Sermon: Parable of the Talents
- Proper 28, Year A
- 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
- Matthew 25:14-30
St. John the Baptist, Lodi
November 15, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God.
I’m going to be really honest today: I’m afraid. The uncertainty and turmoil in our country and world terrify me. The fear of pandemic has so gripped our world that we have been left waiting for most of a year as we try to figure out what we can do to limit the disaster. And honestly, reading a parable that ends with outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth is not really taking away my fear. The ultimate consequences of the actions of the characters in this parable scare me.
But before we come back to the outer darkness and the gnashing of teeth…What is this parable about? We’ve come to call this the “parable of the talents”. What is a talent? In english, we think of talents as innate skills, and that definition ultimately traces back to this parable, however the original audience would have had a more concrete, physical definition of “talent” as a measure of weight. Talents were used like pounds or ounces, and a talent was larger than those. Probably a weight somewhere between 50 and 100 pounds. The “talents” in this parable would have been assumed to be a talent of precious metal. I’ve heard one estimate that a single talent would be an entire year’s wages for the average person in Jewish Palestine. And that was what these slaves were being given charge of. One was even given 5 talents!
The slaves are entrusted with their master’s property while he goes on a long journey. And the first two slaves seen to have business acumen and double the money entrusted to them. But the 3rd slave returns his master’s single talent to him, saying “I was afraid”. And no wonder! I dunno about you, but 75 pounds of sterling silver or high carat gold is more precious metal than I’ve ever held before. I wouldn’t know what to do with it, and I’d probably be afraid too.
One thing that’s rarely talked about with this parable is the power difference between the master and the slaves. Slavery in the 1st century Roman empire was certainly different than the slavery we know from 19th century America. But enslaved people were not able to move from place to place freely or to participate in society for themselves. But the slaves in this parable are given, if not status, then at least a great amount of responsibility by their master. The master has gone far away for a long time. It is up to the slaves to keep the household running up to the standards of the master. If I were in the position, I would be afraid and might want to hide my responsibility in a hole in the ground too.
People tend to talk about talents as gifts from God. But I want to take a close look at this parable and see how talents are *not* gifts given to be used however we wish. We see that sort of gift in the parable of the prodigal son. The son receives a gift from his father, and nothing is expected in return. The son is welcomed back even having squandered everything. The slave in our talents parable is not welcomed back, even though he gives the master back what was entrusted to him! That scares me. What is the difference between the squandering son and the fearful slave?
The slave is not *given* the talent, but *entrusted* with it. The parable doesn’t really give us the instructions that the master told his slaves as he prepared for his long journey. Putting myself into the slave’s shoes, I’m still afraid. It seems like we’re being given a lot of responsibility, with dire consequences, and not much instructions. But this parable can serve as instructions to us, now, as we are entrusted with talents in our 21st century lives.
Our situation is very like that of the slaves in this parable. We are waiting for our master to return, just as the slaves were. As we approach the season of Advent, we remember the time in human history where God’s eternal timeline met our own transient time in the infant Jesus. And we also anticipate the time when God will return at the end of our timeline as the master returned to the slaves in this parable. At that time, God, the almighty creator and master of us all, will judge whether we have been faithful. To say these words so starkly is terrifying.
No wonder the slave in the parable was so afraid of judgement that he just…didn’t do anything. That’s one of the most common responses to fear. We tend to think of “fight or flight” as the responses to fear, but “freeze” is also a very common response. This parable calls us to a different response when we are afraid: one not necessarily of risk, but definitely of *action*. This parable doesn’t say we won’t be afraid. It doesn’t give very much insight into the inner thoughts of the other two slaves. Maybe those two slaves were also terrified! But the parable does tell us that whatever fears they did have, they didn’t let that stop them from good stewardship of their master’s resources.
Who does Jesus call faithful in this parable? Both the slave who made 5 talents and the slave who made only 2. Does God require financial gains in order to be counted good and faithful? That’s one way to read this, I suppose. But I wonder if perhaps we should instead hear this parable more as a repudiation of the fear that paralyzed the one slave into inaction. It wasn’t that the slave who made 5 talents was *more* faithful than the slave who made 2. They started off with different amounts, after all. It’s almost as if God doesn’t care how *much* we earn or do, but just that we *do* something. That we use the talents entrusted to us to further the master’s goals. And here, I am making explicit the allegory that should have become clear already: God is the master, we are the slaves, and the resources entrusted to us, those are the talents.
What is a “talent”, then, if we’re moving to a more allegorical reading? Well, St. Gregory the Great identified the 5 talents with the 5 senses, the 2 talents with the capacity for action based on logic, and the single talent as the unique human faculty of understanding. For Gregory, the talents referred to things *all* humans had. They were allegorical, and they were universal to humanity.
I don’t know if I can pin down my interpretation of the 8 talents in this parable so specifically. I do want to point out that our English word for “talent” refers most often to the sort of intangible human traits of intelligence or charisma or artistic ability. A talent is often something special, that thing that a person is especially good at. This meaning developed over time through interpretations of this very parable. But, what if a talent meant to us the same thing that it meant to the original audience of this parable? I want to have us perhaps consider the original meaning of talent as a measure of weight, a real, worldly amount of resources in the world. An entire year’s wages. God is not handing us 75lbs of literal silver, but let us consider the real, tangible resources that *have* been entrusted to us. The time we have. The technology. The buildings and even the bank accounts. What resources have been entrusted to us to steward while we await the master’s return? Would God judge us faithful stewards of those resources?
And how much more precious are the intangible things God has entrusted us? Hope, peace, joy, and above all, love. These are things that we could hoard for ourselves. But when we do that, eventually we run out. How can we sustain love outside of relationship with each other? And when we share joy, it doesn’t get smaller, it grows. Have you ever heard the saying that a grief shared is a grief halved, but a joy shared is a joy doubled? That’s what I’m talking about.
Talents don’t grow by themselves. The good things we receive from God take work to grow. We have to put ourselves out there. That is frightening, for sure, especially in our current times. Fear is not what the master wants, however. I’m not sure that the master wants…risk. There is one line in the parable that makes me think that the master probably knew how this talent-distribution plan was going to pan out: he gave the talents “to each according to their ability”. The master knew that the servant he gave the 5 talents to would know how to use them. And he probably also knew that the slave he gave the single talent to was too afraid to handle 2 or more talents. The way to “make more talents” like the faithful slaves, is by sharing what God gives us, not by fearfully hoarding it.
The difference between being a prodigal son and squandering resources that were, technically, your own, and being a slave and not doing the job your master entrusted to you is stark. We are children of God, yes. This parable is not addressing that aspect of our relationship with God. The parable of the talents is warning us to not act out of fear, or, in the example of the unfaithful slave, to not let fear keep us from action. We don’t know what would have happened if the slave would have spent the talent and not had anything to return to the master. But we do know that being too afraid to do anything at all is not what God wants from us. It’s more frightening to consider the consequences of disobeying God, described at the end of the Gospel passage as being thrown into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But we, as Christians, are not left out in the darkness. As Paul told us in our reading from 1 Thessalonians today, we are children of God, children of light, of the day. We do not know when the Lord will return, like a thief in the night, but instead of that inspiring fear, Paul tells us, we are clothed with faith, and love, and the hope of salvation. There is so much to be afraid of in the world right now. But we *are* children of light. We do have hope of salvation. We have been entrusted with *so many* talents that there is no reason to fear. The master gave the slaves different amounts of resources according to their abilities, and the one who was too afraid to do anything, even with the smallest amount, was the one who did wrong. The good and faithful slaves were not good and faithful because they earned a 100% profit; they were good and faithful because they did not fear to use what was entrusted to them. The many talents entrusted to us, the resources, the innate skills, the hope and faith and love, those are an assurance of how much God trusts in our abilities. The only thing we have to be afraid of is *not* using our talents.
I’ll end with the words of Paul from the epistle this morning: “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” Amen.