25th Sunday After Pentecost
TEXTS: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security”, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! (1 Thess. 5:2-3)
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away … After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.” (Matt. 25:14-15, 19)
“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” when the master returns to settle accounts with his servants.
The first half of that statement comes, of course, from the epistle to the Thessalonians—and the second half is from our gospel lesson. First we hear from Paul, writing to the church in Thessalonica; and then from Jesus, speaking to … Well, speaking to his original 12 disciples, but—since Matthew saw fit to record it—speaking to us, as well.
Both Paul and Jesus sound rather harsh here, don’t they? Sudden destruction coming like labour pains, with no chance of escape. Outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Before I go any further, I want to draw your attention to one point and remind you of another.
First, notice what Paul tells us. As believers, we are not lost in darkness—and we are not abandoned to destruction. As the apostle elsewhere assures us, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Second—with regard to the gospel lesson—remember that this is Jesus speaking. Yes. Jesus. The lover of hyperbole. Jesus. The master of attention-grabbing oratory.
Also remember that this story Jesus tells—which we refer to as the “parable of the talents”—is meant to convey a truth about the kingdom of heaven. That’s an important point, because (as we should all know by now) what’s important in heaven’s kingdom is not gold or silver or stocks or bonds. It’s not currency that will garner more interest in a mutual fund or an RRSP.
You understand this, right? The coin of the realm in God’s kingdom is not convertible to Canadian funds, US dollars, Euros, or Yen. You may indeed have a mansion in heaven, but you can’t flip it for a quick profit.
So what is this illustrative tale actually about?
Let’s back up a little bit, and clarify our terms. We call this the “parable of the talents.” But what is a talent, exactly?
That word “talent” has a double meaning. In its original sense, it refers to a huge sum of money. In the ancient world, a talent was worth about 15 years’ wages for an ordinary person. In present-day terms—based on the current Alberta minimum wage of $15.00 an hour—one talent is worth about $4.6 million! So, when the master gives his slaves (we might rather call them “servants”) five talents, or two talents—or even just one—he is entrusting them with a sizable fortune.
The second meaning of the word “talent” results from a particular interpretation of this parable. As the master entrusts his servants with talents, so does God entrust each one of us with practical gifts. “Talent” has therefore come to mean “ability” or “skill.” We say that someone has a “talent” for writing, or acting, or music, or business.
However, this “parable of the talents” is not really about money or ability. It’s about something far more important. “The parable of the talents” is about trust.
The story begins with an act of trust. As the master is about to depart on a journey, he entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. Each is given a different sum—yet each sum is immense. Clearly, the master trusts these guys. Notice he hands over the money without any instructions.
Eventually, the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money. The third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly the amount he received. It turns out that he has simply buried the money in the ground.
Why? Well, as it turns out, his motivation—or lack of it—was born out of fear! And the explanation he gives isn’t going to endear him to his employer: “Boss, I know you’re only too glad to reap the benefits of other people’s labour without doing any work yourself—and I know how harshly you deal with those who fail. So I didn’t dare take any chances with your money at all. Here—have it back!”
His trust in his master was zero, so he reduced his financial risk to zero. Yet he reduced the possibility of profit to zero, as well.
You know, this story begs a question. How would the master have reacted if the first two servants had not brought in a profit? What if they had gambled and lost? What if they had put the money at risk and come back empty-handed?
Here’s what I think: I think the master would have forgiven them! Remember, this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. The master commends not profits, but faithfulness. He does not praise the servant who produced five talents more than the one who produced two.
Each receives the same commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Each receives the same reward: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
And in responding to the third servant, the master makes it clear that he would have accepted any kind of return—even rock-bottom, savings-account interest! Anything that was motivated by faith rather than by fear.
Moreover—since this is one of Jesus’ teaching stories—I think it’s significant that the servant who is given five talents makes five talents more, and the one who receives two makes two more. This doubling in each case suggests that the growth is automatic. It’s not the cleverness of the servants that produces results. No. It’s their willingness to trust.
Like I said, this parable is not so much about money or ability as it is about trust. The master trusts his servants—and he acts on this trust. Two of the servants return the favour by responding in trust, and they come back to their employer with one fortune stacked on top of another.
But the third servant … Well, he makes his boss out to be a greedy tyrant who demands success. And so, what he gets for his trouble is precisely the rejection he so deeply fears. He is a small-minded man convinced that his master is equally small-minded.
The other two servants, however, recognize generosity when they see it. The piles of cash thrust their way speak of an employer who is both trusting and generous—who is willing to take a risk, who has confidence in them, and will honour them for their efforts.
Finding themselves at the receiving end of such outrageous trust, they feel emboldened to take risks of their own. The love their master has shown them overpowers any thought of failure. They realize that a person who treats his money managers in this open-handed way is more interested in them—and in their abilities—than he is concerned about making a profit.
Like so many of the stories Jesus told, this one turns the standards of the world upside down.
According to Jesus, the worst thing that can happen to us is not failure. No. The worst thing that can happen to us is believing that God is an acrimonious old curmudgeon who will smite us if we fail.
The worst thing is not losing out. The worst thing is never risking. In the eyes of God, keeping his treasure buried in the ground is a terrible and shameful waste. It is a faithless act, symptomatic of an insidious form of atheism.
Faith, on the other hand … Faith dares to put God’s treasure to work. Faith dares to put God’s treasure at risk. And—even if the whole kit and kaboodle is lost as a result—our faith will earn our master’s praise. After all, we can learn from our failures. And, let’s face it, very often, it is failure that teaches the most valuable lessons. Fear teaches us nothing at all.
The word of Christ to us is, “Fear not!” Over and over again, we hear him say, “Do not be afraid.” And—with his trademark hyperbole—he shocks us into the recognition that failing to trust in God is … Well, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, such infidelity is unbecoming.
Jesus tells numerous stories to illustrate that point. There’s the spiteful older brother who refuses to welcome home the prodigal son; the all-day workers who demand that late arrivals receive less than the daily wage; and the Pharisee who thinks God will accept him because he has kept the rules—and not because the Lord is merciful. All of these characters live in a gray, fearful world—a world devoid of grace, where underachievers get thrown to the wolves.
Now, before we dismiss these folks as pathetic losers, we should ask ourselves: are we ever like them? Do we ever bury our talents in the ground, out of fear? Have we ever misperceived—and mistrusted—God?
Here’s another question: what if the true, living and only God has no interest in keeping score? What if God’s concern is simply that we all step up to the plate and take a turn at bat?
And still another question, no less challenging: what does all of this mean for those—including me—who wring their hands and stew about the future of the Church?
The Good News of Jesus breathes new meaning into our notions of success and security. Success is found not in accumulating more “stuff” than we can ever use—or in filling every seat at Sunday morning worship—but in our willingness to take risks for the sake of God’s kingdom. Security is found not in keeping pace with our rising paranoia, but in trusting our utterly reliable God—the One who trusts us before we trust ourselves; the God who takes risks—and calls us to risk, also.
The “parable of the talents” reminds us of something that we too easily forget—and that is simply this: what God requires of us is not success, but faithfulness. And I, for one, think that is very good news.