There once was a business man who was preparing for his retirement and he came up with an interesting plan on how to choose his successor. He called all the young executives in his company together and said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you.” The young executives were shocked, but the boss continued. “I am going to give each one of you a seed today - one very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the person whose plant I choose will be the next CEO.”
One man named Jim was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and he planted the seed. Faithfully, he would care for his seed. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. He began to feel like a failure. Six months later, still nothing in Jim's pot. However, he just kept watering and fertilizing the soil.
When the year was up and plants brought to the CEO for inspection, Jim told his wife that he wasn't going to take an empty pot. But she asked him to be honest about what happened. When Jim arrived at the office, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful. But Jim put his empty pot on the floor as many of his colleagues laughed!
When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back. “Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!” The CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot and had Jim come up front. Jim figured he’d be fired! Instead the CEO asked Jim what had happened to his seed and Jim told him. Then the CEO looked at Jim, and announced to the room, “Behold your next Chief Executive Officer!”
Then explained. “One year ago, I gave you all a seed. But I gave you boiled seeds; they were dead - it was not possible for them to grow. All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that my seed would not grow, you substituted another seed. Jim is the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive Officer!”
If only our parable from Matthew this morning had just such a happy ending as this. Reward based on one’s integrity, with the lining up of one’s inner beliefs with outward actions. This is a story we can get behind. I reminded myself this week that the gospel parables are stories that are shared in varied contexts and there are as many interpretations as they are listeners. And maybe that is Jesus’ point in using them. And maybe these stories need to come with a Warning: if you think you know the meaning of the parable, you can be assured you are mistaken.
Last week, you will recall the predicament of five bridesmaids who caught themselves unprepared for the festivities, they failed to bring enough oil for their lanterns and were left out of the party. Today’s offering is equally troubling in that two workers fulfill their boss’s expectations but a third is too fearful to take the risks necessary to realize a profit on what he has been given. There is harshness and punishment when we don’t use our gifts to their fullest potential. But this parable, like last week’s makes me want to push back on the literal rendering. Could it be that Jesus is fed up with the current system of how things get done… capitalism would not have been a foreign concept. His listeners that day lived under oppression and the occupation of the Roman Authority…they too carried heavy burdens and had genuine fears around an economic system that did not benefit everyone. Maybe Jesus is just fed up with the status quo… the kindom of heaven is like this?! The rich make more, are entrusted with more wealth and resources and our friend at the end with only one talent… as that was all his boss saw him capable of managing… is thrown into the pits of despair and this place of outer darkness. Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem for one last time…he knows he is not going to leave the city alive… so his teaching opportunities are important to him. He tells his listeners what they already know… that life isn’t always fair. The bank calls in the mortgage deferrals from the past seven months; the Public Health Officials say we all need to close our struggling small businesses in order to keep each other safe and from promoting widespread COVID outbreaks… one restaurant owner in Ontario I saw interviewed this week said she just nicely reopened and was being forced to close again… through her tears she said she didn’t know how much longer she was going to be able to hang on…running a restaurant was the only thing she how to do; we hear of violent unrest in Washington as a sitting President remains behind closed doors unwilling to concede victory to his opponent and begin the transition of power for a nation in the grip of a pandemic and economic downturn. It isn’t fair. Inequality is all around us.
So where does this story of three workers and a difficult boss take us? Well, what if one of the bridesmaids who was shut out last week, comes along and has a conversation with the slave who was thrown into outer darkness…what would she have to say to him? I wasn’t prepared…I missed an opportunity and suffered the consequences…these Romans mean business. What disappointments, what burdens, what fears have prevented us from living the fullness of life we imagine for ourselves and for our families? Perhaps there is some solace in Jesus’ harsh story. Jesus wasn’t about condemnation but always supported the underdog…Matthew’s gospel certainly wanted to compel people of the early church to take their context seriously. Those with power retain their power and those who are on the margins are continually pushed aside. The challenge for each of us today as listeners is to consider what are we doing with our time, our talents, our treasures? In his parable, Jesus knows this, exposes it, and says out loud, I see what’s going on here.
And when we too see this, heaven is realized… when the last shall be first and first shall be last. May it be so.
Amen and Amen.