“For 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. 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. Then 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.’ And 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 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.’ 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.’ 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. So 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.’ ~Matthew 25:14-30
It is the day when we dedicate our Pledges, our goals for supporting the mission and ministry of Union Presbyterian Church in 2018! And at first glance, our parable seems tailor-made for the occasion. God blesses us with gifts! They are even referred to as “talents!” And the parable seems to suggest that those who use their talents wisely—investing them—manage to double what they were originally given, and then are rewarded handsomely. The one who buries his talent—well, the master is not pleased. But let’s not dwell on that! The moral of the story is: use your talents! Invest your talents wisely! And you will enter into the joy of your master.
But… Something doesn’t quite sit right with this story. There is a dark and angry edge to this parable that I’m not sure we can simply attribute to the fact that Jesus’ death is approaching, and he’s in a dark and angry place. What is really going on here?
Let’s start with the talents. In the ancient world, a talent is a unit of measure, either of weight or money. In fact, this is the original meaning of this word as we know it today: A talent is something of worth. Great worth. In Jesus’ day, a talent was an enormous amouny of money—15 years’ wages for a day-laborer. Today in the US, a day-laborer earns an average of $14.22 an hour; this means that one talent was the equivalent of about $444,000.
A man is going away for a while, and while he is gone, he decides to entrust his property to his slaves. To one he gives five talents—that’s about $2,000,000 in today’s terms. To the next he gives two talents—the equivalent of about $888,000. To the third, a mere single talent—about $444,000.
These are staggeringly large amounts of money. It almost doesn’t seem fair. How could one possibly know? Where to even begin? What would you do with an old-school “talent”? According to the parable, the first two slaves invested and traded. What would Jesus have done?
Up until this moment, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has talked directly about money a number of times. One time, he instructed someone who longs to know how to gain eternal life, to get rid of it. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Another time was less a conversation and more of a brawl—when Jesus chased the money-changers and dove-sellers out of the Temple(Matt 21:13). Perhaps the most pointed thing he has said, though, is this: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 5:24).
All of which brings us to the man whose money is at the center of the parable. Let’s talk about him. No sooner is he introduced, than we learn that he is a slaveholder. Now, it is true that in Jesus’ day, the practice of owning slaves was widely accepted (though, I’m not sure anyone ever asked the slaves their opinion). Jesus never directly challenges the institution of slavery, but he does say something rather startling about slaves. When his followers start to express concerns over where they stand in their own internal hierarchy, Jesus says,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
~ Matt. 20:25-28
Jesus identifies with slaves. Jesus sees himself as a servant, and urges his followers to be servants to one another.
So, let’s talk about those three slaves. The first two slaves take the money they are given—in modern terms more than $2,000,000 and $888,000 respectively—and they manage to turn it into more money. They trade, they barter, they figure it out. And when their master returns, they have doubled his investment in them. He is thrilled, and they are rewarded.
At this point, I’d like to say that, for us, it seems like these slaves have done the right thing. That’s because we live in a society that rewards those who are financially successful in all kinds of ways. But for centuries, Christians heard this parable, and thought the first two slaves acted immorally. To be involved in transactions where interest was given or received, that was to break God’s law. They saw the third slave as the righteous one.
It is a truth that bears examining: We often see what we expect to see, and not only when we read scripture. We see and believe what fits with the context we live in. How else is it possible that, during the era of slavery in our own country, some read scripture and saw in it a perfect defense of slavery, and others read scripture and found in it a God who liberated slaves and punished their masters?
And so we move on to the third slave He’s the one who buried his talent in the ground—sounds like a bad idea, I agree. But remember what he said about his master, the slaveholder? “‘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’” (Matt 25:24-25).
If this slave is to be believed, the master sounds like a truly horrible person. He is a “harsh” man. He gathers crops that are not his—he steals. He cheats. The slave is honest: he is afraid of the master. But even so, he does one brave thing, maybe a foolish thing: he speaks out loud what no one else is willing to say. He tells the truth about the master. And for speaking that truth—for pointing out that this man with all the wealth and all the power is, in fact, an empty vessel and a bad person—the third slave has been cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping, and the gnashing of teeth.
I have always assumed the slaveholder to be a stand-in for Jesus. But he is the one with dollar signs in his eyes; he is the one who treats a poor slave harshly. He is the one who cares only about the financial bottom line, and who makes that chilling statement, “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.” Goodness, that does sound familiar.
But does that sound like Jesus to you?
On the other hand, the third slave—he is the one whose talent—whose weight, whose worth—is buried in the ground. He is the one who gives back all he has been given. He is the one who speaks truth to power and is thrown into the outer darkness for his pains, where there is sorrow and suffering. Jesus called himself a slave. Jesus called his disciples to act as slaves to one another. The third slave sounds to me like Jesus.
So what can we learn from him? What can we be thankful for in this story?
I’m thankful for a savior who speaks the truth to power, and maybe helps us to be less afraid in doing it ourselves, even if it means getting cast out of the league, or the film industry.
I’m thankful for a savior who preaches good news to the poor and slaves, and who refuses to call anyone, anywhere, at any time, “worthless.”
I’m thankful for a story that reminds me of this simple and blazing fact: a talent is a valuable thing. It is precious, because it is a gift from God, and it can be a gift to God.
I’m thankful for a story that bends my mind and forces me to struggle with things I thought I knew, but maybe I need to think about again. I’m thankful for the reminder that, sometimes, Jesus’ stories leave us with more questions than answers. One of my favorite pastor-theologians is Steve Garnaas-Holmes, and this week he summed up the crazy contradictions and challenges of this parable beautifully. Steve wrote,
Maybe this is a story about investing
your God-given gifts in the world,
no matter how small, for the sake of God's desires.
And since a talent is like a million dollars,
there is no such thing
as a small amount in this story.
Maybe it's about the power of fear,
power that makes us hide our gifts,
thinking them small, though they aren't,
and about how a story may be about generosity and joy
until fear enters the picture, when the tale suddenly turns
to lies and selfishness and punishment.
Maybe it's about how fear makes us judge others,
like the fearful servant saying awful things
about the person who just gave away 8 million bucks.
Maybe it's about how we fret about our “stuff,”
and whether it's enough, and what may be demanded of us,
forgetting it's not ours. It's God's.
Maybe it's about how the rich get richer
and expect people on the bottom
to comply, to play along, to feed the machine.
Maybe it's about parables, and how
the more you open yourself to them the more you receive,
but you have to give the meaning away to get it,
and if you try to get it right,
and bury the meaning safe and sound,
you will be weeping and gnashing your teeth
because the meaning is not yours
but if you share the riches
the joy will be. [i]
I’m thankful that the meaning is not mine, or at least, not mine alone.
I’m thankful to be reminded today that I am a servant of my servant-Lord.
I’m thankful that today, I am reminded to give back to God, what is God’s—no more, no less. And I’m thankful to be reminded, today, that it is all God’s.
Thanks be to God. Amen!
[i] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Parable of the talents,” Unfolding Light, November 13, 2017.