November 26, 2023
The Parable of the Talents Revisited: Claiming Your Gifts
If the scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew sounded familiar, let me explain. Last week I shunned the Gospel reading from Matthew to focus on the Psalm. So today I’m going to “break the rules” and backtrack to take up this reading from Matthew. It’s very familiar. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve preached on it, let alone read it.
As our stewardship appeal arrives, we all know that it’s really about more than money. And, indeed, this parable that Jesus told is about more than money also. Money is the metaphor. Interestingly, that metaphor has been recognized for generations, and is embodied in the very word talent, which came into our language directly out of this passage of scripture. The word originally meant a unit of weight in Old Testament times, and then a unit of currency in the days of Jesus. But it has been recognized from the beginning that Jesus was not just talking about money, he was referring to the gifts of ability, personality, and character that each person receives. Consequently, the word talent was taken up from this very parable and came in our language to mean those gifts of spirit and ability. In many ways it’s too bad that Jesus used money as the metaphor here. Particularly in our capitalistic society amidst the growing awareness of the widening gulf between the very, very wealthy and the limited many, this story of “those who have” getting more and “those who have nothing” losing even what they have does not set very well with us. So, let’s take the time to flesh out the metaphor a bit.
A talent, as a unit of currency, was not a piece of small change. It was worth six thousand denarii, and a denarius was an average day’s wage for a laborer. Translated into our modern world (which admittedly is somewhat problematic) a first century talent would be the equivalent of between three quarters of a million and one million dollars in today’s market. So when the slaves in this story were given, respectively, five talents, two talents, and even one talent this was a very large sum of money. So here’s the point: by analogy, you and I receive as our birthright some very large “gifts of the spirit” in this life.
But as many times as I’ve read this story, this time I ran into something in it that I’d never caught before – by the way, that’s one of the things I love about the Bible: no matter how many years you read it and study it, you can always stumble on something that’s been lying in the tall grass all along that suddenly jumps up and bites you on the behind. Anyway, here’s the question I’ve been ruminating on: In the parable, whose money is this? It’s a bigger question than you might think. The man goes on a journey and entrusts these huge sums to his slaves. Our natural assumption is that the money belongs to the master; the slaves are simply taking care of it for him while he’s away. That’s how I’ve always read it. But let’s read a little more closely. The first two slaves report to the man on his return that they have invested the funds and each made a one hundred percent profit. The master is very pleased and tells them they will be rewarded by being given even greater responsibilities and that they will enter into joy – the joy of their master (remember that phrase). But nowhere does it say they gave the money back to the man. The third slave, however, makes it clear that the money he has received is not his own; it belongs to the master. He has dug a hole in the ground and hidden it, and returned it to the man saying, “Here you have what is yours.” The master, in kind, refers to the money as his own telling the slave he should have put it in the bank and then, “. . . on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” And here’s the part I never noticed: as partial punishment for not having grown the funds, the one talent is taken from the slave and, as Matthew relates, given “. . . 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.” The clear implication is that the slave who received the five talents and turned them into ten, still had his ten talents; he did not return them to the master. Furthermore, he is about to have eleven talents, because the master is giving him the one he took from the third slave. This may sound to you like “much ado about nothing,” but, trust me, it is about something deeply and powerfully important.
I never realized in all the times I’ve read this story that the difference between the first two slaves and the third one is not that they were industrious and he was not, that they were wise and he was foolish, it is that they claimed their gifts, and he did not. He used very different language from the first two. They simply reported what they had accomplished with their sums, and were rewarded. The third one said to the master, “Here, you have what is yours.” He buried his talent out of fear, and refused to claim his gifts.
Do you claim your gifts, or do you live in fear? On the balance of that question, my friends, hangs your very life. The punishment for the unproductive slave may seem overly severe (after all, he gets the outer darkness, and weeping and gnashing of teeth routine). But it only seems so harsh because we assume the master in the story is supposed to be “God” who metes out this harsh punishment. This is a parable of the kingdom. And, as such, the man who hands out these talents may simply be a vehicle for telling us about the way things work in the created order. In other words, claiming one’s gifts can lead to joy and abundance in living, and devoting one’s life to fear and so denying and “burying” those gifts can lead to self-destruction (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”, if you will).
Dadgie and I once knew a young woman (no one in the congregation, by the way) who was amazingly gifted. She is extremely bright, always got high marks in school; a gifted musician and athlete; charming and extraordinarily beautiful. But she has been exposed to so much television, so many magazine ads, so much commercial hype, that she was haunted by a need to measure up to some idealized image of perfection that she was convinced she could not achieve. Consequently, she was frozen by her fear of failure. She began dropping out of activities – no more music, no more sports, drifting away from friends, becoming physically worn and weakened. We were terribly worried about where her path would lead if she could not find a way to claim the goodness and grace that is hers. Fortunately, I believe she has, at least to some degree.
This is the story of the kingdom. In other words, this is how the world works. Fear freezes people and leads them to bury their gifts. And that path is a ruinous one. Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith is an awareness of the existential connection one has to the very Heart of Being. And that awareness overcomes fear and allows a person to risk claiming those gifts and finding abundant life.
Now, the truth we all know is that sometimes you and I live by faith and sometimes we live by fear. And a person can live for many years as a prisoner of that self-destructive fear, and still emerge from it into the daylight of claiming and growing his or her gifts. As one person I know once said in relation to this parable, “I’ve been all three of those slaves at different times in my life.” But the message of the parable is sound. There is a foundational truth that dwells in its heart and it is the truth that tells the tale of our lives.
I remember many years ago I was struck by some words of wisdom from an elder. I was told, “The world is not here to protect you, and it’s not out to get you.” That may seem to be a prima facie case, but it carries with it a wisdom reflected in our parable. It is the acknowledgment that the “master” is, as the third slave said, “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” The way the world works, in other words, is not fair. It does not reward people for being good, or punish them for being evil. But in the midst of this harsh reality there is truth you can hang onto. If you are driven by fear to bury your gifts, you may end up weeping and even grinding your teeth. If you live by faith, the faith that you were born with, the faith that the hard knocks of life teach you to abandon, the faith that grants the freedom to risk, you can claim your gifts, use them and multiply them, and therefore find abundance of spirit, and even in harsh and unforgiving circumstances, joy.
So this is our appeal today, that you may claim your gifts. As it is put in our reading from Ephesians this morning, that “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” And claiming your gifts, may you be inspired to share them, and to join in a spirit of joy with your sisters and brothers here at Memorial Congregational Church to spread the good news of hope and peace and healing in this tattered world.