(Year A, Sunday closest to November 16, Gospel Reading from Matthew 25:14-30)
“But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25:26-30 (ESV)
Of all of Jesus’ parables, I heard more sermons or Sunday School lessons on this one and the Sower than any other growing up. Typically, this parable was used to teach me that God has given me gifts and talents, and I must use them effectively so that I will reap a good reward. So, that’s it! That’s the message – use your talents wisely, and God will welcome you as a good and faithful servant. Tune in next week when I’ll tell you about how everyone who reads this blog is certainly among the sheep, and everyone who doesn’t Like my Facebook page must be goats.
All kidding aside, I think that this parable is far weightier than we are typically taught.
The error in the way I typically remember this being taught is not in the drive toward good stewardship – this is certainly a noble and God ordained concern. We should examine our lives, and the graces that come from God, and be ready to account for how we have used them. The error is in teaching that this is the main thrust of the parable. The confusion comes from a superficial similarity between a term of weight used in the parable and the word we use in everyday English to refer to our vocational gifts and skills. In the parable, the word “talent” refers specifically to a term of monetary weight that is equivalent to about 20 years’ worth of wages for the day laborer. Think about the servant who was given 5 talents, and think about the amount of trust you would have to have to let someone invest 100 years’ worth of income. I am aware of the vocational gifts God has given me, and I am also piteously aware that they do not come close to measuring up to this sum.
Interpreting and teaching this parable as being merely about good stewardship with innate (even God-given) vocational gifts or material blessings is also problematic in that it necessarily sets up an error of works-based salvation. Why? Well, because Jesus starts off the parable as a continuation of talking about the coming of the Kingdom. The end of the parable is a vision of judgment, so if the parable is teaching right use of skills and abilities as being what God will reward us for, and inadequate use of those same “talents” the basis for our condemnation, then a conflict exists in Christian theology and understanding of our salvation.
If the word “talent” in the parable isn’t talking about our “talents” (in the modern day colloquial sense), what then is it talking about? There is one gift that I do believe is referred to here – namely, the gift of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the only gift, treasure, or possession that could be understood as being as valuable as a talent of money. It is important then that the talent is given to the servants from the master – it is such a lavish sum of money; a servant could not hope to muster it on their own. This additionally puts paid to the notion of any works-based soteriology arising from this parable – the sum is so great that it can only refer to something that I am incapable of producing myself, and therefore it precludes looking inwardly to satisfy the judgment.
The rest of the parable then falls into place: the master is Jesus, who leaves the disciples for a time, after teaching them and giving them in trust the Good News about himself. The servants are the disciples, and include all the crowds that followed him around Judea as well as those that have done so over the 2000 years of intervening history to the present day. The servants who do something with the master’s money are rewarded, by being placed over much after being entrusted with “a little.” This refers to the faithful Christians who seek to carry out the Great Commission as well as following the commands of Christ, for the gift of grace that they have been given will return a great yield in charitable works, love, and other souls who in turn also receive the same gift and carry out the same works. The one servant who did nothing with the money is rejected, and even what he has is taken away from him, to be given to the one shown to be the best manager of the money. This represents the one who hears the Gospel, and for whatever reason either never accepts the gift, attempts to accept the gift without passing it on, or tries to “return” the gift by denouncing the Gospel and ultimately leading others away from it.
I believe that this parable should resonate strongly with us Christians in the modern West. We are 2000 years from the time of Christ, and presented daily with casual rejection of our beliefs. It has been “a long time” (Matt 25:19) and could still be longer. We are surrounded by people who know a “gospel” that has similar characters and mentions similar events, but either through misapprehension or the idolatry of the will they cannot hear or understand or accept the true Gospel. The temptation to give in is great, and it will become greater and greater until the master comes again. And that, I believe, is the final message of the parable, the true heart of its message – the servants who invested the money kept faith that the master would return, because they knew his character, and that they would be well treated. The one who buried the money acted without faith, because he did not know the true character of the master – and even if he had he acted unwisely. Our charge, therefore, is to keep the faith until the master’s return.
As we prepare for the Advent of Our Lord, I encourage you to pray for faith and perseverance to the end. Pray also that all who claim Christ would know and share the true Gospel, that the great treasure entrusted to us would yield far and above what we can imagine, in mercy, love, and kindness toward one another, and – above all – in redeemed souls presented to Our Master when he returns.
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus.