“What are you doing on June 13, 2015?”: A Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

The following is a draft of this Sunday’s sermon at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, Lebanon, PA.  What I like about what I am working through in this sermon is that I am giving props to the traditional reading of this parable (the parable of the slaves’ talents) while at the same time turning the traditional reading inside-out.  Or at least this is what I was attempting to do, without declaring the mainstream interpretation to be completely wrong or dangerous.  I’d love to know what you think.  The preaching text is Matt. 25:14-30, which is the Gospel lectionary reading for November 13; this Sunday we welcome a new member into the church, as well.

This story is one of the familiar parables of Jesus, though it isn’t one of the most famous of Jesus’ teaching.  A slave owner gives one slave five talents; to another slave, two talents; and to a third slave, one talent, when he is about to go on a long journey.  After some time the slave owner returns, and the slave to whom five talents was given somehow had ten total talents, and the one to whom two was given somehow now had four, and the slave owner says that these slaves are trustworthy and that he trusts them to put them in charge of things.  But the slave to which was given one buried the money and kept it safe, and only had one to show to the master, and the master curses the slave for not making more money with the one talent.  The master uses harsh words, that what talents he has saved for his master shall be taken and given to the more industrious servants, and the lazy slave will be thrown into the darkness, “where there will be gnashing of teeth.”  This is what the Kingdom of God is like.

This parable is so deeply entrenched in our culture that the word “talent,” as in “talent show,” America’s Got Talent, or saying that someone is “talented” comes from the way in which Jesus speaks of “talents” in this parable.  The word “talent” here is referring to an ancient way of measuring weight, and was a typical way of measuring the mass of previous metals—Jesus even makes reference to the talent being gold in the scripture.  But this passage of scripture has been interpreted to mean “talents” in the sense of the non-monetary gifts that we all have.  In other words—and I am sure you have heard this sermon before, all the way back to childhood lessons in Sunday Schools—that God gives us gifts and talents that we don’t know about.  But we have to use our talents for God and for the church, and the more we use what we’re good at, the more we realize what gifts we have that we didn’t have.

When I first started thinking about pursuing ordained ministry, this parable of Jesus was brought up to me constantly.  I was convinced from the beginning that I was not really called to preach, because I did not like to stand in front of people and talk.  I couldn’t imagine that I would know enough about the Bible or have enough life experience that anyone would care what I have to say from the pulpit.  In fact, after I stepped down from my first church in Blue Island, Illinois, I was pretty convinced that I should never step back into a pulpit again:  I felt like no one was listening to what I was saying, and I felt like I had no point of reference for the people in that congregation.  It probably didn’t help that I was still figuring out how to communicate with people outside of a university, as I had just spent the last 7 years in school to be a minister, but I left that church committed to never preaching ever again.

But things changed for me.  I preached occasionally when I was invited, and I began to be invited to preach more and more.  And then, all of a sudden, I became interested in preaching again, and took a couple advanced preaching classes, and suddenly felt called back into the pulpit.  In fact, I had no interest in being ordained at one point, and suddenly the lure of the pulpit brought be back into the ministry.

I share this story not so much to trumpet my own gifts, because I know some folks think I’m a terrible preacher.  But my point is that the way we have interpreted this passage of scripture is very much about our talents and our hidden talents.  Sometimes our life situations lead us to discover talents we never would have thought we had.  I know a lot of folks who became interested in singing at a later age who had no interest in their younger years and joined a church choir only to discover that they could sing and that they really enjoyed singing.  Many of us never thought of ourselves as good parents or good grandparents until you’re thrown into the fire of parenting, just hoping that you don’t get burned.  In fact, I think it’s probably safe to say that many of the younger parents I know who are convinced they’re really good parents are the ones who are probably really bad parents; I have found that convincing yourself that you’re good at something before you really are is not only an easy way of being disappointed down the road but it’s a way we avoid doing the hard work of earning or doing the heavy lifting of being really good at something. 

I used to work with someone who had stuff about how great of a mom she was all over her office and was so self-righteous about being a good mother, and even had a license plate that said “Supermom” on it; but the fact is that if her kids were mine, I would be embarrassed as a parent and embarrassed for my children.  You know the type:  the parents who think their kids can do no wrong; one time I had to ask myself if we were talking about the same child with her when she was telling me how great her son is, how he had a nearly 4.0 in high school (even though I knew she harassed the teachers if they dared give her darling son an A- in anything), and how pretty his girlfriends are, just as I was getting ready to go visit the kid in jail for drug possession.  You all know what I’m talking about!  My point is that often the things we think we’re really good at are not what we are really good at, but if we’re honest and we work hard we discover that there all other things we’re good at.

And this seems to be the message of the story, in the way it’s usually read:  That if you are given a talent or two, you can discover that you have four.  Or if you’re really talented, and are given five talents, you have to come up with even more talents:  when the Master returns, you should be ready to show ten.  But if you have just one talent, and hide it somewhere, and the Master discovers upon his return that you still only have one, you are lazy and incompetent, and, so the story implies, you deserve to go to Hell.

What I don’t buy about this interpretation is that we all know that it’s easier to make money if you have money.  Now, it’s also easy to spend the money, too, if you have money.  But if you’re investing, and you begin with $500, you are probably able to take on more risk in your investments than if you only have $100.  In fact, if you only have $100 to your name, you might not try to invest the money at all, because you wouldn’t want to lose it all if the market crashes.

Some things to keep in mind about this story is that we’re talking about a master and his slaves, not an employer and free employees, and not a father with his sons.  The story is kind of ridiculous on this level, because only a fool would let his slaves hold onto his money.  A talent, we should keep in mind, was a significant amount of money.  So one talent might have been about 150 times what a typical wage-earner would have received for his work for an entire year.  The slave who received one talent was receiving 150 times what he would have earned if he were a free man; the one who received five talents would have received 750 times the yearly pay of a free worker.

Now, let me turn this story around a little bit.  Jesus’ story in the scriptures say that the rich man is about to leave for a journey when he entrusts these riches to his three slaves.  And Jesus says that when the rich slave-owner returns, his return comes “after a long time,” and when he came home, “the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.”  When I first hear the story, I think that the journey is maybe a couple weeks, a couple months even.  But Jesus says that it is a long time.  How long, we don’t know, it’s just a story.  But it is a “long time.”

Picture this.  Suppose that the slaves thought that the Master was gone so long that the slaves assumed that he really wasn’t really going to come back, and the slaves started investing the money as if they were free men.  The slave with five talents eventually had a value of ten talents; and the one with two eventually increased his net worth to four talents.  Not too shabby, even if the Master was away for ten years or longer.

When the Master returns, these slaves can’t believe it!  Their Master has returned not just to check his bank account numbers, but to “settle accounts with them.”  Because the Master owns the slaves, everything that is theirs is his.  Imagine what must have been going through these rich slaves’ minds:  all of the sacrifices and hard work they made to make this money grow, all of their riches, this enormous wealth, for the one slave was more than he would have earned in over 700 years as a free man!  Now he has to turn it all back to the slave-owner, who was gone so long they didn’t think he was going to return.

The Master is jubilant, because, even though the slaves took risks with the money, the Master returns richer than he was before.  So I imagine the slaves, saying, in shock, not so much proud, but humble, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.”  And the Master jovially says, “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!”  Instead of sharing in the wealth, the slave-owner says, since you have doubled my money, you’ve done alright, so now I won’t whip you when I get angry.  You’re still less than human to me, but I’ll be nice to you now.  This exchange is not so much one of congratulations but one of hopes unfulfilled and harsh sarcasm. 

In other words, the slaves thought they had earned all of this money for themselves, and they are suddenly reminded that they are in fact slaves, and not only is their money not their own, because it never really was in the first place, but they don’t get to reap the benefits.

But the one slave believed that he would return and saved the money, hiding it to keep it safe.  Not taking risks or liberties with his slave-owner’s money, he actually believed that the master would return, but now seeing that he has returned and taken the money back from the others, the slave says to the master:  “I know you did not earn this money honestly, and I know you did not invest in honestly, but when you gave it to me, out of fear and respect for you as my slave-master, I did not risk it.  I kept it honestly, I did not spend it, but I sustained it.  You gave less to me because you did not trust me with more, and out of respect for you I did what you expected.  Here’s your talent of gold, my Lord!”

The Master is mad, and gives the famous line of the parable:  For 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.  The Master casts the lazy slave out into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  What strikes me is that the slaves who earned the riches still had nothing as well, and even having nothing, what they did have was taken away from them.

To Jesus’ claim that this story is “what the Kingdom of God is like,” could it be that Jesus is not really siding with the industrious slaves, but instead the Kingdom of God sides with the conservative servant who, even in loyalty to his master angers him for doing pretty much what he expected him to do?

We’ve all been in situations where you may have had two or three choices, and no matter what choice you make your boss is going to be angry.  Or the boss might be happy with what you have done and took credit?  Or even that you’re doing the right thing and someone takes what you’re doing to be the opposite?  It stinks to be in that situation, and perhaps what Jesus’ parable is saying is not the typical reading, which takes the side of the slave-owner who exploits his slaves, but instead the parable has God siding with the poor servant who did what he was supposed to do, who treated other people’s talents with respect and kept them safe.

And most importantly, placing this parable in context with the rest of the chapter of Matthew 25, the so-called lazy servant is the only one who really believed that the Master would return.  The other slaves didn’t believe he would, and encountered a harsh reminder when he did.  The parable right before this one ends with the line “Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matt. 25: 13), and the very next line after our passage of scripture begins, “When the Son of Man comes in glory…he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats” (25: 31-32).  My point is that the so-called lazy servant wasn’t too surprised that the master returned, and he spoke the truth to the master, whereas the others were too embarrassed and ashamed that they just continued on in the shock of their own status as slaves.

We are to be on guard and ready for Jesus to come again.  So very often, we start planning stuff for the future, often so distant that we would be disappointed if Jesus came to interrupt our plans.  Not too long ago I had someone ask me to schedule a wedding for June 13, 2015.  I said to the woman on the phone, “did you just say 2015?”  “Well,” she said, “we need to save up some money and I want to get married on the second Saturday in June, and the place I want to get married at is booked for that Saturday in 2014.”  I told her that it’s my experience that when couples schedule weddings that far in advance it’s usually a defense tactic for the guy to buy some time to figure a way out of the wedding.

But there are things that we look forward to:  We look forward to seeing our grandchildren and children graduate from school, or get married, or have children themselves.  Or we look forward to our retirements.  Or we look forward to the vacation we’ve been saving up to.  The question we have to face, then, is whether these plans, which are all legitimate things to look forward to, are really an elaborate way of declaring that we have no faith that Jesus will come again?  What if Jesus returns in the first week of December?  Would one of our first thoughts be that we still need to get some Christmas shopping done?  Are we really waiting in expectation, or is the future only something whose hopes are built in what we can earn, or what our children can earn or do, and not in a faith of the return of Christ?  Are we really ready to cancel our season passes for HersheyPark for next year?  And are we really willing to close the church and enter into a truly new Kingdom when Jesus returns?  Or will we just keep preaching the old Gospel stories, because we think we know them?

One thing I thought of when I actually checked the date of this wedding—June 13, 2015—was that the second Saturday in June is always the date of the Penn Central UCC Conference meeting.  The very fact that we can think about this date in the future in this way demonstrates that our routines of going-about our lives and our business forbid any reality of the actual return of Jesus.  I’m actually already committed to attend the Conference meeting that Saturday, and just by virtue of the fact that I can think this way assumes a kind of religious dishonesty, that as I expect to be present at the Annual UCC Conference that weekend, I also expect that Jesus won’t return by then, as well.

Our lesson from Jesus today demonstrates that the one who believes in the return is the one who has the least to lose and has placed the least amount of self-importance into his possessions and in his money.  And the one who is believed to be lazy, and the one who is believed to be selfish, and the one who is cast out into hell by the mainstream of society is really the one who is faithfully waiting.

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13 Responses to ““What are you doing on June 13, 2015?”: A Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30”

  1. david cl driedger Says:

    I like the reading. There is even some support for the faithfulness of the ‘worthless slave’ as the same phrase is used in Luke 17:10 (though this passage may also need to be read against the grain). Also being thrown into darkness is a paradoxical expression in the Bible as darkness is often the place where God speaks and works (creation, Sinai, etc). However, I have a hard time getting over the fact the text expresses this as divine and and not worldly judgment as the final phrase is commonly used in Matthew. Have you read the other passages about being cast out into the ‘out darkness’ where there is ‘weep and gnashing of teeth’ in a similar way?

  2. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    You’re right; the image of “gnashing of teeth” also appears primarily in Matthew six times, this one being the final time. What compels me about the reading I am doing is that it seems to blossom out of the context of other parables and teachings in Matthew 25, but it doesn’t really work if we are to connect the language consistently throughout the Gospel of Matthew (and the one occurance in Luke). I think you can preach a similar message out of the traditional reading–that the richer slaves were preparing for the Master’s return–but this focuses upon their fruitfulness and not their readiness.

    Another idea someone suggested to me off-line is that this parable could refer to the practice of masters allowing their slaves and servants to learn how to manage money, and if they did it well, they could buy their freedom. But the slaves don’t get their freedom here, they’re simply seen in a better light than they would have been already if their master entrusted them with this much gold.

  3. Phil Snider Says:

    Chris’s reading makes me think it’s perhaps possible to read this as a parable of protest against the master-slave system. Here the master already had a hunch that the lazy slave wouldn’t play by the rules so he didn’t entrust the slave to go along with the system in the first place, hence only giving him one talent as opposed to two or five. The act of burying the single talent as opposed to playing by the rules that govern the system is an act of protest against the system. So the hero is thrown outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, which is what happens to those who buck the system. This may be at odds with Matthew’s rendering of the weeping and gnashing of teeth refrain but can’t we also read it against the backdrop of Matthew’s ultimate hero — Jesus — whose life of protest against the system also led him, like the lazy slave, into the darkness, where in crucifixion there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth? Or am I forced to admit that I think this parable bites?

  4. Danny Snyder Says:

    Dr. Rodkey,

    I find your interpretation interesting. Personally, I think it’s important to also consider the parallel passage in Luke 19. If we can assume that the two parables convey the same basic meaning, then I think some of the different wording becomes very important. Part of the issue I see is that in the passage in Luke, the master told the servants that he was returning; “Do business until I come.” (Lk 19:13) Also the context becomes very important, for Jesus told the parable because the people he was speaking to “thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately.” (Lk 19:11) So if Jesus would explaining how God’s kingdom would not appear immediately, and the master in the parable is going away for a long time to obtain a kingdom and then return (Lk 19:12), then I think to understand Jesus’s intention it is important to interpret the master as representing God. I think this is a very hard parable to truly understand; it is much more complicated theologically than many other of Jesus parables.

    Respectfully,
    Danny

  5. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    Danny: Thanks for taking the time to take a look at this.

    I agree that Luke 19 is a good comparison, as it demonstrates the “synoptic” problem of the Gospels. BUT… 2 things. First, Luke’s story is a little different, and Luke’s story seems to cross all of its t’s and dot its i’s to prevent a reading such as mine. Now, I wouldn’t be so pretentious to think that I have unlocked something that has been intentionally apprehended, but I think there is a reason why Luke adds details that prevent this reading.

    To this end, secondly, I mention the context of this parable in Matthew in the sermon. It’s in a discourse about the parousia, second coming of Jesus (which it would seem everyone in the first century thought would happen immediately, including Paul, so I don’t think we can really read it as a single clue that Jesus’ return would be thousands of years, not a couple of weeks or months). In the Luke discourse the parable fits right between the story of the tax collector and is Jesus’ final teaching before weeping over the city and overthrowing the money-changers. The emphasis seems to be on the money, not the waiting, as I suggest it may be with Matthew. The story fits into a different set of stories and themes for Luke that are different for Matthew and his literary agenda.

    Finally: Phil, I am intrigued by your master-slave reading. Clearly this is a ritual dance between master and servant. To this end, I was teaching Nietzsche this afternoon, the passage of The Gay Science where he introduces the Eternal Return of the Same (“the greatest weight”). Nietzsche’s biblical allusion in this passage, consequently, is the gnashing of teeth at the recognition of the gravitas of the exigency of the Now. While I like Nietzsche’s teaching, he is subverting any sense of parousia, or future time on a linear timeline that has meaning for me beyond my own life, while remaining apocalyptic. What strikes me about this is that in my reading of this parable, the gnashing of the teeth is the location of the one who *is* awaiting the parousia. The lazy slave steps out of Nietzsche’s Stoic appropriation and owns the “gnashing” of teeth. Could it be that in this final allusion of the “gnashing of teeth” that this Hellish idea is finally transfigured, finally kenoted into a true descent into Hell? In this final mention of this place of gnashing, as preparing the way of Christ to enter Hell? Just thinking out loud.

  6. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    A recent news item makes mention of this parable, connecting the Luke and Matthew synoptic parables: http://michiganmessenger.com/53826/prayer-rally-organizers-target-muslims-freemasons

  7. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    Also, regarding darkness: The lectionary pairs this Gospel passage with an alternate reading of Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18.

  8. V. Brandt Says:

    This is an interesting reading of a parable I have always loathed, but I worry that your emphasis on the second coming will have an untoward effect on your listeners, namely, to foster a “why bother?” attitude toward, say, civic duties, responsibility for our destruction of the earth’s ecology, etc. In fact, many far-right christian groups use just this excuse: what does it matter if we’re choking the oceans with trash or polluting the air, the earth is just going to be destroyed anyway.

  9. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    V:

    You are right. And this is a concern I have; and I can’t do a summa every Sunday (in fact, this is one of the longest sermons I have ever written). I should post last week’s sermon here — I know, I haven’t been posting my sermons on here too much lately — which was titled “In Case of Rapture, This Church Will Be On Land.” I took the 1 Thess. lection on meeting Jesus in the clouds and talked about how a literal interpretation of this teaching is often an excuse to neglect social, environmental, and familial resposibilities–and that such an interpretation isn’t just a danger, it’s really believed and practiced in U.S. Christianity. Instead I proposed, though not really in this language, a more traditional view of death, distinguishing between “Church Expectant” and “Church Triumphant.” If this makes sense.

    So, yes, this is a concern that I have.

    Thanks for your comments.

  10. V. Brandt Says:

    Dear Christopher,

    Your post here really has got me (and quite a few others, evidently) thinking about this parable, and I thank you for that. At the risk of being too bold, however, I’d like to turn your reading on its head: you have helped me crystallize an alternative interpretation that I think serves both your needs and the parable. I think that the “lazy servant” is precisely that sort of person who says, “hey, Jesus is coming back, so I don’t have to bother to clean up my environment or go stand in line for hours to vote in this election. I’m just going to be pious, pray, love my family, whatever.” The servants that went out and made something of what they’d been given (and they were fully aware of the original amount of talents, there’s no indication in this parable that there are “hidden” sums of gold they suddenly realize they have) are the ones who, not knowing how soon the master will return, still go out and make the most of every day, every gold piece, every talent. Jesus coming back tomorrow? Well, then, dammit, I’m still fighting the Koch brothers today and hope to save a few more polar bears. In fact, I’d better get a move on because there may not be enough time.

    I think we all struggle with the apparent smallness of our efforts, our ability to influence anything in this world. How can my signature on the petition, my letter to the editor, my recycling have any impact on the corrupt political system or the power of money in DC or the Great Pacific Gyre killing the ocean for hundreds of miles at a time? Or even in our personal lives: how can writing an hour or two a day actually produce a book? How can exercising ten minutes a day begin to restore my middle-aged body? But any of us who have had the good fortune to pursue an art or craft for a long time — by doing a PhD, say, or developing mastery at the keyboard or canvas or tennis court — knows that persistence in performing tiny steps, tiny movements, many times over a period of years is what allows us to develop mastery. (Or write a lot of books, or get in shape.) We are easily overwhelmed with the size of our tasks in comparison with the amount of energy or talent we seem to possess. But, as the saying goes, “talent is common, but the development of talent is not” (or something like that).

    This parable can be used to inculcate an idea of discipline and persistence: if all you have is ten minutes a day, it’s enough to start a writing habit, our writing teachers tell us, and it’s enough to begin learning an instrument. Build from what you have, however small it is — don’t dismiss it. And as you persist, your endurance and technique develop so you gain more and more.

  11. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    I think all of these points are really valid and helpful, thank you!

    Perhaps what I struggle with in thinking this anew is what is really meant or implied by the servant “entrusting” the talents and the master-slave relationship going on here with your reading. Was it an expectation in the story that the talents were multiplied, or a pleasant surprise for the slave master?

    But I like this line of thinking, and one we need to discuss more, namely, too often our small gestures either seem tooo small or they’re really an elaborate way of patting ourselves on the back for doing too little.

  12. V. Brandt Says:

    Dear Christopher,
    Our exchange has sent me back to my interlinear NT to check out the whole context of the parable in Matt 24 and 25. I don’t see any evidence in these chapters that the Master (God) is meant to be understood as anything but bountiful and generous, if strict. I do think, however, that this series of parables in which the human actors’ time is cut short is meant to address three distinct human tendencies that interfere with leading a good life:

    (1) The error of abusing our privileges: Matt 24:42ff. The master sets a faithful and wise servant over his household. If the servant takes care of the household (“gives them food in season”) the master will be pleased, and will set him over “all his subtance.” If the servant abuses the privilege, eats with drunkards (over indulges), and beats the fellow slaves (dominates others), the master will punish him. This parable seems to address the human tendency to mistake good fortune for something we have earned ourselves. One might apply this parable to those like the Koch brothers who have become extremely wealthy through the privileges of birth, education, and opportunity–not to mention common goods such as a government-sponsored transportation system, electricity grid, potable water, and educated citizens to employ—but seem to have forgotten all that in their own self-absorbed greed.

    (2) The error of believing that goodness=not doing evil: Matt 25:1ff. Of the ten virgins, five think ahead, five don’t. There was no reason to believe that extra oil would be needed; the bridegroom was unexpectedly delayed overnight. Had there been no delay, the five “wise” virgins might have been ridiculed by the others for being over-prepared. The lesson here is that even if you are not being actively evil (not over-indulging, not beating slaves, dominating others), it’s not enough: you have to think about the long arc, the consequences of your actions and inactions.

    (3) The error of thinking we can’t do ANY good because we can’t do GREAT good: Matt 25:14ff. The parable of the talents. The master gives talents to three servants, “to each according to his ability.” And they “worked with” the talents. Except for the one servant who was given only one talent. When the master returns, the slaves go to the master and seem to proudly say, “here, I have gained another five/four.” And the master praises each, and “sets him over” even more (same wording as in Matt 24), and bids him “enter the joy of your Lord.” (I don’t think there’s any sarcasm in this at all; this is a generous master and a happy slave!) The servant who was given one talent, however, does something rather peculiar: he buries the money. He takes 150 times the income of a free man (let’s say, in today’s terms, a million bucks), and instead of putting in the bank he buries it. It’s as if he wants to forget about it. Perhaps he fears he will be tempted to use the money instead of keeping it safe for the master’s return (i.e., he doesn’t want to abuse the privilege like the servant in the Matt 24:42 parable). He may fear the sin of pride – if he develops the talent, it might go to his head, and if he enjoys life , he might be deemed “selfish” by others. (This speaks to an ascetic strain in many religions, including the evangelical one I was brought up in.) So, out of sight, out of mind. Self-denial, talent-denial. The master chides him for this attitude – if he’d used a bank at least there would have been some interest. In other words, if he’d done what any normal person would have doe, things would have been ok. The master didn’t expect the money to be doubled, but he expected it to be used. The master seems to have wanted the servant to enjoy the opportunity that had been given to him. Instead, he pretended it didn’t exist.

    And so the master took it back from him. This finally makes sense to me: if you don’t use it, you lose it. If you don’t work at developing a talent/skill/language/math ability/physical fitness, you really do lose it.

    I also have a new perspective on the slothful slave’s excuse: he says he feared the master because he knew him to be a “hard” man. I wonder if “scleros” had any other connotations in Greek, but to be a hard man might imply being very resolute, having inflexibly high standards. The servant seems to have focused too much on the master’s perfection, letting it intimidate him from making his own efforts (his talents, after all, were less than his fellow-servants’, since the master gave to each according to his ability).

    I think this applies to all of us who get discouraged that we can’t have greater impact. It also applies to those of us (i.e., me) who tend to think that if we can’t be great at something we might as well not do it at all. (Long ago I decided to stop playing the piano because, though musically gifted, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to be a Horowitz or Perahia. I was not raised to believe that my own voice, my own thoughts, had any intrinsic interest to people simply because they were my own. I also didn’t realize how much hard work even talented people had to do–I thought there must be something wrong with me if it took so much effort. For this naivete I thank the myths of pianists who never practice, which of course are complete falsehoods, as I now know from friends who know Martha Argerich, etc.)

    But I think we may be mistaken to confuse our modern use of the word talent to mean personal ability with the monetary meaning that is used in the parable. Because in context, Jesus is clearly talking in moral terms. The parables move from the injunction against obviously immoral behavior, to the less-obvious immorality of complacency, to the immorality of giving up in discouragement. Jesus then goes on to the famous passage about “for when I was hungry, you gave me food” – a number of small acts, seemingly insignificant (they are one-talent acts, so to speak), yet they together add up to righteousness. Did the good sheep start Doctors Without Borders? UNICEF? Were they all Albert Schweitzers? No. They visited someone in the hospital, gave someone hungry a meal. They used their small opportunities to do some good, in a consistent way.

    This reading of the parable of the talents makes sense, too, of the poor folks at Matt 25:44ff, who ask, perplexed, when did we see you poor or hungry or in prison and not minister to you? Didn’t we donate to the rescue efforts in Haiti, or in Japan after the earthquake, or give to the March of Dimes? It’s easy to respond to big needs that acquire fame, and become part of a large social response. But what are we doing day by day, and what are we doing in small ways to prepare for a more ethical life on this planet where all creatures can flourish?

  13. V. Brandt Says:

    PS Sorry for such a lengthy comment. But I want to thank you for making me think through a parable I have always loathed –and to realize that it applies to me! (I hate it when that happens.)

    I also wanted to add that there is danger in people being content with one-talent acts when there is more they could do. I.e., the subtler moral defects I propose are addressed by parables 2 and 3 in these chapters are linked — one can imagine the one talent slave being a foolish virgin, and vice versa. The point Jesus makes at the end of the chapter is not, I think, that ALL we should do is help a few homeless or sick people, but that if that is all we can muster, it’s still pleasing to God. If more is within our capabilities, though, we’d better not feel self-satisfied with these little acts and turn a blind eye to the larger social and environmental problems we are all aware of. (The widow with the two mites gave more, proportionally, than the rich Pharisees, but Jesus wasn’t saying we should give only two mites. Rather, he challenged the wealthy to be as sacrificial.)


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