Matthew 25: 14-30
Rev. Barrett Ingram
November 15, 2020
What is your talent?
When I asked that question, what came to mind? Generally, we think of a talent as something that someone does especially well – a gifted ability. We often think of a musician, a noted vocalist, pianist or guitarist. Or someone who is good at cooking, we might imagine a skilled homemaker. Some folks are good with carpentry and woodworking, and others are good at crunching numbers. You get the idea.
Interestingly enough, a talent in the Bible has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s abilities. In fact, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the word talent became associated with gifts or abilities. It came into the English language because of this very parable – which illustrates how the Bible influences language. The Greek word, talanton,actually referred to a measurement, in this case an amount of money. And quite a measurement it was! A talent was worth about 15 years wages for a common laborer. In today’s terms, that would exceed about $350,000.
On the surface, it would appear that our story, “The Parable of the Talents,” is about money and how one should use it. The master gave sums of money to three of his slaves and the text tells us that the money was “entrusted,” so that means that the master wanted it back. It was not a gift or a loan, and there is no reason to think that they needed it. The money was given to the slaves to be held until the master’s return. The text suggests that there were expectations about the management of the money, because it says that he gave the sums to each “according to his ability” (14). So not only were they not given equal sums, but it seems that their ability to manage those sums was also unequal.
We know what they did with the money and how their abilities were put to work, and when the master returned from his journey to settle his accounts, we know that the first slave had invested his five talents and got five more, thus giving ten back to his master. The second slave had done likewise with his two and with the same rate of return, and he returned to his master four talents. So at this point the master has made seven talents out of the deal. The third slave, however, was afraid of his master and did not risk his talent and returned exactly what had been given to him -- one talent. He was afraid of losing his one talent, so “he went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money” (18).
Now we naturally see this as an act of cowardice – hiding his money in the ground. But it was actually a very prudent move. The rabbinic literature of Jesus’ time says that if something happened to the money, so long as it had been buried in the ground, the person entrusted with it would be held blameless. There were no banks or safety deposit boxes, after all. He did all he possibly could to protect the money. So naturally, we would assume the master would say to this anxious slave, “There, there… I completely understand your fears. I know you are not very good with money and know you wanted to do the right thing. It’s not as bad as it could be…you could have lost all of the money in some foolish investment scheme. You did the best you could; I appreciate your concern for protecting my money. You could have made more, but at least you haven’t lost anything.”
That, however, is not what the master says. The poor slave is berated for his cautious behavior. And even worse, what little he has is taken away from him. And the moral of the tale seems to be, as someone has said, that he who has will get more, and he who hasn’t will go to hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth – a grim sight, indeed.
There is a funny story about a Swedish Lutheran pastor who preached on this parable to his elderly congregation – most of whom took every word of the Bible literally. One of his parishioners was worried about folks who, like him, had no teeth left to gnash. So, he asked his pastor, and the pastor replied: not to worry, “teeth will be provided.” Well, we will need more than teeth if we are to take this tale seriously!
It’s worth noting that this is a tale about the second coming and judgment. Like many early Christians, the people in Matthew’s congregation were very much concerned with the end of the world; they didn’t want to be left out when Christ came again at the end of the age. This has been a perennial concern for Christians. Presbyterians generally don’t get all wrapped up in End Times excitement, and perhaps for good reason. After all, Jesus said that no one, not even himself, knows the day nor the hour (Mark 13:32). Only the Father knows! And besides that, a great deal of mischief has been done in the name of “End Times” prophecies.
So, while we may not spend much time thinking about the end of the world, I’m willing to bet that most of us have spent time thinking about our own personal ends – namely, our death. And try as we might to escape it, even with our current technology, we cannot. Death is the great equalizer; no one escapes. Whether you are great or small, rich or poor, it doesn’t matter. And as the saying goes, Death comes unexpectedly. And beyond death, the Christian tradition has always taught us that we must face God and give an account. That is the substance of our parable this morning; we must give an account.
Many preachers use this text for fundraising purposes – encouraging folks to invest in the Kingdom – usually by upping their annual pledge. And while money is what’s at stake in the parable, it seems to me that the real issue here is the stewardship of our time. It was, as our text says, while the master was away “for a long time” that the slaves in our text were entrusted with those talents (19). This is a parable about waiting; and two knew how to wait, and one did not.
While our use of money is very important, the more challenging question is this: What are we doing with our time? What are we doing with the time between our beginning and end, in the here and now? Clearly, we are to be busy about the tasks entrusted to us. Biding time simply won’t do. God will be greatly displeased if at the end of our days our lives have amounted to nothing more than waiting around for the rapture, to the neglect of our earthly responsibilities. In Jesus’ parables about time, he warns us that what matters is not so much how we await the future, but rather how we are stewards of our resources – time, talents, and treasure. “The Parable of the Talents” is about engaging the present in preparation for the future. What I’m hearing in this parable is a story about what Christians do, or don’t do, with the Gospel here and now as we await the coming Kingdom. It seems to me to be about “wise and foolish disciples – those who live the Gospel now and those who do not.”
In the verses following our parable today (31-46), Jesus gives us a sense of what he expects us to be doing before he returns. There he talks about those who are invited to “inherit the kingdom” because, he says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” These were things done unto Christ, much to the surprise of those who did these generous acts, for as Jesus said: “because they were done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did them unto me.” Make no mistake about it: there is much work to do here and now.
Are we up to the challenge? Are we willing to take risks for the Kingdom? Are we willing to put our time, talents and treasures on the line so that others can hear the Good New of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ? Or will we be afraid, and bury our talents, and risk losing everything? No risk = no reward.
A few years ago, I watched a television show that featured a number of young entrepreneurs who had made it big. The key to their success was their willingness to take risks – to go against the grain of conventional thinking. What is required is a willingness to risk failing. We all hate the prospect of failure. And that, I’m convinced, is the reason we refuse to venture into uncharted territory. What we did worked in the past, so why bother with something new? One of the women interviewed said that she goes to all of her employees and asked, “How did you fail this week?” She wants them to take risks, even if that means failing. We are so afraid to fail in the church because we live under the delusion that everything depends on us. Wrong! Everything depends upon God; we are just the stewards. And if this text is to be believed, then we better be willing to take risks for the Kingdom, too.
We have all been the recipients of God’s grace. And those of us who have trusted in Jesus Christ know the promises of the Kingdom in our hearts. So, we have the opportunity to do something different – to be something different – because we are new creations.
As followers of Christ, we can offer God’s forgiving and transforming love to this sinful, broken and fearful world. Instead of burying our treasure, we can take what God has given us and make a difference. You might have noticed in the parable that God did not tell the slaves what they were to do with their talent; it was left up to them. And that is true for us as well. There is not one specific thing that everyone has to do; instead, we are given the opportunity to do whatever it is that we do best.
Someone once asked John Wesley, “What can I do for the Kingdom?” And Wesley’s reply is good advice for us as well:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
Now if we heed those words, then I think we’ll discover that the Kingdom is not so very far away after all.