November 22, 2008
November 22, 2008
You are a nursery school teacher, and the chairperson of your board of directors has just given you $275,700.00. Or you are a construction worker, and your foreman has just given you $430,200.00. Or you are a Presbyterian minister! And your Session has just given you $536,400.00! Or, you are an engineer, and your CEO has just given you $1,045,800.00. Holy mackerel. What do you do with all those riches?
We are sitting at Jesus’ feet again this morning, listening to a parable, and this time it’s about something called “talents.” Just to be clear from the get-go: the word “talent” in Greek did not mean “special gift or ability.” That meaning was attached to the word in the middle ages. So when Jesus spoke of “talents” he was not talking about the ability to speak in public without your knees shaking, or the ability to play an instrument, or the ability add to long columns of figures in your head. When Jesus spoke about talents he was talking about an enormous amount of money. He was talking about something so huge, so valuable, as to be a treasure almost unimaginable for the folks he was addressing. A talent was approximately 15 years’ wages for a day laborer: in other words, more money than the fisherfolk and stonecutters and carpenters even in a thriving city such as Jerusalem could ever hope to see in a lifetime.
Jesus lays this improbable scenario before his audience. And then he blows them away with the outcome. The basic story is this: in preparation for going on a long journey, a master entrusts each of three servants or slaves with enormous amounts of treasure—5 talents, 2 talents, and one talent. The slave with 5 talents receives the equivalent of 75 years’ wages—that’s more than $2 million for our construction worker. And each slave responds in his own way. The slave who received 5 talents essentially plays the stock market, trading the talents for profit. He risks losing it all! He does something incredibly dangerous with this wealth that is not his own, and, fortunately for him, it pays off. Likewise the second slave, with his 30 years’ worth of wages. But the slave who receives one talent—again, more riches than he could expect to see in a lifetime—nervously buries it in the backyard. Just to be clear, the talent is a weight as well as a value, and it is not a small weight. It was roughly the size of a person, which, in those pre-supersizing days, was about 112 pounds. So burying a talent was, well, kind of like burying a body. It took a lot of work and it took up a lot of space.
There’s one other thing you should know about burying the talent. The people who were listening to the parable when Jesus first told it would have thought burying the talent the completely reasonable, responsible thing to do. As far as they could tell, it was the right thing to do. Just put your self in the slave’s place. The amount of treasure was enormous, and the slave had no experience handling that kind of wealth. The only responsible thing to do was to try very hard not to lose it. The slave very understandably says to himself, “Don’t go out on a limb. Don’t take risks. Don’t do anything that might get you into trouble.” The third slave obeys conventional wisdom. But Jesus had another idea. Jesus had unconventional wisdom in mind.
Let me ask you this: have you ever been entrusted with something that was far beyond your experience and abilities? Something—a responsibility of some kind—that filled you with a kind of fear and dread, even as it filled you with excitement? Some jobs come to mind. I imagine flying a plane full of hundreds of passengers would feel like that to me. Or being a surgeon, having the inner workings of the human body laid bare. Or… being a parent. Life does call upon us, from time to time, to step up to take on something far beyond our previous experience. What do we do when that happens?
Home comes the master—and a long, long time has passed. The master is thrilled with the work of slave 1 and slave 2. “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.” It’s worth our pausing to think about the master at this point in the story. He has really behaved in an extraordinary way. He has entrusted slaves with vast amounts of capital, not for a week or two, but for extended periods of time. At a time when slaves were expected to do their jobs for little or no pay and could expect to receive little or no recognition, the master’s response to their investment strategies is striking. He compliments the first two slaves extravagantly. He increases their responsibilities as a reward. He even, perhaps, welcomes them into his home—“enter into the joy of your master.” The listeners of Jesus would have been very pleasantly surprised. They would have taken note. This master is kind, generous, trusting, responsive, welcoming.
Then we have slave #3, the slave who did what anyone in Jesus’ audience would have done. And, surprisingly, the slave’s first words are a defense based on the character of the master. “I knew you were a harsh man…so I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground.” This slave is not describing the master as we know him. How strange. This slave has some idea of the master as cruel, harsh, almost—evil. This slave is paralyzed with fear to the point that he can’t even think rationally. He buries the treasure. And the shock for Jesus’ audience becomes complete, as the kind and benevolent master berates the slave as wicked and lazy, gives his talent to the one with ten, and orders him thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
How did this happen? How did the slave who did what anyone listening to the story would have done find himself on the wrong end of his master’s boot? Matthew’s Jesus tells this parable, and on the surface it is completely unacceptable. That is probably why in other tellings that have survived, the editors have toned it down so much. Mark shortens it, turning it into a quick saying on “being ready” for the master’s return (Mark 13:33-35). Luke makes the third servant hide the talent in a napkin, which is just plain silly (Luke 19:11-27). The writer of the “Gospel of the Nazarenes,” which didn’t make it into the New Testament at all, presents it this way. One servant multiplies the talents; one servant buries them; and one squanders them on harlots and flute girls. Each teller of the story is trying to tame what is essentially a difficult parable told by Jesus, to make it more palatable for the listener. But there is an important principle of biblical interpretation, one that is well accepted by New Testament scholars. The most difficult or confusing version is usually the earliest, and therefore the most authentic—the closest to the actual words of Jesus. That is because, if we know anything at all about the historical Jesus, we know that he said things that disturbed and upset people, and that he turned conventional wisdom and morality on their heads.
So what do we make of this strange story? The first thing we can do about the parable is to pay close attention to its first words: “For it is as if…” What “is as if?” If we search back just a little farther, we can see that Jesus has just told another parable, which begins, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this” (Matt. 25:1). Ah. “It is as if…” “The kingdom of heaven is as if…” These first words tip us off that, although we’ve been investigating this parable as if it were about money, or natural resources, or even special abilities, the parable is about none of these. If the “kingdom of heaven is as if…” a master gave his servants all these talents, then we are talking about something altogether different. The talent, the many years’ wages, more treasure than the ordinary person would ever normally have access to, is the gospel. The gospel: something so huge, so valuable, as to be almost unimaginable.
How does understanding that the talent is the gospel change the way we hear this parable? For one thing, it completely changes how we look at that third servant. If the treasure is the gospel—and, of course, that is what it always is—then burying it is an act of supreme folly. As we’ve mentioned before, in the parables at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is speaking of his imminent departure and the time before his return. The master will be gone for a long, long time. And he entrusts to his followers a treasure beyond their experience or imagining. His instruction to them, through this parable, is “Do it. Risk it. Risk everything for the gospel, for the kingdom.”
As someone who is, myself, somewhat risk-aversive, I find this to be an extremely uncomfortable message. This is the big enchilada. This is the pearl of great price. There is nothing of greater value. This is the kingdom, the promised reign of God. And we have been entrusted with it by our kind, generous, trusting, responsive, and welcoming master, who says: Go out on that limb. Risk getting in trouble. Risk everything for the gospel. The gospel is not something to be buried in the backyard or left on a shelf in the library. It is something to be shared, traded, given away. If we don’t—we might as well be burying our own bodies in the backyard.
There is a little poem, almost a nursery rhyme, called “Opportunities Missed:”
There was a very cautious gal
Who never laughed or played;
She never risked, she never tried,
She never sang or prayed.
And when she one day passed away
Her insurance was denied;
For since she never really lived,
They claimed she never died!
The sharing and sending out of the gospel—the spreading abroad of the treasure we have been given—is a risky and unsettling business. Do it and you might find yourself inconvenienced. Do it and you might find your friends rolling their eyes. Do it and you might find yourself doing all sorts of uncomfortable things like welcoming to your table those you never thought you’d rub elbows with, or getting on a bus and going to Mississippi to help remove mold from flooded homes. You might find yourself changing the way you live, or the people you live with. You might find yourself making the biggest change imaginable: changing your mind. Begin the risky business of sharing the enormous riches of the gospel, and you don’t know where it will lead you.
Friends, especially those of you whom we will receive into membership in just a few minutes—Jesus has just given us the pearl of great price, the treasure beyond our imagining, greater wealth than we’ve ever hoped to see in our lifetimes. Holy mackerel. What are we going to do with all these riches? Thanks be to God. Amen.
 M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 453.
 Thomas G. Long, Westminster Bible Commentary: Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 282-283.
 Boring, op. cit.
 Long, op. cit., 281.