The Crime of the Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25:14-30

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave!… (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

This parable of the talents is a familiar stewardship parable for us. It has been preached that talents are gifts of time, money and abilities that we are to give to the Church. We all have been told that God gives us gifts that we should return to the church, and not just return to the church, but return twice fold. This is stewardship we are told, stewardship at its best. God has given us all that we have and so as good little Christians we should give back twice as much. We should give back twice the amount that God gives us. We limited, finite, terminal creatures of creation must give back to the Almighty creator, twice what we have been given. Surely some of us must be wondering how on earth this will work.

Perhaps it is that preachers seem to like this parable too much. Maybe the chance to use Jesus’ words to scold the poor folks in the pew for not giving enough simply cannot be resisted. Maybe the chance to say something that sounds like good pastoral care advice for those who come asking how they can participate in the life of the church is an opportunity that this parable provides, and an opportunity that should never be wasted. Maybe the chance to guilt those who only take and take from congregations, into giving a little back, is just too tasty to let be.

But, is this parable really about a God who guilts us into giving? Does the God of stable mangers, the God of nail pierced hands and feet, the God of empty tombs and being known in breaking bread really operate with guilt trips? Does this God really say “look at all I have given to you… and now you owe it back twice over… or at least give me the going interest rate”. Is God really like this harsh master who steals from his neighbours, who makes threats like: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

The reality of this parable is that it is about real money and not so much about talents  like playing the organ, or hammering nails, knitting sweaters, or public speaking. And making this parable about our gifts and skills is a disservice to the meaning of this parable. The Greek word, “Talonton” can only be understood as a large sum of money. Its measured in gold or silver, its 10 to 15 years wages, one talent can be anywhere from one thousand to a million dollars…  And the rich man who gives talents to his servants seems to be so rich that he is able to play around with millions of dollars. It is estimated that the 5 talents given to the 1st servant could have been worth anywhere from 1.2 million to 5 million dollars today. The rich man is so rich that money has become a toy for him, not to mention the lives of his servants.

Sounds a lot like how God treats us?

No, not really.

This rich landowner can only be passed off as God-like when we make greed and power true God-like qualities. We can only call this money a gift when we imagine money to be more important than anything else in our world. We can only see this parable as having something to do with stewardship when making money is something noble and divine, no matter how we make it.

Like last week’s parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, the parable of the talents cannot be reduced to straight forward comparisons. God is not the rich man, and we are not the servants of varying financial ability. In fact, if we really think about where God is in this parable it is not so easy to see. To demand profit, to make money on the backs of others, to worship greed and power and the almighty dollar are such human qualities.

And yet, when we consider the 3rd servant. The one who buries the 1 talent in the ground in fear… there is more to his story when we take the time to consider it. The 3rd servant is portrayed as a coward, yet he is the only one who refuses to participate in the system of greed, wealth and power. He is the only one who speaks honestly and boldly to the rich man. He is the only one who names the truth, that the rich man is harsh, that he steals and he is judgemental. And what does all this get the 3rd servant? It is gets him cast into the outer darkness with nothing.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

In fact, it is the story of the chapter of Matthew that follows this parable. It is the story of Good Friday. The story of another servant we know, one who speaks truth to human power, and who is killed and then buried in the ground, in the tomb, just like that 1 talent.

The parable of the talents when preached as if it were lesson in stewardship is a crime against the people sitting in the pews. Preaching that talents are something we ought to return to two-fold to God does not do justice to the story of God among us, the story of the creator come down to creation.

Earning money or interest has nothing to do with the story of God who entered into our grieving, to grieve with us, to share his own broken body and shed blood, but also to proclaim the unearthing to come. To proclaim that the true things of great value that we bury in ground shall be raised up, with New Life and with New Joy.

The idea of doubling our money for God makes no sense to the God who proclaims us, proclaims all of creation to be of the greatest value and worth. Today, instead of telling us to give our talents, gifts and time to God, God is declaring that the unearthing Christ, the one buried and then raised from the dead is not interested in wealth and power, but instead interested in us. Christ is interested in showing a nothing, failing dead humanity, that even when we are dead and buried, there is New Life unearthed for us.

Amen. 

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9 thoughts on “The Crime of the Parable of the Talents”

  1. I do so love reading you . . . . Bless you for this. This is a paradigm shift all those of us claiming to follow Jesus need to make so desperately. Bravo

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  2. Wow! I like the thought and path that you took with this parable. I had to take a different route, I saw the talents were nothing more than Matthew using his love for money, but the talents were people going out, spreading God’s word, to bring more with them for God. Thanks!

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  3. This is more eisegesis than exegesis. If the third servant/slave is a Christ figure where is the resurrection? I believe the point of the story is to trust God who entrusts us with much. The third servant/slave experienced the master as hard, unyielding, and harsh (The ISIL idea of God?) The first two did not experience the master in that way, thus were able to be bold in growing the 5 and 2 talents.

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    1. I respectful disagree. There is no resurrection for the rich man either. Seeing the rich man as the God is a simplistic metaphorical reading of the parable. Yet, often parables are metaphorical. The meaning is not so straight forward or obvious.

      Never the less, it is highly problematic to see God in this rich man… As I said in the sermon. I know it is hard to hear challenges to familiar interpretations. I would suggest taking a look at http://www.workingpreacher.org for some further commentary.

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  4. I too have had problems with the ‘traditional’ understanding of this text. The majority of the audience would have been the working class–people who would have recognized how much a talent was, who desperately could have used even a small portion of a talent, and who also knew that the kind of return on investment made by the first two servants could only be done off the backs of others. Even the third servant was expected to have returned the talent with interest…which was contrary to Mosaic Law. Jesus seems to be deliberately goading his audience with his choice of imagery.

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  5. I thank you for this message. It is only the second time I have heard this take on this passage and yet it rings true to me. Thank you for the discomfort that prods us to dig more deeply into its meaning. Let those who have ears hear. 🙂

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  6. Rev Parker,

    I appreciate you taking the time to expound this parable from the true Gospel-centered purpose. I was wondering if you could then take some time also to explain the parable of the Ten Minas of Luke 19?

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