“How are you going to fare when God comes to “settle accounts” with you?” That question concludes Wednesday’s lesson in the Adult Bible Study Guide. It focuses on the parable that Jesus tells about the master who gives money to his servants/slaves. When he returns to check on their service to him, he rewards the two who double his money and humiliates the third man who was given the least and merely preserved its value. He notes that his master is a “hard man” and proclaims: “You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.” The lesson repeatedly employs an Ellen White quote that “the parable applies to the temporal means which God has entrusted to His people.”
The Adult Bible Study Guide skips over key details in this story that appears in both of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This is the central biblical story of the lesson; the rest of the week feels mostly focused on connecting heavenly reward with earthly support of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. There are some reminders that eternal life is a free gift, but those are mixed with attempts to connect eternal prizes and crowns to financial faithfulness. The hint of works smacks of classic Adventist debates about obedience to the law versus acceptance of grace, but the focus is less Mosaic and more prosaic.
The first day of the study title is “Rewards for Faithfulness.” The next day is “Reward for Faithfulness.” By Wednesday the study gets down to business. Its title is “The Settling of Accounts,” and it uses the aforementioned parable to get down to business and ask, “What does God say to those who were faithful money managers in supporting His cause?”
But a closer look at the context for Jesus’s story about managing money suggests a deeper spiritual interpretation than the lesson’s investment focus. The quarterly follows the common contemporary trend of treating this as a model of how God expects humans to handle resources. As a kid trying to pay attention in church, I began to notice that around the time it was time to nominate the nominating committee, we’d get a sermon on Matthew 25:19–30 that transfers the Greek monetary weight measurement talanton into a lesson for us to use our personal talents for the Lord. The talanton is sort of equal to the total gross earnings from a lifetime of labor at the time. It’s a little different from the mina in the Lukan account. More importantly, as this article notes, the less homileticized story in Luke includes details that prohibit making simplistic allegorical connections matching the master to God/Jesus. (It might be an allusion to Herod Archelaus who, according to Josephus, did travel to gain Judean rulership from Caesar Augustus, had Jewish opposition, and returned to kill many of them.)
Most sermons on this parable simply compare the master to God and remind the congregation that we all needed to use our talents for the church. While some respected interpreters have followed this tradition, I think this misreads the context of the stories in both Matthew and Luke, contradicts Jesus’s example, and paints a destructive image of God.
God is not the “master” or “nobleman” in these stories. Is this how God acts according to Jesus? “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow?” (Luke 19:22). Or as Matthew 25:26–29 (NASB) puts it:
“But his master answered and said to him, ‘You worthless, lazy slave! Did you know that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter seed? Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. Therefore: take the talent away from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’ “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.”
This is not how Jesus represented his Father. God does not treat humans as slaves. Any church, lesson, or pastor that implies that is preaching a destructive model of the divine. The central message of Jesus’s teaching is that the first shall be last and the last first. The Sermon on the Mount, which is Jesus’s mission statement of the divine "kin-dom," prioritizes a reversal of the earthly power structures that this parable’s master-slave narrative instead reinforces.
Furthermore, the immediate context of both pericopes undercuts any connection to identifying this slave master with divine values. The Lukan version of this parable directly follows the story of Zacchaeus, which climaxes with the reformed money man telling Jesus, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” There is no way that Jesus’s message right after that selflessness is “double my personal wealth, you slave, or die.” Additionally, the Matthew story is directly followed by God at the final judgment separating the sheep and goats and telling those who inherit the kingdom of heaven: “To the extent that you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of Mine, you did it for Me” (Matt. 25:40).
For more on interpreting this story along these lines, this Patheos article draws on Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (1994) by the late New Testament scholar William R. Herzog II. He suggests that Jesus’s audience would have understood the third servant as something like a whistleblower.
This third servant has the guts to stand up to his employer and call him out for the thieving oppressor that he is. “You reap where you did not sow and gather where you did not scatter seed.” A better description of “reaping” and “gathering” by the rich from the pockets of poor farmers is hard to imagine.
Jesus doesn’t spell out what pangs of conscience accompanied this servant’s employment, motivating such a dangerous move. But Jesus’ hearers certainly appreciate it. Their sympathy—and Jesus’—will be with the third servant. I’m guessing Jesus could even see himself as this “whistle-blower,” and heading toward a similar fate.
The master doesn’t take kindly to truth-telling. He “casts out” the servant from his employ and blacklists him with any other possible employer. Not having his own plot of land, the whistle-blower is now among the lowest of the low—a day laborer. He can expect a harsh life from now on, and a short one. Having given up friendship with Palestine’s poor for most of his career, he now alienates himself from the rich as well. Weeping and gnashing of teeth will, indeed, be the story of the rest of his life.
Of course, not everyone will agree with this interpretive approach. Not all whistleblowers are heroes. But it’s important to note that the lesson only offers one view on this scriptural story. It’s after focusing on this story of the money-hungry, account-settling master that the lesson then asks us Adventists: “How are you going to fare when God comes to ‘settle accounts’ with you?” It’s telling to see how the current General Conference leadership, which approved this lesson, sees the rest of us. As it states, “it is the person with only one talent—the least money—who proved unfaithful and lost the kingdom.” If someone who does not faithfully give money to the church is compared to the third servant, what is the relationship being denominated here?
Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.
Title image: The Parable of The Talents or Minas by Willem de Poorter, 17th century (public domain).
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