Sermon on The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 28 (November 13, 2011)
by Todd McKee
When I was a child my sister and I were always greeted on Easter morning with similar baskets overflowing with jelly beans, chocolate rabbits, and candy of all sorts. But my sister and I had very different approaches to managing our candy supply. Within days or maybe even hours my sister had entered into the joy of her basket and had consumed every bit of her candy. But I, on the other hand, was a strange child. I was a saver, maybe even a hoarder. And so I might still have part of a chocolate bunny left in the freezer when Halloween came around again.
Because I’ve always been a saver when I hear the parable of the talents and I see the harsh treatment of the slave that buried the master’s talent in the ground I am uncomfortable. Something seems unfair and confusing. What is wrong, after all, with keeping the master’s money in a safe place?
Well, it might just be that this sort of surprise about the outcome is part of the intention of this parable—a way to get our attention. I’ll come back to that…but first a little background.
We are approaching the end of the Church year. Next Sunday is the last Sunday in our Church calendar before the new Church year begins again in Advent. And at the end of the year we read lessons that put us in mind of end things including the bible’s teaching about Judgement. In a sense these lessons ask us to think about the question: What really matters in the end?
This year the lectionary has us focus on Matthew’s Version of Jesus’ last significant teaching before his crucifixion. This teaching is in parables and today we hear the middle one of a three-part series. Last week it was the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids and next week it is the Sheep and the Goats. Today it is all about the Talents.
Matthew collects together parables of Jesus here that he thinks will help to support and give encouragement to his original audience: struggling Jewish converts in the new church. Although I know phrases like “weeping and gnashing of teeth” don’t sound so encouraging.
There are confusing and troubling things in these parables that may distract us, but there is also some great food for thought related to Matthew’s original reason for including them here: to get readers to reflect on how one should live in relation to the future. This was a church in transition and faced with issues about how to organize, what it meant to separate from Judaism, what it meant to be a disciple of one who was no longer with them, and what it means to wait faithfully.
Last week the story of the wise and foolish Bridemaids asked us in a sense Should we be careless about the future? And this week we read on to hear this story of the talents which raises other questions about how we should live in relation to the future.
I want us to look again at this story but first I have one disclaimer: In light of the financially troubling times that we live in I want to say clearly that the point of this parable is not to teach that the way the world works is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is not Jesus’ teaching about money. We had that earlier in Matthew with direct sayings like “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…” or the even more blunt “You cannot serve God and wealth…”.
So this is not a proof text approving ridiculous returns on investments at the expense of others anymore than it should be used as a proof text supporting slavery just because there are slaves in the parable. OK, so now that I have that off my chest, back to the story…
Three things jump out at me in this parable: This is first of all a parable about abundance and therefore immense trust. The amounts of money given to these slaves is unbelievable. A talent is no small amount of riches.
I think when I heard this story in Sunday School I thought of talents as coins: Something like “To one he gave five nickels, to another two, to another one.” But what is being described here is quite different. A talent was equivalent to something like 20 years wages, an amazing amount of money.
So what would that look like for us? Well according to the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign the Master would have been dishing out talents worth about $1,275,880. So the story in our day might read more like “To one he gave over $6 million, to another $2.5 million and to another just over a million dollars…”
So that’s the first thing that jumps out at me: The story begins with amazing wealth. The master entrusts them with “super-abundant” amounts of money.
The second thing that jumps out at me is how surprising, even scandalous, this story is. Fellow savers and hoarders beware: this does not end as we might think it should.
When the master returns I imagine all of them lined up in order with the slave with the one talent at the end of the line, so proud that he has every last penny of the 1,275,880 to return. But then I imagine that his expression changes dramatically, and panic starts to set in as he sees that the rogue slaves ahead of him have DOUBLED their money and are reaping great rewards. How can this be?!
And we are supposed to respond REALLY?!! And the answer is no, not literally, but yes, really the kingdom of heaven is upside down like that. This is probably a message for the religious leaders of the day and perhaps for those struggling to make their way away from a sort of fundamentalism about the law.
In Jesus’ time crazy returns on an investment were seen as a violation of Jewish teaching and there were Rabbinical teachings admonishing burial as a safe, admirable way to keep money. So what we seem to have, as with many parables, is a turning of things on their head, and a certain amount of sarcasm. It is not the one saving in the traditional manner who is rewarded but rather the ones who took great risk.
The word used for the master “entrusting” the slaves with money seems to have the connotation of entrusting or passing on tradition. And when the master praises the slaves who got the amazing returns on their investment he calls them “trustworthy”—and the word that is used there seems to imply that they are being called good believers and good risk takers.
The Kingdom of God, this parable seems to say, is not all about keeping certain laws and traditions just so, for the sake of appeasing some angry, harsh God. Those are not the people who will be joyful in the end. Rather it is those who are willing to take healthy risks, to take the abundance they are given and double it, living life to the fullest. Keeping the chocolate bunny in the freezer, it turns out, only leads to freezer burn and not to the joy for which it was intended.
So the first two things are abundance and this sort of scandalous message about risk taking versus tradition.
The third thing that jumps out at me is the motivation of the slave with the one talent. Why is it that he doesn’t do anything with his talent other that bury it? When he speaks to the Master he says, “I was afraid.” …I was afraid.
How often is it true that our lives are run by fear? How often have we had super-abundant potential only to be blocked by our fear–fear of failure or of being overwhelmed; fear of letting ourselves, or God, or someone else down; fear of not doing it right or fear of making a mistake; or fear of what others will think. Or sometimes it is actually the fear of responsibility, and fear of success and the expectations that that brings that hold us back.
In any case, fear is a very real spiritual force that blocks us from taking the abundance entrusted to us—each according to our ability—and making it into something more wonderful, and entering into joy.
Abundance, Risking-taking versus tradition, and joy versus fear.
This parable is meant to have some shock value. The risk taking servants who veer from the norms are rewarded—they enter into joy. And the servant who seems to do things according to custom is the one is goes off to weep in the outer darkness. This is meant to shock the listeners, and hopefully us too, into considering what kind of disciples we should be and how we should live in relation to the future. Is building the Kingdom of Heaven all about following the rules and being pious and cautious? Or is it about being trustworthy through healthy risk taking that leads to joy?
We as individuals, and together as the church, are left with these questions:
What if we all recognized that our stories also begin with super-abundance, and that everything we have and all that we are comes from God and it is worth millions?
And what if we responded to being entrusted with this wealth of talents not out of a paralyzing fear but by using our abilities, taking risks when necessary, to double this abundance and build God’s kingdom.
I bet if we lived like that we would enter in joy! Amen.