Today’s gospel reading is best known as “The Parable of the Talents”. It’s a long story, there’s a lot happening in it. This is another of Matthew’s “the Kingdom of heaven is like this” stories; stories Jesus tells about how things are in God’s realm.
To begin, it is interesting where Matthew chooses to place this parable in his gospel—right near the end of it, just before the Last Supper. The placement of parables in the overall gospel is significant; remember the gospels weren’t written as a history of Jesus’ life, but to provide the communities of faithful followers with Jesus’ teachings.
So then, what’s this story all about? Like many of Jesus’ stories in Matthew, it’s filled with hyperbole or exaggerations, as emphasis. There are huge sums of money and a really nasty ‘outer darkness’ full of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and a master who goes away for a really long time, leaving his servants in charge of a huge estate. In a nutshell it goes like this: a man is leaving on a journey and leaves his three servants in charge of his vast estate -- one receives five talents, another two talents and the third one talent. The English word talent comes from the Greek talanta, a form of currency. One talanta was worth fifteen years of wages. So five talents is equivalent to seventy-five years of wages, more than a lifetime’s worth—an exorbitant sum. Even two talents is equal to thirty years wages, we’re talking millions of dollars that the servants are left to manage. The man is away for a long time, and when he returns, he wants an accounting of what his servants have done with the massive amount of wealth he has tasked them with.
Now, the man who is going on a journey is an extremely generous master. He really is taking a huge risk leaving his enormous wealth to servants to look after for such a long duration of time. And he is wise in how he distributes his riches, giving to each as he assesses that they will be able to handle it—not overburdening any of them, nor risking his own money by giving too much to the ones whom he thinks may not be able to cope with it—but still willing to give him a chance! And then leaves, allowing them make the decisions as they best see fit. And as we all know when dealing with investments, there are always risks involved! Not only is this master generous and wise in his dealing with his servants, but trusting as well.
After a long time away, he returns and asks his servants to report to him how they’ve managed while he’s been gone. The first and second servants each doubled their returns, and the man is well pleased with them both, and he tells them so. And they are both rewarded with being given charge of even more and are told they will enter the joy of their master. They will live in the happiness of their Lord.
It’s different story for the servant who received only one talent, which, to be sure, is still a goodly amount! He has a different viewpoint of his master than the other two servants. He doesn’t see the master as generous and wise and trusting. The master is a rich and powerful man, and he fears the master’s power. He was afraid of what might happen to him if he lost any of his master’s money. So rather than take any chances of any losses, he is very prudent, and he buried the money in the ground, keeping it safe, knowing that it would still be there when the master returned. His fear actually paralyzed him from making any decisions, and burying the money was in effect a refusal on his part to deal with it at all. He is playing it super safe.
And the master is truly angry with servant number three. Why would that be do you think? Because he chose to do nothing with the riches he was given. He chose to ignore the opportunity he’d been given by his Lord. It was wise of the master to only give him one talent to start with, don’t you think? Indeed, servant number three didn’t squander the money. But he didn’t even do the bare minimum and bank it to get the interest! Sure, there are risks in investing, with opportunity for failure; but also opportunity for positive gain. But this servant chose to do absolutely nothing, he totally ignored the gracious and large gift and the opportunity presented him. He wasted the generosity and the trust given him by his master. The master is angry because the servant chose to do nothing, literally bury the opportunity and pretend it wasn’t even there.
I find it interesting also how the master addresses the third servant’s accusations of him being harsh and fearful. He doesn’t deny it, but instead, he turns it around, asking why the fear of his master’s reprisals didn’t even motivate him into the most minimal of action, which would have been to bank the money. And that is what upset the master, the lack of action. Our story says that servant three is thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But I do think this is more of a recognition of the impact of servant’s attitude to life. People who choose to live in the darkness of negativity and fear, even in the face of generosity and care, often find their lives are full of life of darkness and pain, instead of living a life of joy and love of the master’s world.
Once you delve into it a bit, there’s more to this story than a warning call to be responsible for the gifts and resources we’ve been given, although that is of course very much a part of it. It doesn’t take a Doctorate in Theology to realize who the characters in this story represent! Matthew gives us a clue in placing his story before the crucifixion and resurrection. The master who goes away is Jesus; the servants are all of us. In its essence, this is a story about we, the people who are left behind after Jesus’ ascension, and what we do as we await his coming again. Which is also why it comes where it does in the lectionary schedule of readings, just two Sundays before Advent begins!
This is still a story relevant for churches today. How do we view what we’ve been given by God to work with, all the resources we have—the buildings, the finances, the people on our parish roll. How do we view them, with the lens of abundance or scarcity, as opportunities to be used for the growing of God’s Kingdom, or barely enough to keep the doors open? Do we take a risk and try something new and different, or are we paralyzed with fear about trying anything for fear we’ll lose what we have? Because when we’re afraid to do anything, we are living in the negativity and fear of the dark, instead of in the light and love of the Lord. If you do nothing, nothing changes.
We are graced with many resources, all gifts from God. We are living in a new era, life is different, impacting us all, impacting our church. How are we growing God’s Kingdom, how are we reaching out to people in need in our community, people who need to know the love of the Lord? How will we implement the Marks of Mission in a post pandemic world, in a post-Christendom time? What does it mean to be faithful disciples of Jesus, of figuring out what God wants us to do in this time and this place. As we ponder these things and think about decisions that will need to be made, let us remember this parable. What talents do you have that God may be calling you to use to further God’s Kingdom in our little corner of God’s world. What do we have corporately as a Church? Let us see the things the Lord has given us to work with as what they are; gifts of generosity to be used for the work of bringing about God’s Kingdom, until Christ comes again. When we live in the light, we have nothing to fear. Amen.