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Pentecost 25

The Rev’d Charles Everson

Nov. 15, 2023 • Proper 28 • Matthew 25:14-30

 

Today’s gospel reading is the well-known Parable of the Talents. Preachers frequently take it to mean that one should be a good steward of one’s money, a rather convenient alignment of the lectionary and the wrapping up of stewardship campaigns all across the country. The former banker in me finds the economics of this passage intriguing, and in the end, I’m not so sure that money is what it’s really all about.

 

The word “talent” as used in this passage is a transliteration of the Greek word talanton, which skews our understanding of this passage. Talanton means a large sum of money equal to the wages of a day laborer for approximately 20 years.  It is because of the wide circulation of this parable that “talent” came into the English language in the Middle Ages as a term for God-given abilities.  But the talents in this story refer to sums of money; there are other Greek words used to describe God-given abilities.[1]

        

The master entrusted his three slaves with huge sums of money, more than most of us will ever be entrusted with in our lives, certainly at any one time. Here are some rough numbers: the average annual salary in the United States in 2023 is a little over $59,000, which, multiplied by 20 is about $1.2MM. I used my banker skills to throw together a simple spreadsheet which indicates that he entrusted the first slave with the equivalent of $6MM, the second slave with $2.4MM, and the third with $1.2MM. 

        

As a banker, it’s hard to imagine entrusting anyone, let alone a slave, with such a great sum. Collateral would be required, as well as income verification and evidence of the applicant’s credit history, etc. The text says that the first two slaves “went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.” This process is referred to as moneylending, a process that was usually conducted through the Roman temples.  These temples were not only religious institutions, they doubled as banks because they were well guarded, and deposits were considered safe there. Since few people had capital, those who did could lend money at significant interest. Investors thus could receive five or even ten times their investment; at the very least, they could double their investment.[2]

        

The two servants who traded the money entrusted to them earned double their money, which wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone hearing this story.  In fact, the first two slaves aren’t the key actors in this story at all.  They are merely supporting actors to provide a reference point to the lead character: the third slave.

          

Though the third slave was given less money than the other two, he was still entrusted with roughly $1.MM in today’s currency, a huge sum of money. On the surface, he seems to have been the most risk-adverse of the three.  Rather than investing the money which would introduce some risk of loss, he chose to hide the money in a hole in the ground. In first century Palestine, people sometimes buried money in a strongbox to keep it safe, but it would have actually been safer with the bankers in the temple, and it would have very likely doubled. When it was his turn to account for what he had done with the money, the third slave says something that would have shocked the original audience: he calls his master a harsh man, insulting him, and blaming his harsh character for his own failures.[3] The slave reveals his true motivations when he says “so I was afraid, and I went and hid your money in the ground.” It is not a conservative, risk-adverse investment approach that leads to his demise, it is his fear. 

        

After giving an account of their actions, the master responds to the first two slaves, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; enter into the joy of your master.” They aren’t being lauded for their obedience, but because they were actively responsible while the master was away. They took initiative and accepted some level of risk, while the third slave’s fear of his master paralyzes him, resulting in his inactivity while his master was away.

        

This parable is the third of four stories in the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells about the implications of the end times. All four of these stories center on the return of the master or bridegroom or king, the judgments that come with that return, and how those who await his return spend their time.[4]    

 

Rather than financial stewardship, I think this parable has more to say to us about how we should spend the time the Lord has given us. Just three weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Like the slaves were entrusted by their master with extravagant amounts of money, God loves us extravagantly more than we could ever deserve. What will we do with the love with which we’ve been entrusted?  Will we, out of fear, sit idly by and play it safe throughout our lives? Or will we embrace the fact that we are truly loved by God, and then actively and intentionally work to expand his kingdom here on earth by extravagantly loving those around us in word and in deed?   

        

It is difficult for you and me to fully accept the fact that God loves us deep down in our bones. For we know that we are prone to act in self-destructive ways, and we know how many warts and blemishes we have underneath the surface.  We often feel inadequate and afraid. The reality is that no matter how we feel – no matter how low our self-esteem is—we were made in the image of God. Yes, we have warts and blemishes and are prone to sin. But by his death and resurrection, Jesus has begun to restore us to what we were in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve ate the apple—before the warts and blemishes and inadequacies and fears came to be. By our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, we have access to the riches of God’s grace to help us overcome our fears and live an active life of faith, loving God with all that we are, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

 

Loving God and loving others inherently require taking risks: the risk of rejection, the risk of feeling like you're missing out on something that brings more immediate gratification, the risk of feeling like a failure if the results of our actions don't seem to be effective or achieve the desired results.  God is calling us today to claim our identity as beloved children of God by actively sharing the extravagant love we've been given in all that we do, even when that means putting ourselves out there and taking risks.  When we do, we will hear with joy the master’s words to the first two servants: ‘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!’[5]

 

[1] Keck, Leander E. The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary. VIII, Abingdon Press, 2015, 335.

[2] NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Zondervan, 2019, 1682.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 308.

[5] Matthew 25:21 (NIV).

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