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An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Matthew ...

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I like the contention that the servant who buried his one talent and got shafted by the boss might just be the hero of the story – not the goody two shoes (x2) who doubled their much more generous offerings. The proposition catches us on the back foot (like a good parable is supposed to do). The centuries old Protestant work ethic favours the traditional view that hard work and prudent application is duly rewarded. The lazy lay-about who did nothing with what he was entrusted got his just desserts – and you will too if you don’t get on with it!

Peel back the accretion of time and historical circumstance, however, and imagine the story as it was before this puritanical setting. Imagine it before Matthew got hold of it, and even Luke (who could be seen to be giving greater weight to the tradition that this post explores). It seems the parable was passed around orally before Luke and Matthew put it in the context of their own communities and set it down in writing. Matthew’s burden appears to be keeping the fledgling second and third generation church alert and disciplined, living out the teachings of Jesus rather than hanging around waiting for an imminent return. Hence “get on with it!”

Luke seems to use the story, with some interesting variations,  to say, “This is the reality of how the world ticks.” It is unjust and unfair and if you are going to buck the system, be ready to meet the consequences. The third servant tosses in the towel and protests “I’m not playing this game any more!” knowing he will lose his position of privilege and be cast out among the tenant farmers who have been suffering the extortion of the landlords and their managers.  He could stand for the disciple who is prepared to travel the way of Jesus, in the world of those who live on the margins of powerlessness, and not of the world of corrupt privilege.

Well, it’s at least worth a thought – yes? The strange outcome is that regardless of whether you run with Matthew’s call to diligence or Luke’s veiled urging to courageous discipleship, the result is the same – a more focused and active disciple. Neat!

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