The Parable of the Talents

A Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 28 – November 16, 2014

Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector

 Jesus said, “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. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; 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 the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 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! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “

-Matthew 25:14-30

 I would think that it would be really hard for any of us who has had investment or banking experience to hear what we just heard from Matthew and not take it literally.  On the surface, the Parable of the Talents is a simple story about three servants who were asked by their master to invest some money for him while he had to be away.

One servant was given a total of 5 measures, or talents of silver to invest while another servant was given 2 of them.  A third servant was given just one talent of silver to invest for his master.  There were no guidelines for how the money was to be invested, how long it should be invested or what returns were expected from it.  His servants were free to do what they wanted with it.

The parable is also about the master’s reaction to those three servants when he finally returned home and found out what each had earned for him.  The servant who had been given 5 talents had doubled his master’s money as had the servant who had been given 2 talents – and they were lavishly praised for their accomplishments.  The servant who had been given one talent of silver, however, had nothing more to give back to his master than his original investment.  And for that his master harshly criticized him.

Why was he so mean to that third servant?  After all, he hadn’t lost any of the money that was entrusted to him.  And as far as we know, he hadn’t dishonored his master or disrespected him.  He hadn’t lied to him or stolen from him.  He simply followed a safe investment strategy, or as we might say today, he kept it all in cash.

Well, as we all know by now, there’s usually something more to Jesus’ parables than what we hear on the surface.  He uses them to put a spotlight on unfavorable human behavior.  Where in this story, is that behavior?   It doesn’t seem obvious to me.

Maybe this is one of a series of stories that all have a common theme that point to that behavior.  Last Sunday we heard in Matthew about the bridesmaids who had to be ready with their oil lamps trimmed for the unexpected return of the bridegroom.

After that story comes one about the owner of a house who has to be ready for the thief who might come at any time in the night.  In yet another parable leading up to what we heard this morning, a master tells his servants that they better not take advantage of him by working any less when he wasn’t there with them than they would when he was there or he would “cut (them) in pieces and put (them) with the hypocrites, where there (would) be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51).

So with a series of parables, Jesus warned his listeners to ‘Be Prepared” for something unexpected – which sounds more like a theme for Advent than for the last few weeks of Pentecost.  Yet, there’s something about the words “You better be ready” that scare me, especially this time of year!  And when I’m not sure exactly what to be ready for, I become particularly anxious, which might be why I relate to that third servant in this morning’s story.

He was clearly anxious about what his master would think of him.  He knew he was harsh and he let his fear of him cloud his judgment.  So he buried that one talent in the ground and maybe for no other reason than to be able to sleep well at night.

Who can blame him for that?  Who would want to risk being thrown  “…into the outer darkness, where there (would be) weeping and gnashing of teeth.’(Matthew 24:30).  I hate it when that happens!

So, back to my original question: what behavior was Jesus putting in the spotlight?  What was the meaning of this parable for Jesus’ listeners and for us hearing it this morning?  Where is that twist, that moment when we are all caught off guard by what Jesus says?

Maybe it was the behavior of the landowner.  Research shows, however, that in first century Palestine, wealthy landowners really did need to be away for long periods of time.  So, they had to trust their servants to look after their sizable estates.  The better they looked after those estates, the wealthier their masters became and the more all the servants were able to share in that wealth.  It wasn’t such a bad system.

Maybe it was the behavior of the servants that was in the spotlight, yet the master was pleased with the first two servants and exclaimed: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave(s).  You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).  That leaves the behavior of that third servant, then.

If there is a theme of “Be prepared!” in a series of parables of which the Parable of the Talents is one of them, then maybe that third servant didn’t know how to be prepared for his master’s return – or maybe he knew but lacked the confidence to do what needed to be done.

Maybe that’s the twist and the target of Jesus’ spotlight.

What if the landowner saw great potential in that third servant?  What if he had constantly given him opportunities to use his gifts for the good of all on the estate, yet he had squandered those opportunities time and time again?  What if this was the servant’s last chance to prove his worth to himself and to his master?

As farfetched as that might seem, Dr. Anna Carter Florence, Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, has a similar take on this Parable of the Talents, although one that is much more appealing than mine.

She proposes telling the story this way: (Paraphrased from Preaching the Lesson, Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XIX, Number 6, p. 61).  A man – let’s call him Jesus – was going on a journey.  He called his servants – let’s call them disciples – and entrusted the gospel to them.  To one, he gave stories; to another, he gave compassion; to the third, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation.  Then Jesus went away.

The disciple who got the stories went out and told them and soon there were five other disciples telling those stories.  The disciple who received compassion went out and offered it to two other people, who also became disciples and paid that compassion forward.  But the disciple who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation dug a hole in the ground and buried them.

When Jesus returned, he learned what the first two disciples had done and praised them as “good and trustworthy disciples” and invited them to enter into his joy.  The third servant told Jesus that he had hid the bread of life and cup of salvation in the ground because he had no idea what to do with them and was scared of doing the wrong thing and of what Jesus might do to him if he did.  “Here” he told Jesus, “you can have them back.”

When he handed back the bread and cup, Jesus responded by saying: “For all those who have good news, even more will be given to them.  But for those who have nothing because they have buried my gospel in the ground – everything will be taken away from them.  As for this worthless disciple, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!  Then, bring him back and get him in to see a good pastoral counselor!

In my mind, there’s no better way to bring this morning’s parable alive than through Dr. Florence’s imaginative re telling of it.  The only question I would leave us with this morning is this:  Jesus entrusts us, his church, with the gospel: with stories, and compassion and the bread of life and the cup of salvation.  What do we, as his disciples and servants to each other, do with them?