A confounding parable about buried treasure and the failure of nerve.
The parable of the talents is 2/3 awesome and 1/3 perplexing and even offensive. This perplexity is not from a mistake or flaw in the parable but the goal. You likely missed the point if you read a parable and think it is straightforward and easy to understand. It’s tempting to edit a phrase or two to make it more palatable, but that’s cheating! If you feel frustrated or even a little angry, Congratulations! You are starting on the path to wisdom.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells this parable near the end of his ministry. It’s Wednesday evening of Holy Week. Jesus is with the inner circle of disciples the night before his arrest. All three parables in chapter 25 have an urgent imperative to live fully in the moment. Last week, the scripture said wisdom is being prepared with enough oil to sustain your light. This week, the parable of the talents urges the reader to use the opportunity and resources given to you boldly. Next week, the sheep and the goats parable emphasizes the command to help your neighbor. If they are thirsty, give them a cup of cold water; or hungry, give them something to eat. We can call Matthew 25 the “Carpe diem parables.” Seize the moment, Jesus says. Gather your oil to keep your lamp burning, use your financial resources well, and do good for others right now. It is the time. The next evening, he is arrested and executed.
The first key point in the parable of the talents is the large sum the master entrusts to his servants. A talent weighs at 75 pounds of gold or silver. The price of gold currently hovers just under $2000 an ounce. Multiply times 16 ounces times 75 pounds, and today, a talent of gold would be $2.4 million. Whatever the purchasing power in Jesus’ day, the master placed enormous trust as he bets on the skill of these three servants. The one he deems the most outstanding ability manages five talents, $12 million! Even the one talent servant manages a sum nearly as large as our church endowment. This master has great faith in these servants, just as Jesus has in each of the disciples. Peter might be the five-talent guy, but Jesus believes in Bartholomew.
Imagine if the Board of Trustees came to the annual meeting in January and said, “We have great news! We doubled the endowment this year!” You might answer, well done, good and faithful servants. Enter the joy of the whole church!” Now, we can fund more ministry, give more to people in need, install solar panels, eliminate the flying squirrels in the attic, and still feel flush with cash. But you also might wonder how this was accomplished. Did these two servants invest in a caravan of Frankincense, a discount supplier of balm from Gilead. Or were they trafficking in stolen antiquities from the Pharoah’s crypt (Cryptocurrencies?) Warren Buffet is an investing legend because he compounds money at over 20 percent a year. Even Buffet takes four years to double your money. If you have done any investing, you know doubling your capital in a year requires taking risks and a degree of luck. I don’t know what Jesus understood about investing, but the parable acknowledges this is an extraordinary outcome. The two servants were savvy and bold.
We would all like to be the disciples to whom Jesus says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter the joy of your master.” That phrase grabbed my attention in my meditations. What does it mean to enter the joy? Joy (xara in Greek) shows up often in the New Testament.
- The angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherd, saying, “I bring you good news of great joy!”
- Luke 15:7: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
- John 15:11: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Joy is a fruit of discipleship. As we follow the way of Jesus, we find joy along the path. And God finds joy in us. God’s joy is an essential part of this story, too. God doesn’t just tally the marks in a ledger for and against you., tracking to see if you do enough to get into heaven. God takes joy when you thrive and bear fruit for others. Do you ever think that God looks at you and feels great joy?
Eugene Peterson has an interesting translation of this verse in the Message Bible: “Good work! You did your job well. From now on, be my partner.” I disagree with Peterson leaving out the word joy because the Greek “xara” is right there. However, he captures that “entering the joy” implies entering into a new relationship, even a partnership with God. The master in the parable doesn’t just praise the servants but says they will now be trusted with more. The master also doesn’t take the profits but allows the servants to keep them. These first two episodes emphasize the trust in the servants, the joy at their success, and the offer of a deeper partnership.
But now we come to the troubling turn that in the parable. What about this third servant who buried the talent he was given in the ground? The trusting and joyful master takes a U-turn towards being the angry, rejecting tyrant, saying, “You wicked and lazy servant!” A small part of me expects to encounter this angry God every time I fall short. Is this parable telling us that God will judge us for our failures?
Matthew’s Gospel is the most judgmental of the four gospels. Matthew uses this phrase of being thrown out into outer darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth to end six different stories. In contrast, Luke uses the phrase once, and no other book of the Bible ever uses these words. There is no weeping and gnashing of teeth in the Old Testament. Every time I read this phrase in Matthew, it annoys me. It is likely the favorite Gospel of the hellfire and brimstone preachers, who I think are in error about the message of Christ. The generous thing I can say about Matthew’s Gospel is that he gives the reader a lot of tough love. Sometimes, we need tough love, and Matthew challenges us to be mindful of the consequences of both sin and indifference. Be hot or cold, not lukewarm. Matthew wants disciples all in. But we need the tender balance of John’s Gospel, which puts a loving God at the center of things.
Matthew does turn tender when a person admits their failing. It’s the hypocrite and the lukewarm disciple that stirs his teeth gnashing. Perhaps this is what troubles Matthew about this third servant with one talent. This servant justifies his behavior by blaming the master, saying, “I knew you are a hard man…I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.” Imagine your financial advisor says in your annual report, “I know how you are. You expect a lot and get angry if things don’t go your way, so I buried your money in the ground so I wouldn’t lose it.” Wouldn’t you be tempted to cast them into darkness and hope for some weeping and gnashing of teeth? You would fire them. Why? Because they did not try, and they blamed you for their lack of effort.
Here is a different translation of what the master says to the servant from Eugene Peterson’s Message translation, which brings out this element of risk-taking:
“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’
I would like there to be one more servant in this parable. In Bible Study Monday, one person imagined a fourth servant who took the money and used his best judgment, but due to market conditions, or a black swan event, he lost money that year. What would the master say to that servant? Does God only reward success? Or does God look at our effort and what we learn in the process?
In Matthew’s parable, it sounds like the greatest failure is not to try. Playing it safe does not make us good disciples. You can actually be too careful. Avoiding bad behavior isn’t the goal of Jesus. We sometimes need to be bold and take a risk to love. So let me leave you with this question. What would you do right now if you were bold?