This morning we hear the Parable of the Talents, which has been much debated by theologians. For starters, there is some disagreement over what is meant by the word “talent”. How you define that word changes, in essential ways, the message of the gospel. First, a talent in Jesus’s day was a way of counting denarii by weight – a talent would have been equal to about 6,000 denarii. That was a lot of money – in Jesus’s day it would equal 20 years of daily wages for a six-day workweek. So the master in this story has been exceedingly generous, even with the third servant who received only one talent, and especially with the first, who got five. If we make the talents about money, then we have a gospel founded on economics – it seems we are being asked to go away and make more money with what we are given, and to bury it under the mattress will only upset the master, also known as God.
But others argue that we are to interpret the word “talent” literally – guided by the phrase in the gospel, that talents were given “according to abilities.” Then we have a different lesson: the servants who go out and make the most of their talents, who create metaphorical wealth with those talents, are honoured by God. The one who hides their talent is cursed. So we are told to be bold with the gifts we are given and make something of them.
William Herzog, a liberation theologian offers another take altogether – that the point of the story is not to see the master as God, but as an aristocrat, a stand-in for the inequalities of society. In his interpretation the third servant is a whistleblower who wisely hid a talent falsely given to him. Unlike the other two servants, he does not dash around to make more money for the master. He buries money that came to him through a corrupt society until the time comes to hand it back, and calls out the master for being someone who reaps what he does not sow. He is therefore challenging the inequity of society, a voice in the wilderness. For this, he is punished.
So what are we to do with this complicated gospel? The thing is, we are not confined to one interpretation. The gift of the gospel is that it lends itself to exploration from so many angles. From each one, we may glean wisdom and insight. As long as we approach the gospel seeking to learn, and with love and openness, there is not necessarily one right interpretation. One angle may speak more at certain times than others.
In the examples, as I have framed them, it comes down to two variables – who is the master, and who is the hero? We can certainly see the master as God or Christ, one who must travel far. Jesus shares this parable near the gates of Jerusalem as if preparing the disciples for the time they must carry on without him, but with the learning and gifts he has given them. If we understand talents as the abilities or resources we acquire from God, indeed, it falls to us to use them wisely and honourably. Surely burying them in the ground is not that. If we understand that the first two servants are heroes, our path is clear: know God as just and merciful, make the most of what gifts you have, so that at the end of your days you may say, I have made more than I was given. Then we see the third servant as weak and cowardly, for he doubted God and did nothing.
But the fate of that third servant doesn’t sit so well with me. There are in this world many reasons why people may bury their talents, why they don’t rise to their potential. And most of those reasons have little to do with them, as people. They may be born into poverty, raised in a difficult home. They may have been bullied or abused, or the victims of racism, xenophobia or homophobia. The parable – if God is master, and the first two servants are heroes – is trying to make a point in a harsh and fearful way. Perhaps it reflects the worry that Jesus felt for the disciples who would be left on their own, and his own anxiety about what would happen to his teachings when he was gone. Maybe the parable goes too far to make its point: don’t waste the time you have; know that God has your back.
But if we can agree that the gospel is meant to be thought-provoking, our reaction to the harsh punishment that awaits the third servant is also instructive. Why do we feel sorry for him? Is it because we recognize ourselves in him? Perhaps we see ourselves in the servant who only got one talent, and don’t recognize, except with envy, the one who got five? Perhaps we also worry about not using our talents as well as we could, are we afraid to take risks? And from there we may ask ourselves: what risks would a merciful, loving God want me to take? What choices would double a person’s talent in the eyes of God? Certainly not money for the sake of money. But talents used to lift up someone else, to defend someone else, to raise up talent in someone else, that would be a way. That would indeed be a story to bring back to God.
And what if the third servant is indeed the hero? We hear the master criticize him for not putting his talent in a bank, which doesn’t really sound like something Jesus would say. Instead of bowing before the master, he stands straight before him and calls him out for refusing to do his bidding. For this he suffers, and yet he has done the right thing: he has demonstrated the talent of social justice. This also lines up with what we know about the disciples – who went on from Jerusalem to challenge authority, corruption, and inequity as Jesus had done, and to pay terribly for doing so. Was Jesus warning the disciples of the cost of following him? Certainly the disciples lived in a world where real-life “masters” handed out wealth as they saw fit, to whom they chose. Outspoken servants were not bound to be at the front of the line, and yet what was Jesus asking the disciples to be but outspoken servants?
And so, if we keep an open-mind, if we listen for the way the gospel speaks to us, and if we can understand it as a diverse source of wisdom, we have much to learn from this parable. On the one hand, we learn not to hide our talents, that God will celebrate our success – a lesson for days when we feel doubtful about our own abilities, when we are afraid to take risks we know to be worthy of the gospel. On the other hand, we learn to speak up for what we know is right, not to follow orders blindly, and to challenge authority we know to be wrong – a lesson for days when we see injustice around us so clearly, and wonder about our role to stop it.
Last week, we were reminded by Jesus to keep awake. To stay awake for the ways we can make a difference, for the ways we are doing harm, for the ways we can be better. And I offer this very different interpretation of the Parable of the Talents to demonstrate that part of staying awake is to read the word of God thoughtfully, and with fresh eyes, and from different perspectives. Only then may we experience its full wisdom. Only then, may we use all our talents and resources – whatever they may be – to their very best purpose.