This Week’s Lectionary Reading: 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.

Make no mistake: The Parable of the Talents isn’t about your ability to organize church projects or manage a room full of hyperactive third graders. It’s about money. More accurately, it’s about what you do with the resources God has given you.

From Hoarders to Healers

The Parable of the Talents is about money.

A “talent” was a unit of weight and value, a way to measure precious metals like gold and silver. It’s derived 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 world. 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.