathers mourning the loss of their child shot dead, the families torn apart by someone else’s war, the forgotten, marginalized, the lonely.
We should not fear losing what has been given to us.
Let’s not bury it in the ground or keep it to ourselves. Let’s take risks and spread generosity and justice and mercy, because we have confidence in our God who loves us and entrusts us with what we need to do good in this world.
Respond with confidence, joy, enthusiasm, generosity, honesty, and love!