The Gospel appointed for today is the "parable of the talents," the story of the rich man who went on a journey and left some of his money with his servants. To one he gave five "talents," to another two, and to a third just one.
I feel like most explanations say that the master is Jesus, who has blessed each of us with certain "talents" (though we don't all get the same talents, in the same quantities), and expects us to do something with that treasure. We will have to give an account to Jesus/the master when he returns of what we did with the "talents" he gave us. According to this interpretation, it's pretty clear from the end of the story that we are expected to do something with those gifts. The story shows up in the lectionary in Advent season, and following as it does immediately on the heels of the story of the wise and foolish maidens waiting for the bridegroom, sounds like it is alluding to the second coming and the judgment.
But I just don't see how that can possibly be.
Here's how the story unfolds: the first two servants take the money (five and two talents, respectively) and invest it, doubling the initial amount. When the master returns, he praises them ("Well done, good and faithful servant!") and says, "You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master."
The third servant simply returns the original talent, having buried it in the earth, and then rather brazenly says, "I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours."
The master furiously responds, "You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest." The master takes the talent back and gives it to the first servant (so that he now has eleven, total) and then dismissing him as "worthless," orders that he be thrown "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Where is Jesus in this parable? Frankly, I don't think he's in it at all.
The story is also told in Luke (19:11-27), and I think there are several clues that reinforce the suggestion that this "master" is the furthest thing from Jesus. Luke says that the reason Jesus tells them the story is "because [the people] supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately." This time, rather than "a man going on a journey," Luke is specific that the master is "a nobleman [who] went to a distant country to get royal power for himself."
Again, it seems that the easy allusion here is to Jesus, who has "gone on a journey," so to speak (or is, at least, not physically present with us as he was with the disciples) and will return crowned as the King of Heaven. But I am uncomfortable with Luke's actual language here: "to get royal power for himself." Jesus, who is and who was and who is to come, was always the king; hence the magi who bowed before the child and presented royal gifts. Jesus did not have to die and "go away" in order to claim his kingship; he doesn't have to "get" royal power. And does he do this for himself?
I don't think Luke prefaces the parable meaning to explain that the kingdom of God is not near because the master still has to go on his journey, so listen up to what y'all are supposed to do with the "talents" he's going to give you. I think he sets it up this way precisely to illustrate that the Kingdom of God is not near because this is the sort of story that is happening right now, all around us. Luke and Matthew are saying that the kingdom and our relationship with God will be very, very different than the master/servant paradigm to which we are accustomed.
Here's the test for me in this story: let's say the third servant had taken that talent and used it to buy food for hungry people. What do you think this master's response would be?
Is Jesus a harsh man, reaping what he does not sow and gathering what he doesn't plant? And wherefore is this slave "wicked"? Wicked? Which commandment has he violated? What sin has he committed? What law has he broken?
"You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest!" says the master. Do you know, in the KJV, instead of "interest" it says "with usury"? I would have received what was my own, plus what was not. That is exactly what the servant is saying: you make money from money. You don't make anything, you don't plant anything, you don't do anything for anyone, you just put your money in the bank -- or have people do it for you -- and you get more money. After all Jesus has told them during his ministry: sell all your possessions and give to the poor, it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, blessed is the widow who donated two cents because it was all she had, pass out free food to five thousand people, take people you find lying by the side of the road and pay for their lodging and medical expenses...all of that, and now suddenly Jesus is warning us that come judgment day, he will be mighty pissed off if we haven't wisely invested his money?
I think our discomfort with what seems like a cognitive dissonance has caused us to read this story metaphorically, that Jesus is not really talking about "money," he's talking about "talents." Do something with the "talents" God gave you. But this story is, emphatically, about money. A story can have multiple layers of meaning and can make sense literally and metaphorically, but if you have to read it metaphorically because the literal reading is nonsensical, then something is wrong.
What's "wrong," what does not make sense, is Jesus as this particular master. "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."
This is not the Kingdom of God, this is the world we live in right now. This is not an illustration of what is to come, this is a scathing indictment of what is already wrong. It is a parable right out of Occupy Wall Street.