“The Kingdom of God is like...”
The parable of the talents is among the most misunderstood texts in the New Testament. Contrary to many peoples’ belief the parable does not justify a gospel of economic prosperity. Instead, it challenges us to imitate our Master by using all that God has given us for the sake of the kingdom.
The parable is found in Jesus’ end of time discussions in the previous chapter of Matthew, where Jesus instructs his disciples to endure through difficult times and to live in anticipation of his return. Like all the parables in this part of the gospel, it typifies the certainty of the Lord's coming and how the disciples were to live in the meantime.
The teaching of the talents recalls the parable of the faithful and the wise slave who continues to do the work of the master until he comes. Although the master is delayed, he arrives to find the wise slave doing the tasks that have been given to him in the master’s absence.
The foolish slave, however, has neglected his work and abused his power. He receives severe punishment. Likewise, in the parable of the talents, the master entrusts his servants with his property, and punishment awaits those who have failed to carry on the master's work.
Like the parable of the bridesmaids before it, the parable of the talents portrays, not money, but the kingdom of God. The kingdom is not simply likened to a man on a journey, but to the story that follows, a story that illustrates how the disciples are to wait until the Lord comes.
In this story a wealthy man prepares for a journey by entrusting his estate to his servants. In Luke’s version of this parable, ten slaves receive one pound each to do the master's business. In Matthew’s version, however, there are only three servants, and they receive shares according to their ability.
Although the first receives five times as much as the last, each receives a significant sum of money. A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common labourer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years worth of labour, and an astronomical amount of money.
Like the preceding two parables, the return of the master is certain, but the timing is unknown. After a long absence, he discovers what each servant has done with his property. The first two slaves do business with and capitalise on the master’s talents, doubling his money. Although the first slave earned more than the second, each has done remarkably well with what he has been given. They have performed according to their potential, and they have been faithful to do what the master has required of them. The master’s response to each is the same. He praises the slaves for being good and faithful servants, he entrusts them with more authority, and invites them to enter his “joy.”
The third servant is not so fortunate. In the response of this slave, however, we the listener, learn even more about the master. He is a man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he has not scattered seed. He aggressively seeks to expand his estate and takes whatever he can wherever he can to make a profit. He even reprimands the servant for failing to invest the money with the bankers so that he might have gained interest, a practice forbidden in Jewish scripture.
The master’s willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any metaphorical interpretation of the parable that would directly compare him with Jesus, who never acts in a way to seek personal gain. That a wealthy landowner would behave in this manner, however, makes the story all the more compelling.
The third slave admits that he was afraid to lose the master’s money. To protect himself, he buried the talent in the ground. Although this may seem odd to us, burying treasure was quite common at this time. And in modern times ‘detectorists’ continue to unearth treasures of old.
The master is furious. He had entrusted this servant with a portion of his property in order that the slave would use his skills, abilities that had helped the master in the past, so as to turn a profit for his lord. This slave, however, was too afraid to take a risk, even though risky behaviour was part of the master's business. Instead, he attempted to secure his own well-being. In the end his unfaithfulness to carry on the master's work cost him severely.
The master expected the servants to continue his business, to take risks to make a profit, and to emulate his behaviour. Two servants were found faithful, and they were rewarded. Their faithfulness had increased the master's wealth and expanded his estate.
In its literary setting, Jesus told this story to his disciples to prepare them for the days ahead when their faith would be sorely tested. This parable depicts how the disciples were to demonstrate their faithfulness as they anticipate the return of the Lord.
What does faithfulness look like in a time of waiting? We are waiting too, waiting for a vaccine to protect us from the corona virus but waiting in faith that all will be well. In Matthew's Gospel faithfulness was imitating the ministry of Jesus. Jesus had announced the arrival of God's kingdom by feeding the hungry, curing the sick, blessing the meek, and serving the least.
All who would follow Jesus are to preach the good news of the kingdom to the whole world by going about the work that Jesus has called us to do. This work includes visiting the sick and we ache to visit those who are sick at home or in hospital. We are no longer permitted to see our loved ones in a residential home, so we have to talk through a window. Prisoners are denied visits from their family members. For us all Face time and Zoom meetings have become our way of communicating, for now.
We are reminded about those who sleep rough on our streets and pray for the authorities to take them all into care. Clothing the naked for us at this time is a case of passing on outgrown clothes to the charity shops. Welcoming the stranger is limited to a kind word delivered in a socially distanced way. Feeding the hungry is to donate to the Food Bank. We have become inventive about how to do it, but follow the master’s lead is what we are called to do. Knowing that:
Those who are found faithful may hear their Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
The Rev’d Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/11/2020