November 15, 2020
For our gospel reading today Jesus tells a parable to his disciples. Just to give you some context… in the next chapter of this gospel, Jesus and his disciples will enter into Jerusalem. Listen for the Word of God as it continues speaking to you today.
READ Matthew 25: 14-30
Let’s play a little bit this morning… see if we can’t somehow challenge our usual way of seeing this parable. Because if you’re like me the first thing you see are the numbers. Right? The five. The two. The one. Three different slaves given three different amounts of money. And what an incredible amount of money given to each of them. We see five, two and one… not really big numbers… five, two, one… but a single talent is worth more than 15 years’ worth of wages for a laborer at that time. So for the one given just the one talent… that one talent is worth more than what he would make in 15 years. It’s a small fortune. For the one given five talents… seventy five years. More than he could ever hope to see in a lifetime… just given to him. So again… even though we hear small numbers… one, two, five… those small numbers represent an amazing amount of riches. A mindboggling amount of riches put into the hands of these three slaves.
And for these three… the parable says… each receives according to their ability. I think we should explore that phrase and our automatic assumptions… because… again… if you are like me… your first thought is that the amount given already says something about these three slaves. I mean, it’s so easy to assume that there is something about the slave given the five talents… that he was somehow deemed more worthy… or more deserving of the five talents… that there is something about him, some quality that makes it understandable that the master would put the five talents into his hands. Surely there is something about this slave… the ability of this slave… that makes the master feel confident enough to place such a large fortune into his hands. That’s the assumption we make without thinking… so it follows then that the one who received the one talent… that one slave is somehow less deserving already of the master’s trust and confidence. Although it is still a small fortune… I think we assume that the master knows something about this slave so that he is only willing to risk giving the one talent to the one slave. The master in the parable looking at his three slaves somehow knew to give each just the right amount based on some quality… on some measure… on something he saw in them… something he knew about each of them. Why not just split it equally three ways and see what happens? There is a reason behind the differing amounts. And so the five, the two, the one… those numbers show the value that the slaves already have in their master’s eyes. The most valuable slave… or maybe we should say the most capable of the three slaves rightly deserved the five talents… rightly deserved to be given the most… while the least capable of the three slaves rightly deserved the one talent. So our assumptions tell us.
Are you with me so far? Cause this is point where we start to move against our easy and usual assumptions.
So… if the master gives to the slaves the amount that the slaves will be able to handle… why then does the master in the parable act like he does when he returns? I mean it would really be no surprise to him that the one slave would do so poorly with the one talent that was given… that the one slave that he rightly entrusted the least amount would do the worst of the three. Again, isn’t that why he gave him only the one talent in the first place? The one talent given according to the slave’s ability. The master in the parable seems all the more unjustified for his reaction when he returns. His overreaction, really. Right? The chances that it was going to be the third slave with the one talent… that it was this slave who was thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth… seems like that was a foregone conclusion the moment that one talent hit his hand. Of course, he was going to fail that worthless slave. The master already knew the chances were greater for failure. Why else give him only the one talent?
But… what does such an assumption do to our understanding of this parable? Really… what does it say about us? The slave given the five talents deserved the five talents… had some ability that illustrated his deservedness… and no surprise made five more talents. The second slave given the two talents… not as deserving as the other slave since his master only saw fit to give him two talents… but still had the ability to also double the talents given to him. Both are good and trustworthy… and are that way from the beginning… so we would assume. The third slave… least among the three… lowest of expectations… fails miserably and is shown no mercy or understanding and is cast out into the outer darkness.
Remember… with this parable, Jesus is talking directly to his disciples. They are getting ready to go into Jerusalem where he has already been telling them what is about to happen. In the story, though, they aren’t hearing his talk about crucifixion, they are still thinking about Jesus as the Messiah they want him to be. With this parable, it would seem that Jesus is talking to his disciples about leaving them different levels of something… something of immense value. And you can just imagine them filling in what that something is by imagining Jesus giving them just what they value… just what they are still hoping this Messiah will bring to them. But we know they are wrong. That they are all wrong. So what is the lesson of this parable for these disciples? Is it about their ability? About their worthiness to receive what Jesus is about to give to them? Are they finally going to get what they each deserve based on their ability as followers of Jesus? Is their reward for recognizing and following Jesus at hand? I can’t help but think at this point about that story of James and John coming to Jesus and asking Jesus to give them something of immense value… to be able to sit on his right and his left… to be set in places of honor and power. Is that what this parable is about? Jesus giving the most to the most capable of his disciples? Which of them is the deserving five talent slave? Which of them is the less deserving one talent slave? You know there is another story in the gospels where the disciples are walking behind Jesus and they are arguing with each other over who is the greatest among them. But if I recall correctly neither the story of James and John seeking glory… nor the story about the disciples arguing over who is the greatest… I recall that neither of those stories end with talents given by Jesus. They end with rebuke. They end with Jesus telling them that they will be servants and are not to lord over others. I tend to recall that Jesus turns the expectations of the disciples’ expectations for power inside out… that Jesus turns every expectation and assumption upside down.
So again… what is the lesson here with the parable about the talents?
It’s tough to break out of that money, investing, ability mindset when we read this parable. It’s difficult to purge from our minds a sense of deservedness when reading this parable… of reward and punishment based on what the three slaves were able to return from their investments. And then there’s that word talent, which even though it denotes a certain amount of money in this parable… we can’t help but hear that word and think about the word “talent” in how we use that word today. How we understand that great gift given to each of the slaves makes a difference to how we understand this parable. Because what happens when the talents… this immense gift given… a gift that is so great that it can never be earned… what happens when that gift is interpreted to be grace. Let that sink in for a second. If Jesus is talking about grace given in this parable… then just that idea alone turns this parable completely inside out from how we normally think about it. Grace is the talent… grace is the immense gift given… grace is the gift that is so great that it can never be earned.
Put it into the context of Matthew’s gospel. The slave to whom the five talents is the slave who needs a larger portion of grace… who needs more mercy, more forgiveness, more understanding, more love… whatever word it is that helps you to understand the unearned gift of grace. What then is the effect on someone receiving more grace? It’s a different valuation than thinking about money isn’t it? Instead of a sense of deservedness… there’s instead appreciativeness. The slaves receiving both the five and the two talents… both take their grace… the grace they were given… take that grace out into the world… both use grace as their currency of trade and the grace given is doubled. Grace given becomes grace shown… which then is grace given that become grace shown… and so on and so on. Generosity of grace begets a generosity of grace.
These two grace spreading slaves… these two slaves both enter into the joy of their master. That’s an interesting phrase don’t you think? What is the joy of their master? What is the joy of Christ? What is the joy of the shepherd who is sent out to gather in the sheep? What is the joy of the one who brings the light of God into the world? What is the joy of the one who gives love and mercy so freely to those who are crying out in the darkness? What is that joy? These two slaves enter into the joy of Christ… the joy of spreading the gospel and sharing God’s grace… the joy of creating community and fellowship.
And so what of that other slave? The one who buries the grace that is given to him? The one who buries it instead of sharing it so freely… instead of allowing the riches that has been put into his heart raise up the common good through risky sharing and investment? That one slave is chastised for not even letting that grace work naturally… work without his direction. Grace just doing what grace does. I’ve always wondered at that slave’s comment about the master reaping what he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed. And the lightbulb finally came on this week to what that might be about. Remember back in the summer? Remember when we heard another parable from Matthew’s gospel… the parable of the sower who sloppily spreads the seed on all the different types of soil… even the soil where that seed is unlikely to grow… onto the path, and among the thorns… out there will the soil is rocky. Seed flying everywhere. Can’t you imagine that sower joyfully throwing out that seed by the handfuls this way and that way… taking the harvest wherever it happens… wherever that seed takes root? Now think about this one who is afraid… afraid of what that might mean… afraid of the changes it might bring… afraid of what a generosity of spirit might yield. So the one keeps the grace to himself. Does not trade in it. Does not risk anything through it. Gives back only what was given… no more… no less. And yes, the most damning thing about this slave… is he was so close… so close to the kingdom that the grace given wasn’t as much as the others. So close to the kingdom but he couldn’t take that last final step to enter into the joy of his master. Amen.