The Parable of the Talents comes at a crucial moment in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has cleared the temple and argued with the Pharisees and scribes. Moreover, he has denounced them and foretold the destruction of the Temple. At the end of this section of Matthew’s Gospel, the chief priests and elders are plotting Jesus’ death. Jesus stands at the precipice of Holy Week.
Today’s parable is part of a series of stories and images describing the coming of God’s kingdom. The disciples have asked him when God’s kingdom will come and Jesus tells them how. He tells the disciples stories of hostility and conflict. He warns them that the Temple will become a place of worship for other gods. He speaks of persecution and false Messiahs. Then, he tells four stories: comparing the faithful and the unfaithful slave, the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the parable of the talents and the separation of the sheep and the goats. Each one of these images does more than describe the coming of God’s kingdom. They seek to prepare the disciples for time between their present and their future.
Today’s parable speaks directly to how the disciples should live while they wait for God’s kingdom. It is not a story about money. It is not a story about gifts. It is a story of transformation.
Here are the facts of the parable. There are three slaves; each entrusted with money from the master. Two of the slaves invest and double their money. The third slave buries his money. It appears that he buries his money out of fear of the master. The master rewards the first two slaves for their success and punishes the last.
Scholars often say that this parable is a straightforward allegory. Jesus is the man. The disciples are the slaves. The property is the Gospel and mission of God’s kingdom. Therefore, Jesus entrusts the disciples with the task of spreading the message of God’s kingdom. There is more, though, to the parable than the allegory.
Let’s consider the last slave and his predicament. During the time of Jesus, burying money was an acceptable form of protection. This was especially important if the money was stolen. If the money was buried right after receipt, the slave was absolved of responsibility for the lost money. Plus, the only way to increase your wealth, at the time, was by fraudulent means. Anyone seen increasing their worth was suspicious and dishonorable.
By burying the money, the third slave seems to protect the money, his life and place in the community. The irony is that in his effort to protect his life and the talent, he suffers the greatest consequence. Hiding and hoarding the talent does not protect or sustain him. Instead, the third slave seals his demise.
There’s another important detail. A talent equals almost 6000 denarii; so, the first slave receives the equivalent of around 30,000 denarii. This is a small fortune; frankly, it’s unimaginable. What master would entrust a slave, nay three slaves, with a small fortune?
The parable is more than allegory. It is hyperbole, an utter exaggeration.
Imagine the disciples. They’ve come to Jesus with a serious question, “Tell us when God’s kingdom will arrive.” He’s answered them with apocalyptic images and no definite answer or timeline. Then, he tells them these four stories: each one ending with harsh judgment.
Of the four stories, this one supports a life fundamentally different from what the disciples know. The amount of money alone would have grabbed their attention. Then, punishing the one who buried the money is shocking. Together, these exaggerations invite the disciples into a profoundly different way of life.
Remember, this all begins when the disciples ask Jesus to tell them when God’s kingdom will reign. Jesus’ answer to the disciples paints a gruesome picture. He speaks of false messiahs, war, famines and earthquakes. He warns the disciples that they will be tortured and put to death. He calls for their watchfulness, to be ready for the kingdom to come at any moment. None of this is very enticing or resembles a positive marketing plan. Instead, these descriptions resemble a warning: discipleship is demanding and challenging. If the disciples want to participate in God’s kingdom, their whole lives will undergo dramatic change. The disciples never get an answer to their question; instead, they receive a challenge to live differently.
This is the point I’m trying to make. When the disciples hear this story, they hear something different than we do. We expect that the slaves will invest and double the money of the master. We are surprised when the one slave buries his treasure. For the disciples, it is the other way around. Jesus uses this parable to teach and encourage the disciples to take a risk that will alter their lives.
Jesus gives the disciples, anyone who follows Him, a great treasure: the Gospel. The Gospel is the way, the truth and the life about God and God’s relationship with creation. This is primarily a life of grace, mercy, forgiveness and peace: Jesus’ life personifies these characteristics. The Gospel of Matthew shows clearly how Jesus’ way gets Him, and those who follow Him, in trouble. The Pharisees and scribes, the religious authorities, do not trust or support Jesus. Jesus also threatens the authority of the Empire. His way always works for the dignity and justice of every person, especially those at the base of society:the sick, widows, and slaves. As Jesus gives them the power of God’s kingdom, He undermines human power and authority. If the disciples choose to follow His way, God’s way, they must also live this way: eating with sinners, healing the sick and working on behalf of the slave. Jesus died because of His way of life. And Jesus warns the disciples that they will also face persecution, torture and death. The temptation, then, to hide the gift of the Gospel is strong.
Now, let’s be honest: we do not face physical persecution, torture or death for our faith. None of us will lose our lives, today, for being Christians.
And, being a Christian still changes our lives. Other than Jesus, our Baptismal Covenant is the best model, for how we are changed. It reminds us that proclaiming the Gospel with our lives is no easy task. It requires forgiveness as the core of all we do. It challenges us to respect the dignity of EVERY human being, and seek and serve Christ in ALL persons. It dares us to work for justice and peace. To live this way is akin to looking like a fraud because we invest our treasure instead of burying it. Being a Christian means we do things differently than the way we’ve always done them.
The Parable of the Talents invites us to make a choice. I will confess I do not really appreciate the parables tactics. I’m never fond of anyone being sent into outer darkness. And the weeping and gnashing of teeth always makes my teeth hurt. Yet, the end, the end that bothers me so much, is essential. Yes, the disciples take a great risk when they share with others the treasure they’ve received. There is a greater risk: denying and losing our relationship with God. The Parable invites us to embrace the gift of the Gospel despite the risks.
We are all in a constant state of transformation: learning and becoming more of who God calls us to be. None of us reaches a state of perfection. The parable does not demand that we reach some goal. Instead, it asks us to try; to follow Christ even (or especially) when it means doing something differently.
I want to end with a prayer adapted from a blessing I heard this week from Bishop Knudsen:
Almighty and eternal God, giver of life and creation, we ask for your grace that we may never sell ourselves short. Give us this grace that we may risk something big for something good, remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but Truth, and too small for anything but Love. And so, we offer ourselves to your service through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.