Fan Mount: “The Cabbage Gatherers” by Camille Pissarro ca. 1878-79.
Matthew 25:14-30 14-18 “It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.
19-21 “After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
22-23 “The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
24-25 “The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
26-27 “The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’
Harland Sanders came from very little. Born in a four-room house in rural Indiana in 1890, he was the oldest of three children that had to grow up quickly. His father died when Harland was just five, and his mother took a job at a tomato cannery in a nearby town to make ends meet. Harland became the family caregiver for his younger siblings and the family’s cook early on.
When his mother remarried, Harland sought work on local farms, painted horse carriages, and dropped out of the seventh grade to support his family.
When he was old enough, more or less, he entered military service and worked all over the country as a fireman, blacksmith, lawyer, railroad laborer, life insurance salesman, and steamboat operator.
His latest venture kept him in one place longer than any other. He operated a service station and diner in North Corbin, Kentucky.
The business had done alright, and local food critics praised his folksy menu consisting of southern favorites like country ham and biscuits, steaks and greens, and various chicken dishes. After a fire destroyed the gas station and restaurant, Sanders built a motel and 140-seat restaurant based on his reputation as a cook.
But then the interstate was built through Kentucky, and while it went through North Corbin, it changed the flow of traffic, and folks went elsewhere to eat, and stay, and get their gas. Harland Sanders was forced to close the service station, motel, and restaurant essentially broke.
Nearing retirement, he worried that his meager $105 monthly pension would not cover even the most stripped-down life for him and his family.
Then he remembered the praise he received from local food critics all those years back. Specifically, he remembered how they and many locals came to his restaurant for his fried chicken. After perfecting his “Secret Recipe” and special cooking method, Sanders hit the road, hoping to find a few restaurants that would franchise his fried chicken recipe and cooking method. He drove around the country, sleeping in his car, and was rejected more than 1,000 times, as the story goes, before a little restaurant in South Salt Lake, Utah took the offer to pay him .04 cents per piece of chicken sold.
By this time, he was known as Colonel Sanders, an honorary title given to him by Kentucky’s governor and friend, Lawrence Wetherby. When sales at the South Salt Lake restaurant skyrocketed in the first year, Colonel Sanders sought out more restaurants to carry his signature dish. Within a handful of years, Kentucky Fried Chicken had over 600 locations and was one of the first food franchises to expand internationally.
This type of story is the one we often associate with the parable of the talents, our gospel reading today.
A wealthy landowner goes on a trip and leaves his three servants with property to manage. The one who was given five talents, or $5,000 in our translation, quickly goes out, does some trading, and doubles the investment. The second one, who was given $2,000, goes off and doubles his investment as well. The third servant receives $1,000, and digs a hole and hides it.
When the master returns, the first two are praised for their financial aptitude and are invited into the land owner’s house to celebrate. Meanwhile, the third servant is reproved for burying his money instead of making an income. The servant is fired from the landowner's employment and, as Matthew does to most of Jesus’ parables, is thrown out into a hell-like scene with darkness and gnashing of teeth.
Historically, Christians in the west have read this parable and reflected on the importance of production. Those that are praised in this story are the two servants that took a little and made something of it, by whatever means. Likewise, God gives us gifts and talents in our lives, and we ought to use them. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says something similar when he tells his disciples that,
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
In this reading, God’s people are given gifts, talents, and graces, and the faithful response of those blessings is to use those gifts, talents, and graces to produce good in the world.
We can then imagine stories like Colonel Sanders as our modern-day parables. These are folks that were given little, but through hard work, ingenuity, and a little luck, that made big gains with what they had.
This is a common Stewardship Sunday passage because it talks about being faithful with what’s been given and making a strong return on God’s investment in us.
I’ve also heard this passage as a call for folks not to be shy about their gifts. We might like to sing, but worry that we aren’t good enough for the choir. We think we might be helpful by working in the church in this or that way, but feel we aren’t faithful enough, or know our Bible enough, or pray enough, or been at the church long enough to take on a leadership role. Don’t let fear guide your actions to the point that you hide your talents, a pastor might proclaim. But be courageous and share the gifts you have with others.
In many ways, I enjoy this reading, and it fits well within the stories of our Christian faith and our current situation. Today, during this pandemic, it is so easy to hide our gifts, talents, and graces because we cannot exercise them in the same ways we’ve always done. Singers cannot sing together, those that give generously may be furloughed, and folks that care for others cannot work in usual ways because of social distancing.
We might notice, then, that the master in our story does not micromanage or even give instructions, just resources. And while we do not have an instruction manual on how to pandemic correctly, likely we’ve been given all we need to continue to show love, worship, and work for a more just world today.
More recently, however, Biblical scholars have come back to this parable and other master/servant parables in Matthew. They wonder if the traditional reading of God or Jesus as Master and good Christ-followers as servants is the correct one, or if Jesus was trying to do something else.
By looking at economic practices during Jesus’ time, these scholars have pointed out that a 100 fold gain made so quickly would likely be made through the exploitation of workers, like hiring day laborers and then refusing to pay them at the end of the day. A more literal translation of the third servant’s conversation with the master goes like this:
24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return, I would have received what was my own with interest.
Here the servant accuses the master of theft by reaping where he did not sow, and the master remarks that he should have lent the money away so he could at least receive interest. Lending money at interest or usury when against the Laws of Moses.
By not using the money to exploit workers or collect interest, the third servant chooses not to participate in an economic system that hurts the poorest of the poor. In this reading, the master is not God, but earthly leaders that bestow opportunities capaciously and reward only the highest earners, regardless of the ways their money was made. When the third servant is thrown out into the cold, he joins all the other people that have been thrown out, thrown away, and disregarded by a wealthy few any their minions. Through this series of parables, Jesus describes the way his audience is oppressed by the unethical practices of the ruling elite and identifies with those that are thrown out, kept out, or let down by a broken economic system that values profit over people.
Today, we might consider how we participate in economic oppression systems and what we might do as people of faith.
On election day, November 2nd, the US Department of Labor announced a new regulation under the H-2A agricultural guest worker program that freezes wages for farmworkers for at least the next two years. These workers are folks from many other parts of the world, but mostly Central and South America, people who do not hold citizenship but are here legally, and who are primarily brown and black-skinned. Especially during this pandemic, these workers are essential in keeping food in the grocery stores. They cannot plant, weed, grow and harvest fields of tomatoes, avocados, olives, and lettuce by making phone calls or through ZOOM. Instead, their work is hard and physical, and a combination of low pay and working conditions makes visiting farmworkers more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and most other professions.
We can imagine the outcry if wages for other essential workers like nurses and doctors, or teachers and truckers, folks that must risk exposure to keep us all safe and healthy, were frozen for the next two years.
A faithful response to this unjust regulation might be to write our congressional delegation. Another might be to thank our local farmers or leave extra money in the till at local farms stands with a note that earmarks the money for the farm’s migrant farmworkers. We might also get involved in a national organization like Farmworker Justice or a local one like Vermont’s own Migrant Justice.
I guess we land with a pick you adventure ending with this troubling and challenging parable from Matthew. In it, we might be encouraged and challenged to find new ways to use our gifts, even though the pandemic makes this a little more challenging. Or we might find a way that our faith speaks to unjust economic practices and chose to spend some time or money on making life better for our fellow human beings, visiting farmworkers, who serve on the front lines as essential workers right now and are getting the short end of the stick.
Regardless, may you find something encouraging and challenging in these words of Jesus. And may you consider how this gospel story provokes you into action. Amen.