Parable of the talents

Sermon for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 25:14-30

Some Sundays it can be a little tough for a congregation to chime out with “Thanks be to God” at the end of one of the appointed readings, or at least it can be tough to do so without at the same time raising an eyebrow. Tonight we’ve had a reading from the gospel according to Matthew, in which Jesus has one character calling another one “worthless” before having him thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” What’s more, Jesus even has that character—identified in the parable as “master”, and in the original Greek as kuriou or ‘lord’—proclaim that “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.”

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Doesn’t that cut against the grain of so much else that Jesus teaches? Just a few chapters earlier as he brought to a close his parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.11-21), he’d said, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” At another point we’re told that, “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’” (Mark 9.35). And what about the words sung over the promise of his life by Mary, in the opening chapter of Luke? “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, / and lifted up the lowly,” she sings, but here in this Parable of the Talents the master seems to be saying that the lowly are destined to lose what little they have.” The Word of the Lord. Gulp. Thanks be to God. Double gulp.

Last Sunday night Rachel Twigg Boyce was faced with an equally challenging parable, peopled with characters who acted in ways that seemed equally uncharitable—even un-Christian—and part of what she offered was a reminder that these are parables, not descriptive or predictive accounts. In a recently published book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, the Jewish scholar of the New Testament Amy-Jill Levine makes much the same point. As she seeks to help Christians hear the “Jewishness” of Jesus’ teaching, Levine helpfully uses the language of “short story” to press her Christian readers to grapple with the imaginative and, yes, enigmatic nature of Jesus’ approach.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we can conclude that it is “just a story,” or that we can read only the stories we like all the while ignoring the ones that elude us. Jesus teaches through these stories, and any who would place themselves at the feet of this rabbi—whether disciples of the 1st century or of the 21st—need to contend with them.

Like the whole series of teachings and parables that fill the 24th and 25th chapters of the gospel according to Matthew, this Parable of the Talents is addressed directly and privately to the twelve disciples. In the preceding chapters, Jesus had been teaching quite openly, often in the public square in Jerusalem, and often with the Pharisees and temple officials very much present, questioning him and trying to back him into a corner. Here, though, he is telling his stories to those he has been mentoring and shaping over the past few years; those, in fact, most accustomed to hearing his “last will be first” subversion of the expected order of things. All the more reason to imagine that this particular story must have pretty much kicked their feet out from underneath them.

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.

You heard how it played out. The one entrusted with five talents—an enormous sum of money by the way; according to N.T. Wright a talent was equivalent to fifteen years worth of a worker’s pay—doubles it, as does the character entrusted with two talents. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave”, the master says to each of them. “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 third slave, however, “who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” As Jesus unfolds his story, this altogether cautious choice turns out to be rather the worst thing this third slave could have done. The master roars at him, saying that at the very least he could “have invested my money with the bankers” and earned a bit of interest. The one talent entrusted to him is given to the first slave—who is now working with eleven talents—and he is tossed into the outer darkness.

If we assume that the master in the parable is meant to represent God, if not Jesus himself, then this is a curious bit of counsel. The torah rather strictly prohibits the taking of interest, based on the principle that one Jew should not profit from the debt of another. In Exodus we read “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” (Ex 22:25) Yet this is not the only time Jesus will use a figure of less than impeccable character to stand in for God—the altogether vengeful king of his parable of the Wedding Banquet (Mt 22:1-10) being a notable example—which is maybe the strongest reminder to keep in view that we are dealing here with parables; with the short stories of Jesus.

Still, as he sits with his disciples and tells them story after story, what is he trying to get them to see? What is he trying to get us to see? In the view of N.T. Wright, the first two slaves are represent the disciples themselves, as well as the whole movement to which they will pass on the gospel. They are being entrusted with something more valuable than they could ever themselves earn, and they needed to put it to work. That third slave, on the other hand, represents a tradition that had become stuck and inward looking. And so Wright continues,

The scribes and the Pharisees had been given the law of Moses. They had been given the Temple, the sign of God’s presence among them. They had been given wonderful promises about how God would bless not only Israel but, through Israel, the whole world. And they had buried them in the ground. They had turned the command to be the light of the world into an encouragement to keep the light for themselves.

I think that’s a fascinating and fair interpretation of this story, particularly in light of the devastating critique of the scribes and Pharisees Jesus had voiced just two chapters earlier (Matt 23:1-39). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

Yet I think there is more going on here as well. What was it that the third slave said when he reported back to his master, his carefully protected single talent in hand?

“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.” Strange thing, though, that neither of the other two slaves gives even the slightest indication that they think of the master as a harsh man. They take what they’ve been entrusted with, and jump to it. Jesus is careful to say that the three slaves were entrusted with an amount “each according to his ability,” and as he tells the story it is pretty clear that the first two slaves actually believe it. The master is only shown as being harsh when he’s called harsh. “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” Well, Charlie, you don’t yet know harsh from nothing…

Take that with which you’ve been entrusted—your gifts, your talents, your passion and your compassion—and put it to work. Trust that God has given you something real, and act on it. Throw prudent and fearful caution to the wind, and “let your light so shine in the world.” Perhaps most importantly, stop imagining God as a harsh master who will knock you down the minute you make the wrong step.

And remember this, too. As N.T. Wright notes, this parable comes near the end of the long gospel narrative, “which is about to reach its great climax; and that climax comes when the son of man ‘gives his life as a ransom for many.’ When Jesus speaks of someone being thrown into the darkness outside, where people weep and grind their teeth, we must never forget that he was himself on the way into the darkness…” Tough as this parable may be, it would seem Jesus was entirely unwilling to consign a character to a place he himself would not go. Tough as he can be on the scribes and the Pharisees, as Jesus steps into the darkness of abandonment on the cross, he’s doing it for them too.

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