“The Parable of the Talents,” Rembrandt, 1652
Well, when Grace invited me to speak, I ended up choosing today, without realizing that the words “weeping and gnashing of teeth” launch me into my sermon!
However, I cannot complain about a ‘tough text’ this week – after all, this is not the only confrontational parable we’ve heard recently! As we have been progressing through the Gospel of Matthew in the lectionary these last few months, Jesus’ final teachings paint a clear picture: Jesus is being deliberately confrontational – he’s stirring the pot, and he does not hold back!
Nor should he, particularly when we consider that very context in which Jesus tells this Parable of the Talents. It is Holy week. Tuesday, in fact. That means that only two days earlier he had entered the city to great fanfare, and yesterday, he had overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, from which he is teaching all week. In two days, he will celebrate the Passover, the last supper, with his twelve closest friends; be betrayed by one of them to the authorities; and in three days – the crucifixion. On Sunday? Well, the world will change forever with the resurrection. But for now – only Jesus knows that, which is why this confrontational Jesus does not hesitate to challenge us with his teaching. He sits on the Mount of Olives after teaching all day in the temple and discusses with his disciples the meaning of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ – all in light of the kingdom to come.
In the present-day church, we understand many of the symbols present in the parable to be seemingly transparent: the journeying master stands for the earthly Jesus departed with the ascension; the slaves represent the church, with members entrusted with varied responsibilities. The master’s return represents the promised end of the age –, with judgement and a heavenly reward for the faithful. NT scholar Graham Stanton (somewhat gently) summarizes the traditional interpretation of this parable as one that: “encourages us to be faithful with all that God has entrusted us.”
So, what is it about this parable that make us so uncomfortable today?
It is not just Jesus’ jarringly casual reference of “slaves”, although it it is hard for our modern minds to remember was a societal norm in antiquity (and also why some translations instead use the term ‘servants’).
I think it is more how we sympathize (in many ways) with the one-talent slave. Why was he judged so severely? And going back – why was he only given one talent? Is that fair? Clearly his master did not regard him very highly in comparison with the others – having been judged as the scripture says, “each according to his ability.”
No wonder he dug a hole and buried it in the ground, as he clung on to the one treasure he had been given. This is one which he is will eventually return – proudly untouched and intact – to the master. The slave says he was afraid, but was this really fear of the “harsh master,” or more of losing his precious gift. And with only one talent in his possession, one can understand the fearful response, as he perhaps asked himself: “What happens if I lose this?”
We sympathize, because we know how easy it is to cling unhealthily onto that which we have been given. A good gift can become an idol. Our one-talent man clings onto his talent to such an extent that ultimately it was taken away, because he ceased to use it as the gift it had been given.
Gifts are a major theme of this parable. We have a master who entrusts his slaves with varying sums called “talents,” talanta (τάλαντα) in Greek. Now this parable does also appear in Luke 19, but the currency there is called a “Minas” (King James Version translates this as “Pounds”). Whereas this ‘minas’ was roughly the equivalent to a days’ wage (you could carry it in the palm of your hand), Matthew here uses the vastly larger sums of talanta – “talents” which are worth about six to ten thousand(!) times as much! (That’s going to require a very big hole to bury it!)
So, if this parable is intended as a metaphor for God bestowing gifts, it cannot be lost that for Matthew, God gives graciously, but also generously, almost beyond our capacity to imagine or understand.
Our English word “talent” of course is not a currency, but meaning abilities or aptitudes, it turns out this word actually derives from this very parable. As Christians, this fits with our understanding of a magnanimous God, and we can see so beautifully the gifts that God has bestowed upon us: gifts of music, artistry, leadership, integrity, , compassion. Gifts that can be understood both in terms of natural talents as well as that of the spiritual gifts such as are described in 1 Cor 12-14. We see these in each other. I have only been here at All Saints since September, but I see Gods’ gifts shining through so brightly in you. I see you engaged and active, even with the shutdown; employing newfound skills to make this service happen; finding ways to reach out and support not only each other, but the community around us: with St. Michaels mission, the food baskets, and so many other things; but most of all the active outward awareness of this parish, and the willingness to put your gifts to work to address the needs you see. Like Matthew, I am humbled by the wild generosity of our God, whose image we see in each other.
Of course, it is much easier to recognize gifts in others – it is much more difficult to have a healthy awareness of our own gifts and talents. Thinking of the one-talent man, we may fearfully ask ourselves – Are my gifts enough? Am I only a one-talent person? What gifts are there that I am not using? This pandemic seems to amplify such feelings of self-doubt, causing us to question our gifts and talents. So many of the skills by which we have defined ourselves have been thrown into turmoil as the world has changed around us.
I am an extrovert. A classical musician who has defined myself for most of my life by the experiences I share with other musicians in small intimate groups. 90% of that work is now all gone, and like you, most of my interactions are on Zoom. As a theology student at McGill and Dio, even though I wasn’t making music, I was constantly engaging with fellow students in seminar rooms. Although I deeply love the work I am pursuing, as someone prone to migraines, it is a very difficult thing now for me to sit alone in front of a screen for 15 hours a day. I cannot but sometimes question whether I have the right gifts – talents – for this situation.
You see how I’m still clinging to the familiar gifts I already know.
I don’t think I’m alone in questioning my gifts right now. Most of us are feeling inadequate in the face of this pandemic, and we are all waiting for this to end. All of our scriptures today talk about waiting. In our first reading, the Israelites cry to the Lord for help in their oppression. The psalmist looks to the Lord for mercy. In Matthew, the slaves wait for their master (standing for Christ) to return. Paul states it most clearly in the reading from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: the time and season is one of waiting for the day of the Lord; Christ’s return in the coming Kingdom. It is a time of joyful anticipation! As Christians, we share in that joy. We anticipate that day just as surely as we will celebrate the end of this pandemic.
The parable of the talents suggests to us how to make it through our own time of uncertainty: use the gifts that he has so abundantly given us. And as Paul says, do so by encouraging and supporting one another.
Although we empathize with the one-talent man as we question our gifts, our discomfort over the idea of judgement of their use must face with the realization that it is our own judgement of our gifts that can be the most problematic. It’s really not about the number of talents we have, or how significant (or insignificant) we may believe them to be. Self-reflection can be good, but we need to stop unhealthily judging ourselves! After all, our Lord is one who judged us so valuable that as Jesus he came as a man to reconcile us with him by making the ultimate sacrifice. We are of infinite value to Him. You are of infinite value to Him.
We can follow Matthew by believing in a god who gives beyond our wildest imagination! I’m not sure there is such thing as a ‘one-talent’ person. Look how many new talents have been discovered during this pandemic Many of us have talents that we may never even realize, but that God can still use if we open ourselves to Him. Together as a church community, we have the talents that we need, particularly when we look around us and find the talents to support each other. This will be easier in person, but look around at each other with joy, and encourage each other as you recognize God’s gifts. As Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” And enter into the joy of our Lord.