The following is a precis of a homily for Nov 19, beginning with the gospel
‘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. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” The one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said the same to him…
Then the one who had received the one talent came, saying, “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.”
But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 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.
As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 25:14-30)
Some scholars think that a talent was 20 times a poor worker’s annual wage. Others calculate that a talent was the equivalent of $1.5 Million in today’s currency. So five talents might be worth $7.5 million or more. Regardless of the conversion rate, it was a large amount of money.
The people who heard Jesus tell this parable included his disciples, who were fishers, a tax collector… working class folks who made a modest living. There may also have been some Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and Priests because by this point in the gospel they were trying to gather evidence against Jesus. They couldn’t have helped being caught up in the story.
Jesus would have sparked their imagination …like asking someone, today, what they would do if they won a lottery…but with the freshness and engagement of the first time people had considered such an idea.
Between the lines we also see that the landowner, who is a stand-in for Jesus, is generous. He didn’t have to give money to each person. It was a gift.
Nor did the landowner give instructions about how they were to use their talents. He gave the slaves freedom of choice about doing something…or nothing. He did not command a course of action.
The slaves didn’t complain that they got different amounts. The Master gave to each according to his ability. It was so much money that each one would have been delighted regardless of how much they each got.
The parable does not offer any details About how the first two slaves doubled the value of the gifts. But we assume that the way was consistent with what the landowner would approve or would have done, himself, in similar circumstances.
When the landowner returned the first two came to him - with some pride, it seems - and showed him what they had done with their gifts. The landowner did not compare them but told both, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
The joy of your master was, presumably, the celebration at his return.
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’
Everything else in the parable points to the landowner as thoughtful and generous…not harsh, or someone who ‘reaps where you did not sow’.
In effect the third slave was accusing the landowner of harshness… despite the evidence. It was an unjust accusation. He was defending his own laziness, by projecting ruthlessness onto the landowner.
The landowner neither accepts nor denies the accusation. Instead, he says, Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.
The landowner condemns the third slave for doing nothing with the gift.
We have to be careful not to interpret the parable as God rewarding smart investment strategies. Nor is this about a windfall in cash. Instead it is about the uncertain timing of Jesus’ return and about using our gifts in the meanwhile.
These days, we understand the word talent as meaning some ability whether it is in music, mathematics or art, baking, knitting, or sports. The very word talent, as we use it now, derives from this gospel and refers to a knack in some field of activity. We know from experience that each of us has different skills and gifts.
Jesus was talking about how we use these natural talents to improve our lives ...and with the blessing you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things…we can see that the talents can also be used for the benefit of others’ lives. Let’s be clear: the first two characters in this parable don’t get to rest on their successes. They get to use their master’s talents in the future over many things
Jesus’ parable also tells us something about him. He lived in a narrative culture based on oral teaching. Few people could read or write. Rather than say ‘use the gifts that you have been given’ Jesus told a gripping story.
Each listener … whether it was a disciple, a Pharisee, or an poor common folk, could inhabit the parable and imagine what he or she would do with the talents. Jesus engaged his listeners’ imaginations in finding their place within the story.
He was a genius at addressing people in a way that involved them. He hooked them with the premise of the story …that they would be gifted with a large amount of money…but the real point of the story was for them to exercise their freedom to do good with it.
The way he concluded Throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…was also a part of his oratorical skills. The gnashing of teeth expresses regret at squandered opportunity in vivid language.
As mentioned, in this parable the landowner is a stand-in for Jesus who is both benevolent…but who was about to return to his Father shortly after the events of this gospel. He promised to return but did not give the day nor the hour.
This gospel is part of a longer discussion about the eventual coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 25:1-14) and watchfulness. (Next week, we will hear the concluding set of these stories about the coming kingdom and judgment.)
The theme of the prior discussions is You do not know the day or the hour (Matt 24:3-8, 36) The theme of next week is “we did not recognize God in our dealings”
This whole section of Matthew’s gospel is about the day of judgement and end time. So, uncertainty about when the end will arrive is important to understanding its meaning.
In this parable no one apparently knew how long the master would away or when he would return.
The words, After a long time are a proxy for not knowing the day or hour of his return. But the smart ones knew that he would return sometime and acted accordingly. Part of the message seems to be “Live every part of your life productively, stay alert, be ready for you do not know when the ‘owner’ will return.”
This gospel is also about taking a risk. The landowner - Jesus - took a risk by gifting his slaves with different amounts of money. Even the slaves’ decision to invest when the landowner hadn’t given them directions was interesting. They might have used the money for personal consumption of clothes, or property or lavish living. The parable implies that the smart slaves invested their talents with their relationship to the landowner in mind.
They brought back the original money, plus their returns-on-investment, and showed it to the landowner. They didn’t try to give him back only the principle and keep the earnings for themselves.
Each of us, here, has talents that we have been gifted with: abilities like musicality, baking, listening and friendship or financial advantages because of education and good fortune.
This gospel tells us three things.
First, regardless of what we have received we should use these talents freely, mindful that they are gifts.
But there is a second kind of talent or gift that each person possesses, and that is our faith. This gospel says that our faith is not just an intellectual assent to a creed. It is meant to be expressed in good works.
This raises the second point. We should also know that there are risks in doing God’s work. Those we work with may not appreciate or thank us,…some may even accuse us of being harsh or “reaping where we do not sow”…It doesn’t matter. The reward we seek is not thanks from those we try to help but God’s appreciation of our work. If the gospel tells us anything about risk it is that the greatest risk is in doing nothing. The slave who did nothing with his talent was the one who was condemned.
Third, this parable is about how we should live between now and God’s coming for us. We should live our lives, aware of the presence of God regardless of whether we see him or get direct communications from him… or not. Being conscious of God in the background of all we do helps orient us to correct action.