The following is an edited version of the sermon for Sunday November 19.
This parable of the talents is difficult. I’ve struggled with it for about 8 weeks. I will offer you my provisional answer about what it means.…and let you decide its meaning for youselves.
As it begins, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to tell them about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Then he starts from a strange proposition “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one… to each according to his ability.
A talent was the equivalent of 15-20 years worth of wages for a labourer, so the Master was giving his slaves the equivalent of 75, 30 and 15 years worth of wages. Regardless of which slave you look at it was a fabulous amount of money.
The Master did not issue directions about how the money was to be used. The Master knew each person well and gave the money to each according to his ability.
Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents … made five more The one who had the two talents made two more … But the one who had received one talent dug a hole and hid his master’s money. nAfter a long time the master returned and settled accounts with them.
Apparently the timing of his return was a surprise, as it was in the parable of the bridesmaids in last week’s gospel. You may recall that 5 of the 10 did not bring enough oil for their lamps, if their master was delayed. When he returned and they trimmed their lamps five of them did not have enough oil.
One way to understand this parable is to recognize that Matthew was writing to an early Christian community exhorting them to work diligently and avoid laziness. We know from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians that this was an issue for the early church. Some of them thought the Christ would return immanently and that they didn’t have to work, just wait. Matthew may have included this parable as a warning to his community about laxity…. Use your talents, he was telling them. This perspective helped…but not much.
Next I looked at the context. Jesus told this parable to his disciples in Passion Week, after he confronted the Pharisees, Scribes, Herodians and priests. As the privileged sons of Jesus’ day who had studied scripture who lived and worked close to the temple they had every benefit or talent that their culture, history and education could give them. They should have been open to the ways of God.
Jesus had taught his parables and beatitudes freely and openly to anyone who would listen. They might have learned something if they had paid attention with an open heart. They saw that Jesus had cured blind and lame. They might have regarded him with awe and respect. Even the least curious among them might have wondered where his power came from.
They knew that he fed thousands, freely and without self-aggrandizement. The Scribes and Pharisees could have learned about generosity and humility from him. They knew he lived simply, that he had compassion and integrity. They might have learned from his example.
The talents that he offered them were new interpretations of scripture, demonstrations of miraculous divine power, generosity, acts of mercy and his own lifestyle. They might have responded to any one of these gifts…but they didn’t. They didn’t listen to the voice of the Spirit inviting them to do more with what had been lavished on them.
The overall context seemed to suggest a judgment on the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees who refused to listen to God’s word which had been offered to them in many ways. The parable might have been a message about squandered opportunity aimed at these favoured children.
Still, I was troubled by the judgment on the servant who buried his talent. The standard interpretation of this parable is that the third slave perceived his master was harsh. He feared that if he mishandled the money he would be punished severely. So he buried it then retrieved it on the master’s return. It seems benign …if unproductive.
After all scripture urges ‘fear of the Lord’ meaning awe, reverence, adoration, honor, worship, confidence, thankfulness, love, and, yes, fear… as one of the divine counsels.
Instead of approval the master’s response was to call the slave wicked and lazy, …which seems to confirm that he is harsh. It also seems unduly severe. The master then says, 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.
This is shocking. It appears to contradict the first beatitude, Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven and seems to substitute another beatitude, which might be paraphrased, Blessed are the smart investors, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
The parable gets more difficult still. At its conclusion the master says, As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
And we ask “why” what did he do that was so wrong?
A common way to interpret the parable uses allegorical substitution. The master is God; the slaves are the people of the earth, and; the talents are different gifts that God gives. The interpretation goes something like this… Since God is largely out of sight he gave humanity the freedom to use the gifts in any way we want. But when God returns, he will judge us based on what we have done with those talents.
This standard interpretation has several problems. The allegory accepts the portrayal of God as harsh, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed.
These phrases suggest that he stole what did not belong to him. That is totally inconsistent with how Jesus had talked about God.
Additionally, the allegorical stand-in for God contradicts our notion of a God who cares for the poor when we hear him saying, 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.
It undoes other statements about how difficult it will be for the rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:23-24) a few chapters prior.
Finally, the master seems more than harsh in his judgment of the third slave. He appears cruel…throw the slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, seems disproportionately negative.
This interpretation hinges on the characters of the master and the third slave. If we take a different look at these two people the difficulties may clear up.
As Jesus tells the parable, the master is trusting, generous and wise in his assessment of abilities. As the story opens he entrusted a lot of money to his slaves. He does not tell them what to do with it. He gave them a lot of freedom.The characterization of him as harsh and, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed, is an accusation leveled by the third slave…the first two slaves said nothing of the sort.
Again, as Jesus tells the story, the third slave who was given one talent was deemed to have the least ability of the three slaves, which suggests something about his character. Perhaps his integrity and his willingness to work were in question even as the story began. Certainly, the master judged him the least worthy of trust with a large amount of money
The third slave may have incurred the master’s judgment at the end of the parable NOT because he buried the money but because he unfairly accused the master of being harsh and taking what was not his when the evidence about the master’s character is otherwise.
He not only did nothing with the talents he was given but he blamed the master for his failure to do anything, impugning God’s character as he did so. Calling the slave wicked and lazy was the final judgment of an extended string of events that began before the opening of the parable when the master judged him less worthy of trusting with a large amount of money. It was not based solely on the zero return on investment. When the slave accused the master of being harsh and dishonest he may have burned his last bridge in the process leading to the master’s condemnation. Up until then the master had still been prepared to offer him a degree of trust.
This parable seems to be, ultimately, about how different people respond to God’s generosity. It is NOT about successful investment strategies. The first two slaves respond to God’s trust and generosity by taking initiatives that advance his kingdom, each within his own context. The talents each of us receives are not necessarily money. For some they are natural gifts of health, beauty or intelligence. The gifts can also be the love and support of families. Sometimes we will experience them as coincidences.
For all of us it is also our baptism, the sacraments and the teachings of Jesus.
These gifts are to help each of us expand God’s kingdom. God expects us to use the talents he has given us, whatever they are.
One can almost hear a tone of frustration and pleading in the master’s voice when he spoke to the third slave…“Couldn’t you have at least invested with the bankers”.
He would have accepted something no matter how little.
Finally we are left to explain the comment 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.
The more, is grace. When we use it God gives us more. It expands and grows like a seed that turns into an apple tree.
Like the many interpretations the parable is open to many conclusions. Let me summarize a few.
- God is extravagantly generous and trusting
- Don’t hide your talents. Use them.
- Don’t be ruled by fear.
- Respect God’s character and his call to build up his kingdom with awe, thanksgiving and use of your talents, whatever they are.
I hope my words help you look at this parable afresh and decide what it means to you.
God bless you.