What are we to make of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents? Jesus’ story about the three servants whose master entrusted his money to them to manage is one of those stories everybody knows. It’s part of Scripture that’s embedded in our culture, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
There are several popular interpretations of this parable, which include: 1) It’s a lesson to Christians to use our God-given talents in God’s service; 2) It’s an indictment of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, who were entrusted with God’s word but did nothing to propagate it; 3) It’s a critique of the social structures of the time. Advocates of liberation theology like this third approach. In it, the landlord is exploiting others to make a profit, “reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter.” The third servant is a “whistle-blower” who refuses to play the game and calls out the landlord’s actions for what they are.
Let’s take a deeper look at this amazing parable. A wealthy man about to go on a long journey gave three of his high ranking servants money to invest on his behalf. The rich man gave one servant five talents to invest, another two talents, and another one talent – “each according to his ability.”
A “talent” was not a coin but a unit of weight of something precious. The most common reference was to a talent of silver, which was the equivalent of about fifteen years’ wages for the ordinary worker. So the rich man gave his three servants some serious money to work with while he was away. When the master returned from his journey, he called in the three servants and asked them to report on their earnings.
The first two servants had doubled their money. Obviously they had taken some risks to make such a substantial profit. Investing in the first century was no more of a sure thing than it is today. The master praised and rewarded these servants and told them how happy he was with them: “You have been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.”
But the one-talent man hadn’t made a single shekel for his boss. What was he thinking? He thought he knew what kind of man he worked for, a man who expected to “reap where he hadn’t sowed.” His fear paralyzed him and he was unwilling to take any chances. So he dug a hole and buried the money. This servant not only buried his talent, he buried himself. Instead of receiving praise and reward , he condemned himself to the outer darkness, a life that knows no joy.
It’s clear that this parable is not about the stewardship of money. It’s about our stewardship of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the talents God has given each one of us. The reality is that God has entrusted much to each of us and it’s pretty clear he expects a lot from us in return. Jesus’ parable challenges us: “What are you doing with your faith? Are you just going to sit on it…and bury it in a hole in the ground? What are you afraid of?”
Now a scholarly debate about this passage is whether or not we should treat the landowner as God? If the answer is yes, then Matthew is clearly urging his community to increased watchfulness, and to an active faith that doesn’t just sit back but takes risks for the sake of the Gospel. The problem is that the landowner doesn’t seem much like a candidate to serve as an allegory for God with his questionable work ethic, “you-do-all the-work-and-I-take-all-the-profit” approach, and his violent response to what some would call prudent financial management in times of great uncertainty.
Notice how deeply affected the third servant is by his perception of the character of the landowner. The first we hear about it is from the third servant, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you do not sow…”. Neither the first or second servants voice this concern. The landowner neither confirms nor calls this assessment into question. The landowner’s response is in the form of a question, which we might hear as, “If you thought I was so awful, why didn’t you choose a different strategy?”
But these questions may be beside the main point of this parable. As Lutheran pastor and preacher David Lose puts it, “What we see is often what we get. Perhaps this parable is inviting us to examine the pictures of God that we carry inside of us. So, what do you think about when you think of God? Is God gracious or stern, loving or judgmental, eager for peace or prone to violence? Do the pictures you carry inside of you match the God we come to know in Jesus?”
Remember that Jesus tells this parable just days before he will give his life for us on the Cross as a testimony to how far God will go to demonstrate God’s love for us. Jesus spent his life proclaiming God’s coming reign by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, offering forgiveness, and welcoming all who recognize their need of God into his loving embrace. And just in case we miss the message, God raised Jesus on the third day that we might know that love is stronger than hate and death.
So, let’s do what St. Paul exhorts us to do, let’s put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. Let’s encourage and build up one another, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that we may be with him (1Ths 5:8-11). Amen.
Resources: Synthesis, 2008-2017; David Lose, 2014, 2017; William Barclay, 1975.