Recently on This American Life, a program on National Public Radio, they addressed our current economic climate in a valiant attempt to make understandable to a dummy like me such arcane things as “credit default swaps” and “stock infusion plans.” I’m sure most of you understand these financial instruments. When we read this parable it’s easy for these kinds of economic tools to come to mind.
“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. Matthew 25:14-29
Because the word ‘talent’ has become our term for natural abilities it is easy to miss the point that this parable is really talking about money. Luke, in his version of this parable, has each servant given 10 minas. A mina was worth about 100 denarii and a denarius about a day’s wage. In contrast, when Matthew speaks of talents you need to understand that a talent was around 6,000 denarii. So the first servant was given the equivalent of 30,000 days wages. That is a hefty sum! So note, Matthew is spinning a real yarn here. It is not meant to be taken literally. Money was a potent metaphor in Jesus’ day even if the ancient world didn’t have our complex finance markets. They knew about investments and profit. Like now, people then could imagine what they would do with such a large a sum money. Just as in the first parable in this section where the lamp oil comes close to being a description for the Spirit, so here money is the metaphor for what is potent in and for the kingdom. It may also be seen as a way of talking about the Spirit or at least about the life of God within us. It is missing the point to think that this parable is talking about how we use our various natural abilities. It is more about how we allow the life of God to flow through us – because it is powerful- like money!
In this parable Jesus suggests that the ruler of the Kingdom was a venture capitalist who was something of an extortionist, predatory lender, and a foreigner to boot. The most difficult part of the story for us to grasp is the connection between such hard nosed alien investor and God. How could anyone envision God as a ruthless extortionist? As this man prepared for his journey home he placed in the hands of three budding entrepreneurs his substantial fortune valued in today’s terms at about $5 million, a sum which to the impoverished contemporaries of Jesus seemed uncountable. To the general populace in a culture wary of change only the devious and immoral could amass this much wealth.
Evidently with no concern over taxes on short term capital gains, two of these entrepreneurs trade the resources with which they were entrusted and doubled the money they were given. These two were pretty savvy investors. They were bold and risky. And though we don’t know what specific instructions they were given, it was clear that this too was to be a profitable venture for their master. How was this possible? It seems likely that since the story assumed the rich man was a foreigner we might suspect that these two were non-Jews as well. As gentiles they could lend money at exorbitant rates and enforce repayment with the threat of prison. If someone could not repay, he was jailed until his family could repay the loan. The populace hated such lenders for their power and their wealth. They drained the poor people, taking an unfair share of a harvest or grain production as repayment. I really don’t think the parable is setting out the investment practices of these two or of their benefactor as a model for us to follow. I think Jesus aimed this parable at his followers, who much like us, saw themselves as fearful of acting on such a great opportunity or challenge.
It’s not difficult to feel for the one who was given one talent, especially in today’s economy: who doesn’t feel like digging a hole and burying any wealth you may have? What would a cautious, honorable person do? Bilking money from the poor was immoral. Without government controls or insurance, no investment was truly safe. So the honorable man would bury his master’s money. Hidden away far from one’s dwelling, no thief could find a man’s gold or silver. And, since inflation in the ancient economic order was unimaginable, money maintained constant buying power from generation to generation. You see, in Jesus’ day, it wasn’t considered foolish to bury one’s wealth. Burying money was regarded as the best security against theft. Even Jewish rabbis insisted that anyone who buried his master’s money was not liable for it, since this was the most prudent course of action. Many of us can relate to the fear this one expresses. We constantly struggle with failing to live up to expectations and with the temptation to bury our resources so that others cannot criticize.
But as much as we may sympathize with and encourage those who are fearful, this way of living will not do when one’s faith is in Christ. And you also have to acknowledge that although this one only had one eighth of the funds, that was the equivalent of nearly half a million dollars. I’ve heard some people say, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Well, it is from this text where that idea springs – but it isn’t that God doles out lose, suffering and disappointments based on our emotional or spiritual make-up. The text suggests that the challenge to the one who was given this smallest amount, nearly half a million dollars, did not exceed his ability. Yet, Jesus belittled the man who took what was deemed the prudent course and praised the venture capitalists as the image that most revealed the Kingdom. What is this connection between God’s calling on our lives and the spiritual gifts and graces we have for simply being faithful to what God entrusts to us?
The parable challenges us not to sit on the life of God in us. A variant on the same theme of keeping the oil in supply, living from the life of God and not sitting back in complacency on the basis of status or, here, not snuffing out the flame because our narrow values and restricted perspectives will not allow us to keep up with God’s generosity.
If the modern use of talents has any relation to the text, it is at the level of letting God’s life do its adventures with us and putting our talents (our natural abilities) at God’s disposal. The talents of the parable are really about God’s life and power, not about our natural abilities. But the appropriate response is to allow God’s investing hand to employ our resources and abilities.
The tragedy is that many of us are afraid of losing God or endangering what belongs to God and so we seek to protect God from adventures, to resist attempts at radical inclusion that might compromise God’s purity and holiness. Protecting God is simply not trusting God. God is bigger than our religious industry. The call is to stop putting God under the mattress. As we begin to allow God to move through us, as individuals our lives change for the better and as a result our Meeting changes, our families change, our communities have a better chance of change.
We could ask what was going on inside the head of this third servant as to his commitment, courage and worldview. It is clear from the story that it wasn’t that he was stupid or lazy. Was the money entrusted to the servants an “amazing–a reckless, unearned, unheard-of trust.” The first two “responded with daring, courageously doubling both the principal of the bequest and the principle behind it. This third one evidently did not understand what he’d been given. He was immobilized by fear.
The story challenges us when fear prevents us from taking the risks of a life fully lived, a faithful life that follows Jesus no matter what may lie ahead (remembering as we read the story that what lay ahead for Jesus was suffering and death, but resurrection, too). One writer shared that: “[T]o be a child of the generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, nonetheless, to insist upon viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear provoking is to live a life that is tragically impoverished….For those who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed quivering in endless fear.”
Could it be that we bury our faith, our relationship with God, the gospel itself, or at least tuck it away in some hidden place, and just take it out on Sundays and emergency situations? Is our whole life affected, changed, transformed by living out our faith, by responding every day to God’s challenge to us.
Is our faith life more about safety and reassurance and security, or is it about risk-taking and openness and courage, and the unimaginable abundance to which these virtues lead? Are we willing to let the gospel loose to be a blessing to the world? Our God isn’t anything like a hard nosed, foreign predatory lender. Ours is a God who cares for us and wants us to experience the real joy of living into his life which flows within us.