United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“What to do with Abundance?”

November 19th, 2023 

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        I have been preaching from this parable since I was a high school student participating in Youth Sunday.  It is easy to grasp.  You are given a talent, two talents, five talents.  Just as God has given all of us gifts, talents.  The question of this parable is: What do you do with them?  Do you use them, producing from them (regardless of how much or how little you start out with)?  Or do you hide your talent in the ground? 

The parable seems to make it clear:  Woe to you who hide your talents (like hiding your light beneath a bushel instead of letting your light shine for all to see!)  And blessings to those who use their talents in God’s name— Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into my kingdom. You have fought the fight, you have kept the faith, according to my Word. Well done, my good and faithful servant. Great is your reward. You have been faithful, now your race is run. Well done, my servant, well done!” (as we will sing later in the service). 

We all want to hear that proclamation, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  We all want to enter into the joy of the master (read the joy of the kingdom).  There are so many times when Jesus has exhorted us to be a blessing to others, to love neighbor as self, to be the seed that bears fruit, to share our abundance with others, to multiply our gifts.  So, bottom line, use your talents, and you will be rewarded.  Hey, this is a easy sermon.  I can sit down now, right?

        What my younger self didn’t dwell on, but my older self just can’t get away from, is the violence in this parable (and in this section of Matthew all together).  Not only do we have people thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

     Not only do we hear from the point of view of one of these slaves that this master is “harsh, reaping where you do not sow and gathering where do you not scatter.”  But we have this cryptic statement: 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.


       Yes, my younger self just glossed over that.  But I can’t do that anymore.  What kind of master is this?  Who takes away from those who have nothing?  Does that square with what Jesus has been preaching to us?  How do you fit that theology into the same space as “as you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it unto me?”  And where is the upside down, inside out-ness of this parable?  Didn’t Jesus usually use these stories to make people think?  This seems so obvious that it doesn’t really fit into that category—other than to point out that the end is coming, and so you better be on your best behavior—using your talent and your treasure and your time to benefit the kingdom.

        And for those of you who want to hold onto that vision of this parable, who want to dream of being those servants who hear “Well done”—I don’t want to take that away from you.  And I’m beginning to think that Jesus’ parables aren’t just upside down/inside out, but are intended to make us think in complex ways—holding two almost divergent ideas at the same time.  On the one hand, the parable of the talents as a parable of being a good and faithful servant, enriching the gifts we have been given, so at the end times, when the master returns, we can be rewarded.

Today I want to spend some time exploring “on the other hand” of this parable.  I have no idea whether this might be how people grappled with this parable in Jesus’ time.  Or how many people over the eons have had these thoughts cross their minds.  (I used theologian William Herzog’s idea that the third servant might be the hero of this parable as a jumping off point for my musings.)




        Before getting to that, let’s just remind ourselves of what was what in Jesus’ time.  First, a talent.  Talent in Greek has nothing to do with what gifts we possess.  It was a unit of money—and a great deal of money as well.  In fact, in ancient Israel, one talent was equivalent to 3,000 shekels—about 75 lb of gold or silver.  Or to put it another way, in ancient Greece, a talent was the amount of silver needed to pay a crew of 200 rowers for one month.  Another commentator said a talent is 15 years worth of a salary.  Like I said, a great deal of money. 

Second, this idea of the master going away and leaving the carefully selected servants or slaves in charge of these large sums would not have been surprising to Jesus’ hearers.  Masters routinely went on trips “abroad” to protect their business interests and increase their wealth.  I don’t think much has changed in the intervening years.  And this is not the only parable where this scenario of an absent master is used.

Third, is the Jewish idea of money.  Forget Shylock and Shakespeare’s seemingly anti-semitic feelings.  The Torah expresses regulations against the charging of interest in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deurteronomy.  But this master doesn’t feel the need to follow the law, he expects his slaves to “invest” his money and see the benefits of this when he returns.  Now, in all fairness, there were such things as banks in Jesus’ time.  And they would provide interest to those wealthy individuals who had enough to make a deposit.  Even our master of the story says to the third servant “You could have at least deposited my money with the bankers, and I would have got interest on it.”

But we all know how much interest bankers pay on principal, only as much as they have to.  Certainly not enough to double the five talents the first servant was given, and the two talents the second servant was given, unless the interest was at a very high rate, or the master stayed away an impossible number of years.

      So how did those servants double the master’s money?  Did they invest in the first century equivalent of the crypto market?  Did they play the ponies or whatever the equivalent of betting was in that world?  Did they continue to do what the master had done, maybe how the master had made his money in the first place—lend money  themselves  at exorbitant rates.  To whom?  Well, just as in our world, the people who go to cash checking places, the people who go to loan sharks of all kinds, the people who cannot go to a legitimate business, like a bank, to help them out—in other words, to those who are not well off, those who might be desperate, might we even say, to “the least of these, my brothers and sisters”?

Wait a minute, I hear some cry.  This makes God out to be a monster, a hypocrite, one who doesn’t even follow the laws God laid out!  That is true, if we say that God has to be the master in this parable.  But this master isn’t like the master Jesus has told us about in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, where the master there pays those who work the least as much as those who work the most—insisting that “the master” has the freedom to bestow grace on whomever the master wishes? 

How can this master be God if “the master reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter”?  Isn’t the whole world God’s?  Doesn’t the sower scatter the seed everywhere—on good soil and rocky ground and weedy places?  What kind of God is this?  That was exactly the question I asked myself as I read the Zephaniah passage. 


That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish,

a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,

a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities

    and against the lofty battlements.

I will bring such distress upon people

    that they shall walk like the blind;

    because they have sinned against the Lord,

their blood shall be poured out like dust

    and their flesh like dung.

Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them

    on the day of the Lord’s wrath;

in the fire of God’s passion the whole earth shall be consumed,

for a full, a terrible end

    God will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.


If you are steeped in that image of God, no wonder Matthew has an outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth!  And let’s remember that God in Zephaniah is threatening to do that to the people of Jerusalem, to God’s own chosen as well as everyone else.  And I wonder, how do we see this in light of God’s rainbow promise that God would never again destroy the population of the earth? 

Add to this the idea that God being involved in monetary matters would be shocking to most Jews (even though, of course, the temple collected funds and had booths that exchanged money and sold animals for sacrifice).  So, it makes you wonder, what if God is not the master in this story.  What happens then?

Well, we have a business enterprise that is based on taking advantage of others, especially those who can least afford to be taken advantage of.  And whether you are talking about the master or slaves one and two, they are all in on how the rich get richer (or as the parable says, those who have, more will be given, they will have an abundance).  And, of course, the master pats these slaves on the back—they are little mini-mes, even in the master’s absence.

Which brings us to the third servant/slave, the one that William Herzog calls the hero.  This one refuses to participate in the abuse of others.  He takes the, shall we say, ill-gotten gains, the gains made from other’s backs (you reap where you did not sow), and he hides it away.

     He puts in it a hole in the ground (which has been used world-wide in all cultures and all times as a way of safe guarding your little treasures).  He has it to give back to the master—with no profits.  And the master is furious.  This is not the way the master’s world works.  This is not what the master expects from a slave—who is not to question the world view of the master.

Taking this interpretation of the parable raises all kinds of questions—all kinds of inside out/upside down thinking.  It even made me think of alternate tellings of this parable.  What if the third servant doesn’t hide his one talent, but micro-loans to those in need with no interest?  What if the third servant gives away the talent, returning to those who had been fleeced in the first place?  What if the weeping and gnashing of teeth is the place of sorrow where God mourns what we have done to creation, to our relationships with others, to ourselves?

I end, as I ended last week’s sermon, with the question, “What do we do with our abundance”?  Do we think there is enough for us to share with those who don’t have as much?  It is an age old question.  And Jesus pokes at us, not letting us be happily enfolded into a world that is harsh and unfeeling. 

Not if we want to Love God and Love neighbor as self. 

Not if we want to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God. 

Not if we want to do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, as we would do to Jesus. 

Just maybe, God’s “well done, good and faithful servant” comes to those who have the ability to see the truth, the courage to stand against what the world says is ok, and the conviction that our faith multiplies the good without having to take from others.

May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.




By Zeina Azzam, a Palestinian American poet, writer, editor, and community activist. Thank you to Linda Sarsour for posting on social media.


Write my name on my leg, Mama
Use the black permanent marker
with the ink that doesn’t bleed
if it gets wet, the one that doesn’t melt
if it’s exposed to heat

Write my name on my leg, Mama
Make the lines thick and clear
Add your special flourishes
so I can take comfort in seeing
my mama’s handwriting when I go to sleep

Write my name on my leg, Mama
and on the legs of my sisters and brothers
This way we will belong together
This way we will be known
as your children

Write my name on my leg, Mama
and please write your name
and Baba’s name on your legs, too
so we will be remembered
as a family

Write my name on my leg, Mama
Don’t add any numbers
like when I was born or the address of our home
I don’t want the world to list me as a number
I have a name and I am not a number

Write my name on my leg, Mama
When the bomb hits our house
When the walls crush our skulls and bones
our legs will tell our story, how
there was nowhere for us to run