Parable of the talents

A sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

If you were here last Sunday, you might recall that I observed how during these final weeks of the liturgical year our readings turn to themes of crisis and challenge. There is probably no other parable quite so unsettling as the one we just heard read aloud, the parable of the talents from the gospel according to Matthew. Set it alongside of parables such as the lost sheep or the prodigal son, and you almost wonder if you’re hearing this one from a different teacher. Where’s the sense of grace? Where’s the relentlessness of the Shepherd who insists that the one lost sheep must be found, or that the lost brother must be welcomed home with a feast?

And what is this teaching that says, “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”?  Just six chapters earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had said that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 19:30), which seems now to have been flipped on its head. Which is it, Lord?

While I’m at it, I think I’d like to ask Jesus why he didn’t stick with his imagery of God as a good shepherd or a stubbornly loving and forgiving father. It is much tougher to hear a parable that at first glance seems to equate God to a wealthy and even ruthless landowner, who rewards canny businessmen and doles out punishment to the cautious guy who couldn’t bear to risk losing the master’s money on the stock market. Who wouldn’t rather have a Good Shepherd, who will track us down when we get ourselves lost?

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Well, sure we would. But note that as Jesus crafts his parables, he is not shy about using shady characters to say something about God. Elsewhere in the Gospel tradition we have an unjust judge, an almost wildly vengeful king, and a rather wily—some might say corrupt and conniving—servant fill key parabolic roles. These aren’t allegories, after all, in which the various characters directly represent real life ones. These are parables, intended by Jesus to hit his audience in disarming ways with disarming truths.

And just who is the audience for the parable of the talents? There are in fact three layers to that answer. The first audience was the company of disciples to whom the parable was originally told. And what is the subject here? It is “the Kingdom of heaven,” which is also the subject of the parable of the ten bridesmaids, which immediately precedes it. This is told to that group of insiders, who have been on the road with Jesus for some time, and have been witness to all that he said and did. The crisis is at hand—the authorities are giving clear signs that they are about to shut down Jesus and his movement—and now is the time to confront the question of how life must be now be lived. Lest those oftentimes thick-headed disciples kid themselves that this is going to be a smooth ride into the Kingdom, Jesus presses them into preparation for all that will follow. Among other things, he wants to be abundantly clear that they have been entrusted with very real responsibilities here: “to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” Maybe the high profile disciples such as Peter or James will carry a bigger share of the responsibility, but there are also the lesser known characters in that group of twelve—Thaddaeus and Simon the Cananaean, for instance—who might fairly be thought of as being one or two talent players. Whatever they’ve got to work with, the challenge is to actually work it.

The second layer to the audience is those to whom Matthew originally directed his gospel; a young church caught in the fire of persecution, quite fully aware that simply to be a Christian was a dangerous proposition. If the Roman soldiers are rattling their swords every time the emperor begins to get nervous about the Christian movement, it was probably pretty tempting to bury one’s Christian commitments quite deeply out of view; prudent to do so, in fact. Better to be cautious and survive than to risk being out in the open and finding yourself tossed to the lions.

But it is not prudence that is coached here; it is faith. Take what you have been given, trust the giver of the gift, and then risk actually living the good news. If they arrest you for it, keep on trusting that this was the right and truthful thing to do as people entrusted with something of great value. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers—writings from the late 1st and early 2nd centuries—are filled with stories of those who lived in this way, and who even in their deaths were powerful witnesses to life in Christ.

And then there is a third level to the audience, which includes us and the whole of the church tradition which over the centuries has dared to read this parable and to hear its challenge. We, of course, hear it more at arm’s length than did either of the other audiences. We are a world away from Peter, James, John and the others, who originally puzzled at what Jesus was saying with his picture of this demanding landlord and his slaves, and we’re a world away from the madness of emperors like Nero and Domitian, whose actions made it so very tempting to go take the gospel into hiding.

And yet that foundational challenge remains: we are to take what we have been given, trust the giver of the gift, and then risk actually living the good news. It was only the third slave in the parable who, armed with his assumptions about the harshness of the master, acted fearfully. The other two simply grabbed hold of that with which they’d been entrusted and jumped in. What is it that this cautious third slave says to the master when he comes to present his carefully hidden talent?  “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.” I hear this as being at the heart of how the parable should rattle us. The issue for this slave is that he has made a judgment regarding the character of the master—the master is “a harsh man”—and so he freezes up and acts not out of faith but out of that cautious prudence. This of course leads the master to wind up and blast him: “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” And Jesus rolls the parable out from there, in the manner so typical of these parables from the latter part of the gospels. The slave not only loses what he was given, but sees it handed on to the slave who already has a wallet full of profit, and then he is hoisted out into the darkness… And lest his audience—all three layers of it, no less—miss the point of his unsettling challenge, Jesus adds his over-the-top statement that to those who have more will be given, and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

Of course it might be worth reminding you that those like Peter who actually rose to the challenge of this parable ended up being killed for their efforts. This isn’t a parable on how to find success and prosperity as a follower of Christ, and it certainly isn’t a business formula. It is instead a call to deal with God not “on the basis of what we think he is like” but instead “on the basis of what we trust him to be in Jesus.” (That’s from Robert Capon, just in case you were wondering…)

When Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was here with us a couple of years ago, he told us a story about Clarence Jordan, the founder of a mixed race intentional Christian community called Koinonia Farm, which was established in Americus, Georgia in the 1940s. Shortly after the farm was settled, members of the local Ku Klux Klan came by and told Jordan that, “we just wanted to let you know that in these parts we don’t let the sun set on people like you.” Jordan smiled, stuck out his hand, and said, “Pleased to meet you. I’ve been waiting all my life to meet someone who could make the sun stand still.” Not that it made life easy for Koinonia Farm, and in fact they faced pretty heavy and hostile resistance over the next several decades. But that little community put its talent to work for the sake of the master, trusting that the God they had met in Jesus was faithful to them. It is precisely that kind of imprudence that stands at the heart of this parable, and indeed of the very Kingdom that is Christ’s.


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