Grace Presbyterian Church
November 19, 2017, Pentecost 24A
First of all, we have to define our term.
The term that is given as “talent” in your Bible is in Greek talanta, a term that doesn’t translate for us because it is a term for a specific amount of currency. Most scholars agree that one talanta or “talent” would be a sum of money equivalent to the accumulated wages that an average day laborer of the time could expect to earn over the course of fifteen to twenty years. Given the life expectancy rates of the time, you’re easily looking at a lifetime’s wages being entrusted to even the slave given only the one talanta. So, understand first that these three slaves in the story are being entrusted with very large sums of money. What they are asked to steward is extremely valuable.
Now also notice that this parable does not open in the same way as the first parable found in this chapter, the subject of last week’s sermon. In that case the parable is introduced with Jesus saying “For the kingdom of heaven is like this.” Straightforward. Seems simple. This parable, on the other hand, picks up from verse 13 – “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” – with a rather more ambiguous opening: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey …” with no reference to exactly what “it” is in this case. Given the parable and in particular its testy and accusatory final section, maybe this isn’t the “kingdom of heaven” we’re looking at here. It could, though, still be – like last week’s parable – about living in the time between, the waiting for the kingdom to be revealed in its fullness, perhaps. It’s not hard to argue that the two do have the same point – our waiting is not passive; we continue to work; we continue to serve; we continue to act.
But you can start a good argument in biblical scholarship circles by asking whether the wealthy traveler in this parable is actually meant to evoke God, or even Jesus. His interactions with the “one-talent slave” don’t look very Jesus-like to us, if we’re honest with ourselves. At least we hope we don’t encounter Jesus blasting us as a “wicked, lazy slave” and calling for us to be cast into the “outer darkenss, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But I wonder… .
I wonder if perhaps the strongest “unlearning” we need to do with this parable is to ask ourselves these talents in the parable – these talantae – are really supposed to mean.
An allegory – defined by Merriam-Webster as “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures or actions of truths or generalizations about human existence” – can become less meaningful if we reduce it to something like a metaphor or simile – “this is that,” or “this is like that”. Once allegory is opened up, on the other hand, the potential meanings of the different symbols in the story can multiply and lead in directions we may not expect. So, what do those talents – the five, the two, the one – potentially stand for?
Over the centuries, sadly, Christian thought has tended to reduce the multiple possibilities of this allegory to only two: money – a reflection of the original meaning of the word – and talents – our English appropriation of the word to describe the natural intelligences, aptitudes, or capabilities of an individual.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with either of these representations. This passage is often enough appropriated for “stewardship sermons,” and that’s not necessarily a wrong reading of the text. It’s not as natural as it might seem, though. Note where Matthew has paced this parable in his account of Jesus’s ministry. For one, it’s right after that parable of the bridesmaids from last week, and before the famous parable of the sheep and goats (next week). Financial stewardship is certainly appropriate to think about as a part of how we live (and we certainly do talk about it that way plenty in September and October), but this series of parables still seems an odd context for Jesus to start talking about money. Furthermore, the next thing to happen after these parables in Matthew’s account is Jesus’s final journey to Jerusalem. The anointing of his feet at Bethany, the preparations for and sharing of that last meal together, the trial and crucifixion and what comes after – in other words, what happens next is Holy Week. Again, in this spot, it seems an odd time for a stewardship sermon.
As to talents, even if the original word has nothing to do with our modern usage, it seems unlikely to be an exhaustive thing for Jesus to talk about with what he knows is coming.
Again, neither possibility is necessarily wrong, but they don’t seem terribly exhaustive. Certainly these are not the only gifts God gives us “for the living of these days,” to borrow the words of an old hymn?
Maybe our reading of this parable is too limited. What if we think of all of the gifts and blessings with which God has gifted us? What are the other parts of our lives we are called to steward and invest and oversee and bring back a 100% return on God’s investment in us?
What about our time? How do we “invest” our time to bring about that return? Are we studying the scriptures? Are we in prayer, meditating on God’s call to us? Are we serving God by serving God’s children? Or are our hours getting choked away in pursuits that are, even if good and even helping the church, pursuits that are not bringing about God’s call in each of us and in all of us together?
What about our minds? How do we “invest” our minds to bring about that return? Are we again studying in God’s world? Are we paying attention to the world around us in order to hear how God calls us to work and serve our neighbors, or to work and serve with our neighbors? Are we opening ourselves to the truth that sets us free? Are we being “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” as the Apostle Paul wrote (Romans 12:2)?
What about our voices, or even our witness? How do we “invest” our witness to bring about that return? Do we bear the gospel with us readily? Are we ready to give “an account of the hope that is in you,” in the words of 1 Peter (3:15)? Are our voices heard when injustice is not only perpetuated, but tolerated and even winked at? Is our witness heard when hatred is not only tolerated, but is enshrined in the highest halls of power our land has to offer? Do we speak up with hope when the world teaches and preaches despair?
Here’s the thing: when we don’t “make these investments,” people are hurt. The body of Christ loses when we don’t invest our time together. The world loses when our minds are not renewed and transformed in service to God. People suffer and are oppressed and impoverished and even killed when our witness goes silent. And while it might be hard for us to imagine, it would not be that hard to imagine Jesus’s grief, Jesus’s anger even, when those things happen. Maybe even “weeping and gnashing of teeth” kind of anger.
How are we investing our money? How are we investing our abilities and talents? But also how are we investing our time and our minds and our witness and all of the gifts that God has given us, each according to our own ability?
For good return on God’s investment in us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #612, We Praise You, O God; #716, God Whose Giving Knows No Ending; #719, Come, Labor On; #701, Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord