Summary: Three servants receive different gifts from their master. Two use them wisely. One does not. Why? This sermon explores the historical context of this parable with a view toward clarifying the plight of the unworthy servant. A re-telling of the story is followed by several meditations on the text.
Nothing was ready. Bags remained open and unpacked, with clothes neither in nor out. The servants ran from one unfinished task to another, trying their best to follow conflicting instructions from stewards who were themselves at odds. The mother of the house and her young children sat wide-eyed at the tumult within their home, now spilling out into the courtyard, where two bankers stood waiting outside with unsigned agreements and impatient witnesses. Several sizable men guarded the door, silently watching over the mayhem.
The master of the house, a merchant, was going away on a long business trip. His home and his business would be without him for six months and all felt the need to prepare for his absence. Legal powers, final instructions, last minute questions, regrets, concerns and hopes all mixed together in this hurried parting.
But go he must. The merchant was one of a rising new class of businessmen prospering under the Pax Romana. At this time, thanks largely to Roman law and military protection, these entrepreneurs were converting small inefficient farms in Judea into large-scale plantations dedicated to cash crops that could be sold into port cities and then transported around the Empire. The new system required many middlemen who would buy and sell wheat as part of a global supply chain that started on the fertile plains below the Western mountains and ended in large Roman cities. The merchant was the first link in that chain. In Judea, farmers planted winter wheat in October and harvested it in March. As the wheat from last year’s crop was consumed through the winter growing season, the supply decreased and prices rose until the next harvest re-filled the barns and drove the price back down. An enterprising trader could buy wheat at planting time with borrowed money and then wait for the price to rise as stores dwindled. It was a gamble that the price of wheat would rise faster than the interest expense, a gamble the merchant had won for many years.
The merchant sat alone in his counting room, a dark secure place at the very center of the house, quiet as a cup. He had made a fortune in the grain markets, just over 2 talents ($ 2 million), free and clear, which made him the richest man by far in this part of the country. He was an observant Jew, both enterprising and generous. Drawing on everything a lifetime of experience could tell him, he ran silently through the risks and rewards of the upcoming planting season: moisture in the air, the smell of the soil, the feel of the seeds in his hands, the labor market. He recalled conversations with subsistence farmers anxious to lock in a price and a down payment that would ensure their survival for another year, heated discussions with other traders, sometimes fearful, sometimes bold, the sideways glance of a nervous banker, processing and weighing every detail.
With planting season only a month away, he had borrowed new money from his bankers and negotiated the interest he was required to pay them. The bankers had lent him $ 6 million secured by his $ 2 million of capital. With a total of $ 8 million of working capital, the financing for the upcoming season was in place. Now it was time to negotiate contracts with small farmers whose grain he would buy at a fixed price today, assuming all risk of loss in the future. In six months’ time, a weak harvest would allow the merchant to sell his wheat at a profit while a good harvest could bankrupt him.
But the merchant would not be there to see the harvest. He had planned a business trip to the east in search of new trade and would be gone for six months. The new trade was in pepper, purchased in Arabia and highly valued in the spice-less west. It was a long distance trade that would require reliable sources of supply in dangerous foreign countries and plenty of working capital. If successful, it would be wildly profitable.
While away in pursuit of the new trade, the merchant planned to leave his local business in the hands of his house servants, young men who had lived with him and his family for many years. He was their client, and they were bound to him in the Roman custom for all necessities and protections. They had watched and learned the grain trade from him, and at this point they knew every farmer and banker in the region as well as he did. They had shared in every risk and in every triumph, large and small. But now in the long nights of his absence they would face the many risks of the business alone. With all the capital of the merchant on the line, they alone would have to decide when to buy, when to sell, how much and to whom. They alone would have to withstand the gut-wrenching ups and downs in the price of wheat, jumping at every rumor that ran through the town. Above all they would have to placate the bankers who were never secure, always rapacious, and fully prepared to call in the loans at the first sign of trouble in the market. Such a run would cause a fire sale, forcing the servants to sell their contracts at the worst possible time, a disaster that could ruin their master and themselves.