As I’ve wrestled with this parable this week, I keep thinking of the duck-rabbit. You’ve seen it: the classic simple image that could be one thing or could be another thing. Before I name the duck and rabbit I see here, let’s hear the parable again, and let’s make the setting a little more modern:
The CEO of MoneyCorp (note: I made up this name, but of course it turns out there actually is a MoneyCorp somewhere) is going on a business trip, maybe a long one; he needs to oversee operations in China for a while. So he calls in his three vice-presidents. (Of course a vice-president in a company is very different from a slave – but not entirely different. His position, his livelihood, even his future, depend on his boss’s goodwill.) So the three vice-presidents meet with the boss. And he tells the first one, “You’ve been doing good work; while I’m away, you’re in charge of $5 million.” He tells the second one, “You’re really growing into this role; I’m leaving you with $2 million to manage.” And he tells the third one, “…. You get $1 million.” And he leaves.
A long time later, the CEO comes back, and calls in the VPs to settle accounts with them, reclaim the company’s wealth and hear what they did with it. The first one says, “Sir, I used the $5 million to make another $5 million.” The CEO says, “Well done! You can expect a raise, and even more responsibility in the future.” And the second VP said, “Sir, I used the $2 million to make another $2 million.” And the CEO said, “Excellent! You’ll be getting a raise and a promotion too.”
And then the third VP comes forward. He says, “Sir, you left me in charge of $1 million. I know you; I know how you run MoneyCorp. I know that you’re a hard man, and that you’ve gotten wealthy by taking the profit of other people’s work. So when you put me in charge of this money, I locked the check in the drawer of my desk until your return. Here it is. Take it.” And the boss said, “You wicked and lazy man! You knew I was a hard man? You knew I profit off the work of others? Then why didn’t you at least keep the money in an interest-bearing account?! Listen, buddy, this is the way of the world: Those who have a lot, get more, and those who don’t have much, lose the little they have. If you don’t want to play the game, maybe you don’t belong at MoneyCorp.”
Okay. The duck-rabbit. The rabbit – see the rabbit? – the rabbit is the better-known interpretation of this parable. It’s warm and fuzzy. Kind of. It says, God is our Master, and God gives us resources, and we’re supposed to use those resources to extend our Master’s domain and earn our Master’s approval.
The duck – see the duck? – the duck is loud and awkward and might bite you. The duck says, This Master is a horrible person who embodies the cruel and corrupt systems of this world.
It’s hard to see both the duck and the rabbit at the same time.You kind of have to choose.
Let’s go back to the parable – Matthew’s version, not mine – and see if we can find any clarity on the duck-rabbit issue. The narrative raises a lot of questions. How much is a talent? It’s a large amount of money. Translating it into millions isn’t unreasonable.
How would someone have used money to make money, back in Jesus’ day?Doubling your money always means you’re playing high risks, and sometimes means somebody’s getting cheated. The world of finance and investment was a lot smaller and simpler back then, but there were a couple of ways to win big. One was to put your money into the currency exchange business that happened in the court of the great Temple. The people who set the exchange rate can make sure they get a hefty profit from every transaction. We know how Jesus felt about that business. The other way was essentially high-risk mortgage lending. Historically, most ordinary Judeans were small-scale farmers. By Jesus’ day, many had lost their ancestral land due to poverty, and many more were on the edge of losing their land, due to the heavy taxes Rome demanded. When someone is desperate, you can loan them money at a high interest rate. We know how that usually works out.
As for investing money to earn interest: This parable is literally the only place in the Bible where someone suggests this as a good thing. For the entire Old Testament, taking interest income is proof that you’re an unscrupulous, greedy person. To be clear, I think it’s fine that our church gets interest on our invested funds. But Jesus had very Old Testament ethics about money. So the Master’s eagerness to earn interest is a clue to what Jesus meant by this story.
One more question: Why did the third slave bury the money? I spent a really happy couple of hours this week chasing this question deep into the Talmud. In 70 CE, about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, as Roman troops crushed a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. This was a big event for early Christians; even more so for Jews. What emerged from that great loss was Rabbinic Judaism – a way of being Jewish without the Temple as its center.
During the time of the Temple, there was a whole body of religious teaching about how to apply the laws of the Torah to all kinds of situations. That teaching had been curated and passed down at the Temple, but after the Temple, in the first and second centuries, it gets written down, so that it can circulate and spread among scattered Jewish communities. That’s the set of texts called the Talmud.
And it turns out that in the Talmud, being responsible for someone else’s property was a big legal and ethical issue. There were banks, but banking wasn’t widely accessible, and a lot of people didn’t hold their wealth as money; they had it as wine or grain or oil or sheep. If you had to travel, or if you had more than you could store, you’d leave your stuff with someone else, so it wouldn’t be stolen. And of course being left in charge of somebody else’s stuff is a temptation. You could drink a couple of barrels of wine, and then when the owner returns, claim that they broke or went sour. So there is a lot of teaching in the Talmud about the moral obligation of looking after someone else’s property. And it turns out that when someone leaves you in charge of some money, burying it is RECOMMENDED by the Talmud. Rabbi Shmuel, who lived in the late 2nd century, said, “There is safety for money only in the ground.”
There’s even a story, kind of a case study, about a man who’s entrusted with some money by a friend. He gives the money to his mother, who puts it in a chest in their house; but a robber steals it. The question is, who is responsible for the loss? – and in the course of the discussion, the text says, Well, the man must not have told his mother that it was somebody else’s money, because if he had, she would have buried it.
Despite all this – and more; I could’t fit all my points into this sermon! – the duck-rabbit won’t fully resolve into a duck. I’ve spent a lot of time with this parable, over the years. And it just keeps being awkwardly both duck and rabbit. At least, that’s true in Matthew’s version. Luke has this story too, but his version is a lot stranger and darker. It’s not in the lectionary, so it’s less familiar. It’s in chapter 19 – check it out later. In Luke’s version, the Master is unambiguously a corrupt and cruel ruler, whose actions echo the acts of the brutal king of Judea who ruled during Jesus’ early childhood. There’s a strong case to be made that Luke records the story as Jesus told it – and that Matthew simplified it because the story made more sense to him as a story about how we should be good productive servants for Jesus.
But even though he stuck some rabbit ears on the story, Matthew retained its fierce heart, its ethical and theological core: that dialogue between the third slave and the master, which is much the same in both Gospels, and which I’m sure is much as Jesus first told it.
‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?… Take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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.’
Do you know the old joke about the pastor who calls the kids forward for a children’s sermon? And he says, I’m going to describe something, and I want you to guess what it is! It climbs around in the trees… it has a big fluffy tail… and it collects nuts and buries them! And there’s dead silence; the children just stare at him. And he says, “Come on, you must know what it is, speak up!” And finally one child says, “I know the answer must be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.”
I feel like that’s what we’ve done with this parable. I’ve read SO many commentaries and sermons on this story. And SO many of them say, “I know the Master must be Jesus, but he sure sounds like a jerk.”
Sometimes a squirrel is a just a squirrel, and a cruel and greedy master isn’t supposed to remind us of God.
Okay. Why does it matter? Duck or rabbit? We’re committing our pledges to the life of this church today. Is it duck church or rabbit church? We’re baptizing a child into the faith and family of Jesus. Is it duck faith or rabbit faith?
The rabbit message – it’s not WRONG. The idea that we should honor what we’ve been given – resources, skills, and yes, talents – and use them, and multiply them, in ways that add to the world’s measure of hope and wholeness and delight – the Gospel says that in lots of places, and I try to live that way, and I think you all do too.
But there’s a sense in which I don’t need church to tell me that. A capitalist culture tells me to use what I have to get more. Human decency tells me to use what I have to serve others.
What I need to hear from the Bible, from the Church, from Jesus, is that there’s a higher standard and a bigger picture, beyond and above our culture and our systems and our norms. This isn’t a parable about obedience, or resourcefulness, or, God help us, productivity. This is a story about power and courage. About resistance. Some commentators call this the Parable of the Whistleblower. I like that. The third slave says he was afraid, but there’s nothing cowardly about what he does. He refuses to play the game. And he doesn’t just opt out and vanish; he names the boss to his face as cruel, greedy, and ruthless.
This the duck’s message: When the system is broken, or fixed – it matters to God. When the powerful use their power to benefit themselves – it matters to God. When people just take what they want because nobody dares to stop them – it matters to God. When “more” drives our common life, instead of better, kinder, fairer – it matters to God. It matters to God so much that God in Christ became the whistleblower, teaching and arguing and healing and dying – and rising – to tell the truth about our human systems of power and gain.
When the culture tells us, The rich and powerful run the show; your best plan is to play the game – when our human decency runs low because we’re tired and jaded and frustrated – then we need duck church, duck faith. We need a community gathered around Christ the Whistleblower, to comfort and encourage us, to connect us and reorient us. May we be both rabbit church and duck church for each other, my dear ones – a church worthy of our gifts, our children, and our hearts.
Sources & Further Reading…
“Jesus As Archelaus in the Parable of the Pounds,” Brian Schultz, Novum Testamentum, Vol. 49, Fasc. 2 (2007), pp. 105-127
David Lose on Luke’s version of the story:
Another sermon on this parable:
Explore the Talmud at sefaria.org –
The part in question is Section 42 of the Bava Metzia.
And here’s a post that summarizes this portion of the Talmud: