Scripture readings: Judges 4:1-7 and Ps. 123 (or Zeph.1:7, 12-18 and Ps. 90:1-12) 1 Thess. 5:1-11; Matt. 25:14-30 Sermon by Lance McKinnon from Matthew 25:14-30
God’s Got Talent
In our Gospel reading today, we’re taken to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. Reading this parable on the Sunday before Thanksgiving is a helpful reminder of how a response of thankfulness plays out in our journey with Jesus.
What this parable is not about
This parable could easily be viewed as an admonition concerning stewardship of everything from our spiritual gifts, money, time, abilities and, of course, our talents. The problem with that approach is that the focus can end up being on our talents, and how well we manage them, with the idea that if we do a good-enough job with a little, then we’ll qualify to get a little more. From that perspective, God is seen as a taskmaster whose primary concern is putting his servants (slaves) through an examination to see if they can turn a profit.
Is this the God Jesus was seeking to tell his disciples about? Is this the God Matthew was trying to convey to his readers? If so, why tell a parable? Why not just tell us that God is like every other taskmaster we find in this “present evil age”? Why not just tell us that our experience in this world is a mirror of the one that is to come?
Here is the meaning
It’s important to realize that parables are told to challenge conventional modes of thinking, not confirm them. Besides that, in this particular parable, we find three interesting details that should alert us that we’re not talking here about “business as usual.”
The story is about a particular man, not the talents. It begins by having this man as the reference point for understanding the whole passage. Also, let’s not miss Matthew’s placement of this parable. It’s the last one that Jesus gives before he is crucified. Could the “man going on a journey” in this parable be Jesus, with the journey taking him through his death, resurrection and ascension? Is it not there that we are “called” by the man to receive his “wealth”—a reference to his kingdom?
When Jesus “went away,” returning through the ascension back to the Father, are we not to live here in a way that reflects life there—is not our life now as followers of Jesus a participation now, through the Spirit, in the kingdom of our Lord that is already here, though we await its future fullness? If so, this Parable of the Talents has more to say about how we live in this world according to the rhythms of the next.
The term “talent” was a specific measurement of money in Jesus’ day. The point being made by this term is thus not about what was given, but in the amount given. See if these numbers change how you see the “man” who gave the talents: One denarius equals about an average day’s wage. One talent is roughly 10,000 denarii. In other words, the man gives his servants more than enough money (gold in this case) to live on for the rest of their lives! They are given everything they will ever need, whether they are given 5, 2 or “just” 1 talent. If that’s what being a servant of this man looks like, sign me up!
Each servant is given this great wealth “each according to his ability.” Clearly the “man” is not trying to use the talents to determine his servants’ abilities. He already knows them well enough to give a fitting amount to each one.
The servants respond
Understanding these details, let’s look at how each servant responded to the lavish gift given them by their master. The first two respond in the same way—they receive the gift and then go and do business with it. That’s pretty much it. We’re tempted to read into the text that these servants also were responsible for the results. But the talents seem to do their own work. “Money makes money,” we might say. Basically, the servants trusted enough that what they were given would not be lost. They enjoyed the talents given, and in that joyful business, the gift kept giving.
It seems that the only way to keep the talent from doubling is to do absolutely nothing with it. This is what the third servant does. He received the talent, but it seems that he didn’t really want it. He went out, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money. Say what?! Did Matthew get that right? You mean to tell me that this particular servant was just given enough money to live on for the rest of his life, with plenty to spare, and he just buried it? Why on earth would he do that?!!
I think we see the answer to that question when the master returns “after a long time” (Matt. 25:19). This, by the way, is another point in favor of seeing this man as being Jesus. The first two servants do not hesitate to come to the master and report their experience with the talents they were given. They seem overjoyed to share how the talents grew to twice the amount they had received.
The master responds
Then the master responds to the servants’ response with what may be the key to understanding the parable:
Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matt. 25:21)
Did you catch that last line? This is what the master has been up to the whole time—bringing his servants into his own joy. It seems that the talents represent Jesus himself. Jesus gives himself to us in order that we might enjoy life with, in and through him! The “wealth” the man gives his servants in Matt. 25:14 is translated “property” in the NRSV. The idea is of the place the master intends to return to and so share with his servants. Who would want the gift of property if you could not enjoy being with the one who lives there?
It’s about enjoying Jesus
Enjoyment of Jesus, our Lord and Master, has a way of growing. When we receive him and then grow in trusting him, we find he is indeed a generous and gracious giver who is completely trustworthy and, therefore, quite enjoyable. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we find ourselves wanting to enjoy him more and more—communing with him in every second of every day, as we live in this “present evil world”—the “time between the times” of his first and second advents.
We enjoy Jesus knowing that as our gracious Master who knows and loves us best, he will return one day in glory to fill us with his presence, which we will enjoy forever.
The wicked, lazy servant
But we are not done yet. There is the last servant who we are told about as a warning. He represents a judgment of how we respond to Jesus.
We asked, why on earth would he bury the gift of a lifetime? Basically, it looks like this servant wanted nothing to do with the “man.” He had prejudged his master as “harsh” even though the man had just given him a ridiculously large amount of money to enjoy. This “wicked and lazy servant,” gives his one talent back to the master with these words: “Here is what belongs to you” (Matt. 25:25).
Do you grasp what he has done? He has judged the man to be a taskmaster—one who only gives gifts with strings attached. To this servant, the master is a tightwad accountant trying to get as much as he can out of his servants. The talent is seen not as a gift to be received, but as a test to be avoided.
The master has harsh words for this servant: “You wicked, lazy servant!” (Matt. 25:26). This servant is not getting bad marks for poor financial management—he is being called out in the same way Jesus called out the religious leaders of Israel. Israel was supposed to be God’s servant, enjoying God’s presence, which served as a witness inviting the whole world to enjoy him as well. Instead, Israel chose to bury the talent God gave them by rejecting Jesus and having him killed. The unfaithful, self-focused servant in the parable did not like it that the master would harvest where he had not sown (Matt. 25:24). Israel didn’t like it that God was concerned about other nations—that the talent invested in Israel would mean growth in value that would benefit others. Israel had her Temple—why care about other nations?
The master tells his unthankful, short-sighted servant that what he has been given will be taken away and given to others (Matt. 25:29). The point here is that when something is not enjoyed for its intended purpose, we not only lose the benefit intended, but we lose the thing itself. It would be like using a piano as lawn furniture—not only will you lose enjoying the music, you will eventually lose the piano itself. That’s what happened with Israel’s Temple. The Pharisees and other religious leaders of the Jews did not use the Temple for its intended purpose: to enjoy God’s presence. Instead, they tried to work it for a profit. In the end, they couldn’t receive God’s actual presence in Jesus, and ended up losing the Temple itself.
That’s the judgement on this wicked, lazy servant. He repudiated his calling to live with and therefore enjoy the master and by doing so he became “worthless” (Matt. 25:30). This servant chose to respond to his own judgement that the master should be avoided instead of being enjoyed. To refuse Jesus—to refuse to trust in him and so to enjoy him, is to receive only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I’ve got good news: God’s got talent!—and his name is Jesus. Doing business with him is the most enjoyable enterprise you can ever imagine. And when others want to be part of that, there’s more than enough to go around. So enjoy Jesus and share him with others. Amen.