Why is the third servant punished?

At first glance one would think that many employers, even today, would be thrilled with the industriousness of the first two servants in today’s Gospel. These two went out and “traded up.” The one with five talents made another five; the one with two, another two. Knowing their master’s values, and how the story turns out, we might even ask ourselves, “What was that third servant thinking?”

What was he thinking, indeed? It would seem that he was thinking about how his master would react if he lost the one talent that he had, and with good reason. “Master, I knew you were a demanding person … so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.” “Out of fear …” How much malfeasance is committed out of fear?

In preparing for upcoming mid-term elections candidates are spending a great deal of time responding to voters’ concerns about the economy. Working people continue to worry about losing their jobs even as unscrupulous corporate entities continue to “trade up” — to make 10 talents out of five, or four out of two. So we might wonder why, in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s the one who did not increase his earnings who is punished?

Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Perhaps we must first ask who is represented by the master. Our first inclination is probably to think of God. But is God a demanding person, harvesting where he does not plant or gathering where he does not scatter? Is not God, rather, the Sower who scatters seed for the harvest everywhere, even when there seems to be very little chance that it will grow? No, this master does not sound like God.

So maybe there’s another way to look at this story. Maybe this story isn’t about God, but, rather, about an economic system gone awry. Maybe this story is about Wall Street and NASDAQ and a system that rewards, rather than punishes, those who “trade up.” What would it mean to be a “good and faithful servant” in such a system? Chances are that if you watch the evening news you just may find out.

Van Benthem is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and a longtime pastoral minister in the diocese.