Lectionary this week: the Parable of the Talents
People have used the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) to justify everything from the prosperity gospel to an image of God as a vengeful despot. In many cases, preachers and homilists have misunderstood the word “talent” to mean actual talents or skills, and used the parable to recruit deacons or Sunday School teachers.
But make no mistake: The Parable of the Talents isn’t about your ability to organize church projects or manage a room full of third graders on a sugar high. It’s about money. More accurately, it’s about what you do with the resources God has given you.
The passage: Matthew 25.14-30 (NRSV)
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.’
The Parable of the Talents is about money
In the biblical world, a “talent” was a unit of weight and value, a way to measure precious metals like gold and silver. It comes from the Greek word talanton and although the translation of the word is identical to the English word meaning skill or aptitude, it always refers to money in the New Testament. In fact, a talent was the largest unit for measuring weight — in today’s dollars, a single talent of gold would be worth as much as $1 million.
So, the Parable of the Talents isn’t just about money. It’s about a lot of money.
When we read the word “talent” through a modern, English-speaking lens, we water down the message of the Parable of the Talents. A lot of us apply our skills and natural talents to generously serve God and other people. But when it comes to cold, hard cash, we’re not nearly as generous.
Fear and hoarding in Jerusalem
It’s important to recognize that in the context of the parable, the investors aren’t free — they’re slaves who have been commanded to safeguard their master’s wealth. This raises the stakes big time. If a friend asked you to safeguard his property and you messed up, you could probably get away with a sincere apology. For a slave, the consequences of failure would undoubtedly be more severe.
Yet the slave who had the most to lose took the biggest risk and used his five talents to make multiple trades in the marketplace. The slave entrusted with two talents did the same. However the slave with the least to lose (one talent) took a different approach. Gripped by fear, he buried his talent in the ground and waited for his master to return.
We all know how the story ends. When the master returns, he rewards the first two servants and punishes the third. There’s talk of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s not a pretty scene. But the master’s displeasure wasn’t based on the fact that the third slave failed to double his money. You hire accountants or bankers to make good investments — not slaves. In fact, I suspect the master would have been satisfied if the third slave lost his talent in the marketplace.
So, what was the master’s problem? The third slave allowed his fear to make him a hoarder.
You and I face a similar dilemma when it comes to the way we spend our money. We don’t earn the same incomes and our bank balances don’t have the same number of zeroes. But we make financial decisions every day. In countless ways, we have to choose whether to embrace fear and hoard resources for our personal enrichment, or risk our relative security and act generously on behalf of those who are less fortunate.
Tax reform legislation and the Parable of the Talents
Over the next few weeks, Congress will make important decisions about the financial futures of millions of Americans. Most experts and analysts agree that the current proposals for tax reform will enrich the wealthy and large corporations at the expense of the poor and the middle class. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, over the next 10 years, families making $75,000 or less will see their after-tax incomes decrease as a direct result of the bill currently making its way through the Senate. This legislation will also handicap future generations by increasing the national debt by $1.5 trillion over the same time period, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Many members of Congress and the White House continue to promise that the legislation will be a boon to everyday Americans when in truth, it’s designed to provide tax savings for large corporations and the rich. To make these tax breaks palatable, they are preying on the financial insecurities of the masses. Unfortunately, that’s not new. It’s what politicians do. They use fear to divert our focus to our own well-being so we don’t see the big picture. Over and over, they push the hoarding mentality on the middle class to satisfy the demands of special interests.
The Parable of the Talents is dangerous to politicians because it empowers us to opt out of the hoarding mentality. Instead of incentivizing us to accumulate and protect personal wealth, the Parable of the Talents encourages us to take risks, to be generous, to reject those who peddle in fear and to courageously partner with God so everyone has enough.
Ultimately, the Parable of the Talents transforms us from hoarders to healers. By setting aside our self interest to risk generosity on behalf of others (and encouraging our elected officials to do the same), we stem the tide of income inequality and exercise our belief that in God’s world, everyone has value.
If you think about it, there really isn’t a choice. Because if we don’t risk generosity, the Parable of the Talents tells us that there are consequences. Weeping and gnashing of teeth consequences. So be smart. Be wise. Risk generosity.