Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
15th of November, 2020
Ex-Prime Minister John Howard once said of the story that we hear today, the story most often known as the ‘Parable of the Talents,’ that it is: ‘the “free enterprise parable”. The parable that tells us that we have a responsibility if we are given assets to add to those assets’. This is why we should not ask politicians to do biblical exegesis. On the face of it, Mr Howard’s interpretation seems reasonable. In this story there are three slaves, two of whom double their master’s money and are rewarded, the third of whom merely preserves his master’s money and is condemned. Read simply, it does seem to be a parable about an apparent responsibility to increase wealth. But when we look at the context of the parable, and the details in the story, we discover that Jesus’ message is quite different.
As I have repeated ad nauseam over the past few weeks, we are coming to the end of the church year, and in the Gospel readings Jesus is coming to the end of his life on earth. We are listening to the parables about the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus told his disciples in the last days before his Passion. They were parables told as he gathered privately with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, and so they are parables for the people who followed Jesus and called him Lord. Given that, I do not think that Jesus was teaching his disciples about the importance of free enterprise, and the virtues of accumulating wealth. I suspect that as he headed towards his death Jesus had other things on his mind.
The first thing we must do when hearing this parable is to forget our use of the word ‘talent’. Philologists think that the English word ‘talent’ to mean some sort of natural ability comes from this very story, and it is not what the parable was originally about. A ‘talent,’ when Jesus was speaking and Matthew was writing, was not an innate skill to be cultivated, it was an enormous great sum of money, about 6,000 times the daily wage. That means that the slave who was given five talents was given the equivalent of (if I did my calculations right) seven and a half million dollars. This parable is about people being unexpectedly given ridiculous amounts of money and what they then do with it.
Two of them, we are told, use the treasure to make more. They not only make a little more, they double what they were given. So, the slave who had the equivalent of seven and a half million dollars now has about fifteen million. He must have taken enormous risks to double his investment and, in his case, the risks paid off. When their master returns, ‘after a long time,’ because this is a story about the Second Coming, the first two slaves who have doubled their money are praised as good and trustworthy slaves; told that because they’ve been trustworthy in a few things they’ll be given responsibility over many; and invited to share in their master’s joy. In the same way that the five wise bridesmaids who ensured that they had enough oil for a long wait shared a wedding feast with the bridegroom, these two wise slaves will celebrate with their master. The kingdom of heaven is celebration.
Now we come to the third slave, the slave with least ability, given one talent rather than five or two. His conversation with his master is much longer than the dialogues of the first two slaves, which tells us that we have reached the heart of the story, the interaction on which we are meant to focus. We know that this slave has buried his master’s property to keep it safe. There should have been nothing wrong with that. At the time, there was nothing unusual about burying money; it was a prudent thing to do. At the very least, this slave is preserving it. Now that his master has returned, there the talent is: safe, able to be repaid. The slave might even expect commendation for his prudence. And so that slave says: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
But listen to what the master replies: ‘You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?’ The master is not agreeing with the slave’s assessment. He simply points out how the slave should have acted had he followed his own assessment of his master: ‘Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.’ The master removes the talent from the third slave and gives it to the one with ten. It seems that the slaves are to keep the enormous fortunes, are to keep all the money, not merely the extra they had made but also the original capital they were given. The master described by the third slave as harsh and unfair is behaving with astounding generosity. The third slave’s image of his master seems to have been completely wrong. His fear of his master led him to see the talent not as the gift it was, but as a burden. And even then, he has not behaved as his fear should have prompted him. This is not a free enterprise parable about the need for us to increase our assets. This is a parable about getting God wrong; seeing God as a harsh master to be feared.
Many people worship a harsh and ungenerous God, a God obsessed with ‘thou shalt nots’. (Often such people, like the third slave, say that their God demands perfection from them, but then, also like the third slave, they do not act as though they really believe it. It is frequently the people who are loudest about God’s demands on them who are discovered to be fiddling the books, or taking bribes. The frequency with which politicians who promote their ‘family values’ are found to be committing adultery is almost funny.) This understanding of the nature of God is sadly widespread, and so people behave in ways that they hope will protect them from this God’s wrath. They do not do anything too challenging or reckless. They are prudent rather than daring. Rather than acting with the freedom of those who know that God is outrageously generous, they hide their talent in the ground.
At least once a year I read Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and I reread it while waiting for the USA election results. In it King says something that I think describes how we are to live if we truly believe in the God who gives slaves ridiculous amounts of money, then gives them the freedom to do what they will with that money, and finally gives them even more so that they have an abundance. We are to be extremists. King writes of the satisfaction he feels at being labelled an extremist:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)
Those who know the generosity of the master and can rely on him as the first two slaves did, people like Martin Luther King himself, are able to be extremists for love. They can risk bravely, knowing that even if they fail the master will not punish them. They can act outrageously, knowing that God has got their back and that at the end of time he will say to them, ‘enter into the joy of your master’. They can do good, knowing that if they do even a little good, God can take it and make it more.
Those who are afraid of the master are not even extremists for hate. Instead, they commit the sin of sloth. Like the third slave, they act as though they do not care. They take whatever God has given them and bury it in the ground. They refuse to do good because they do not think that anything they do matters. They say that they are afraid of God’s justified wrath, but they are really focused on themselves, not on God and what God wants of them. While the first two slaves risk all they have, and are praised for it, the third slave tries to play it safe and is condemned.
This is a parable about the coming of the Son of Man, a typically Matthean parable about the last judgment. Matthew tells us that the master returns after ‘a long time’, just as in last week’s story the bridegroom was met by the bridesmaids at midnight after being delayed. It is an eschatological story, a tale of the end of time, told by Jesus in his last days on earth before his Passion. Jesus tells it as he himself risks everything, going to the cross trusting that God will not desert him or forsake him, even as he dies a shameful death. We know that the crucifixion was followed by the resurrection; that Jesus’ risk-taking paid off. So, we, like Jesus, can live lives that are daring and risky and open to change and new possibilities, because we, too, know that God is not the harsh master of the third slave’s fearful imagining. We can be passionate and generous people, because we have been given treasure and to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance.
As we seek to follow in Jesus’ footsteps we can take the risks that discipleship involves, knowing that when the master returns he will say to us, too: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave’. Amen.