14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 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.’ 21 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.’ 22 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.’ 23 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.’ 24 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; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 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? 27 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. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What a great place to start a sermon, right? Fortunately that’s the end of the scripture passage, not the beginning.
On the surface, this seems to be a parable about investing, and at one point in the parable, Jesus does mention bankers and interest…so… I couldn’t resist one quick banker joke, with apologies to JM, our resident Bank President (of whom we are very proud!).
A man went to see his banker one day and asked him, “What’s the best way to go about starting a small business?” The banker thinks about this for a moment, and then replies, “Start a large business and then wait six months.”
You know, of course, that old bankers never die. They just lose interest.
The parable of the talents is one of three parables in Matthew 25, which is part of the last message Jesus gives to his disciples near the end of his ministry. Like the master in this parable, Jesus is about to leave, and also like the master, he plans to come back again.
So the master, we read in verse 14, “summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” In Greek, there is no distinction between a slave and a servant: The word δουλοσ is the same for both. I trust that none of you have or are slaves, so although the NRSV translates this word as “slave” I’ll be translating it as “servant” to keep it just a little closer to our own context. As I mentioned in a sermon last month, we are all servants, in one way or another.
The first question that modern readers usually ask when reading this parable is this: How much is a talent? It’s obviously currency of some sort, and as it turns out, a talent was the equivalent of 80lbs of silver. Think about that when you think about the servant who buries his one talent in the ground. That’s a pretty big hole.
A talent was worth 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was a day’s wages. So one talent was approximately twenty years of labor, or calculated using today’s minimum wage, about half a million dollars. Servant number one in our parable turned 2.5 million dollars into 5 million. In other words, forget the servant gig–today he would have a nice job offer waiting for him at JM’s bank!
The master, on the other hand, would make a lousy banker. Banks are required by law to keep a certain percentage of funds on hand–the reserve requirement. But we read that this master entrusts his property to the servants. How much of his property? The word translated as property comes from the Greek word υπαρχω which means to be, to exist, to possess. So what he entrusts is not just some of his possessions, but his very existence, the essence of himself.
If the servants were to squander or run off with what they’ve been given, the master would be completely ruined on his return. That’s a lot of trust. Basically, he gives them everything, and then walks away. To use another metaphor, the cards are on the table, and he’s all in.
This should give you a hint as to the character of the master. He himself is taking a great risk. He is leading by example. Keep that in mind; we’ll come back to it.
So far, we’ve been talking about money and currency and banking and possesions. But it’s also important to remember that this is a parable. A parable is an extended metaphor, where one thing stands for or represents another thing. Jesus never tells us for sure, but most readers interpret the master as God, and the servants as us. So the one thing the talents actually *can’t* represent is money. Money can’t symbolically represent money. That’s good news–it means this is not a sermon about money.
Ancient interpreters of this parable, knowing that money can’t represent money, figured Jesus was talking about abilities or spiritual gifts. In Greek, the word used is ταλαντα, which is a form of currency. But precisely because of this parable and it’s traditional interpretation, the word talent in modern English came to mean ability, aptitude, or skill.
So the moral of this parable, then, is “Use it or lose it.” Use your God-given abilities for God’s purposes, or else! And that’s not a bad interpretation. But I think we can go deeper. When I read this parable, I see five principles at work that we can bring to bear in our own lives, our relationships, our vocations, and in our church.
But first, another banker joke. Can you name the very first Banker in the Bible? It was Pharoah’s daughter. We read in the book of Exodus that she came to the bank of the Nile, and she drew out a little prophet.
Alright. Principle number one from the parable of the talents: What you get out of life is directly dependent on the work that you put into it. We read in verse 16 that “the one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. Only in Greek, he doesn’t “trade with them.” He literally “works” (εργαζομαι) them.
Most people instintively get this principle when it comes to their vocations, or even to their relationships, but I think we forget it sometimes when it comes to our faith, our spirituality. We think that by showing up on Sunday morning (or worse, by occasionally showing up on Sunday morning) we will somehow miraculously be transformed into spiritual, faithful people. But like all other things, you will get out of church what you put into it. Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine order, coined the phrase Ora et Labora — Latin for “Pray…and Work.” Pray like everything depends on God, and then work like everything depends on you.
Principle number two: Not everyone is dealt the same hand in life. We read in verse 15 that, to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his δυναμισ, his ability, or his strength and power. In other words, according to what the master knew he could handle. What’s interesting is that even the servant who fails is still given the benefit of the doubt. He is given less than the others, but still more than enough to succeed.
The other interesting thing here is that servant number two is given less than servant number one, and therefore gives back less than servant number one…but the master gives both of them identical praise, identical reward: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
The hands we are dealt in life are uneven, inconsistent, and often unfair. But God’s love, God’s favor, is not. All he asks is that we work for him, which is to say, for the benefit of one another.
Principle number three: None of the servants got instructions. He gives them his possessions…and then at the end of verse 15 we read: “Then he went away.” That’s it. How are they supposed to know what to do? The answer is simple, actually: To know the master’s wishes…you must know the master. I think the first two servants pick up on his example. The master takes extravagant risks. They do the same. The third servant doesn’t actually seem to know the master very well: He says “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” This goes against everything we see about the master. In fact, he has come back to reap exactly where he has sown his seed. His trust in his servants has been generous, not harsh.
So if you want to know God’s will for your life; if you want to know what God expects from you, don’t do that thing where you close your eyes, open the bible to a random page and point to a verse. How about taking the time to get to know the master? How about following his example, loving others as you have been loved, forgiving as you have been forgiven, making sacrifices, as God sacrificed himself for you?
The next principle is related: If you perceive the master as harsh and unfair, your perception might influence your reality. I don’t spend a lot of time in my sermons preaching judgment and condemnation, because frankly, I think we’re all too skilled, through our words, through our actions, at creating our own personal hell… and then wallowing in it.
The third servant accuses the master of being harsh, but it’s really his words that are harsh and judgmental. Just as the master’s actions reflect his personality, so the third servant’s words reflect his personality. And once he has spoken them, where is there for him to go but out into the outer darkness? Why would he want to enter into the joy of a harsh and cruel master? Just like the third servant, how we relate to God, how we relate to others, reveals a lot about who we are, and even influences who we become.
The Fifth and final principle is this: The last talent is the hardest one to let go of. Despite all I’ve just said about the third servant, I really do sympathize with him, and I can see myself in his words and actions. At the beginning of the story, he watches the first servant get five talents, the second servant get two, and then his turn comes. He gets one talent. One chance. One shot. No cushion. Don’t blow it. Don’t screw up.
The most honest thing that comes out of his mouth are the first three words of verse 25: “I was afraid.” Fear paralyzes us, and when we feel like we don’t have much (or as much as others) we cling all the more tightly to that little bit we have. In fact, we have this saying: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” So bury that bird, and forget about the bush. In our translation, the master calls the third servant “wicked and lazy.” He is wicked, but he isn’t lazy. The word here, οκνηροσ means hesitating, unready, and timid. And that’s what fear makes us–fear that our Master is not a good master. Fear that we don’t have what it takes, that we weren’t given all we need to thrive. Fear that what’s out there, hidden in the bush, is just a pipe dream that will leave us empty handed.
The last talent is the hardest one to let go of.
32 years ago, in 1982, this church celebrated its 100th birthday. It was a big celebration, and we were a big church, at the height of our membership and influence. Over a thousand people filled this sanctuary on Sunday mornings. A two-million dollar endowment filled our bank account, and our church calendar was filled with activities, ministries, and community outreaches every day of the week.
We’ve lost a few birds since then. Some might say we’re down to our last talent. We’re holding it in our hand, and the hole is already dug in front of us. If we bury it–preserving it unchanged for all time, exactly the way it was 32 years ago–maybe when the master comes back, he’ll see it and recognize it, and remember it the way we used to be. At least he’ll see something. The building is the same. The committees are the same. The music is mostly the same. The ministries are mostly the same. We’re just missing a few people. A few hundred people. Forgive us Lord, we’re afraid of losing it all.
But I think we know our master better than that. As we stand here holding our last talent in our hand, looking at the hole, then looking at the horizon, I think we can hear the sound of our master’s voice. Gently, insistently, he is reminding us: “I gave up everything for you. I risked everything for you. Will you risk everything for me? Would you give it all away, for the sake of those who have yet to come? Will you?”
Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master.