This Sunday’s gospel reading (Matt. 25:14-30) is the parable of the talents. In it, Jesus likens God’s kingdom to a man who entrusted to each of his three servants/slaves a large sum of money before going on a long journey. When he returned, the three servants were asked to make account of what they did with the treasure entrusted to them, and the judgment given is based on what they did with the money.
A few months ago, our Wednesday-night series on spiritual gifts used this parable as a way to begin the conversation about our giftedness and what we are called to do with the gifts God has given us. That work continues to shape my understanding of the parable. In particular, I am still wrestling with one aspect of the parable, and I sense that it will shape my sermon this week. Here’s a little hypothetical exegesis to get our collective theological juices flowing.
After going on his journey, the master returned and summoned his servants, asking them to give account of the money that had been entrusted to them. The first, who had been given five talents, came forward and said, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see I have made five more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave…enter into the joy of your master.” Then, the second slave came forward and said, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see I have made one more talent. My returns were not as great as those of my fellow slave, but I give to you what I made.” His master said to him, “Not bad, good and trustworthy slave…enter into the not-quite-so-full joy of your master.” Finally, the third slave came forward, with head held down low. “Master, I know that you are a harsh man and that you demand excellence. You gave me one talent, and I invested in a local brick-making business that had a lot of promise. But fuel costs went up, and the returns were not as good as they were projected to have been, and I lost half of your money. Here is half of a talent—all I have left.”
What would the master say?
Of course, the point isn’t to retell Jesus’ parable and improve it. The point is to highlight some of the remarkable features of the original.
In Jesus’ image of the kingdom, there is no difference in the rates of return of the first and second slave. Both double the money they are given, which is to say that both are successful. Both have something to show for their work. The third slave lives in fear of his master, so he goes and buries the talent in the ground, knowing that it would be exactly as he left it. The dialogue between master and slave is critical. We gain insight into the slave’s mindset—fear of a harsh master who squeezed every ounce of profit from an enterprise—and see what’s really behind the master’s criticism—why didn’t you at least invest it with the bankers?
It is fun for me to think about what the master would have said to the third slave if he had invested it in an enterprise but lost money. Would he be happy? No, probably not. But would he castigate the slave for his worthlessness and laziness? I doubt it.
The parable of the talents isn’t supposed to invite fear of the kingdom. It’s supposed to invite us to overcome our fear and participate. The basis for the criticism of the third slave is his inactivity—not the comparable return. God isn’t asking us to achieve amazing returns with the lives he has given us. Yes, that could very well happen, but that isn’t the point. Instead, God’s kingdom is about God’s people stepping out of a place of fear and using what we have been given for the establishment of God’s reign here on earth. Different servants have different abilities. Some shine at the top of the heap, while others labor quietly in the back. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we take what we’ve been given and use it.