November 13, 2011
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
A talent in the ancient world was a ridiculous amount of money. One can try to translate it for the modern ear ( a million dollars if weighted in gold, fifteen years of a worker’s wage) but suffice it to say it is an absurd amount of money. When you multiply by any factor, say 2 or 5, well, that’s just a crazy, sort of beyond the imagination, really. And then to expect a few servants, be they domestic workers or field laborers, to expect them to take that amount of money and suddenly walk up the street and hang with the big cats on the trading floor? Come on, man. Each received according to their own ability. Their own ability; is that financial knowledge or trustworthiness or work ethic? For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them…
You will remember that Luke’s version of this parable comes with pounds not talents. The Parable of the Pounds (Lk 19). The nobleman summoned ten of his slaves and gave them ten pounds, apparently one pound a piece. Now the pound is an amount of money you can wrap your head around; three months worth of a laborers wage, rather than fifteen years. They all received the same amount. “Do business with these until I come back”, the man says. The fearful slave in Luke didn’t bury the pound in the ground. He simply wrapped it in a piece of cloth. It’s one thing to carry a pound in your pocket. No one would be walking around with a talent. Way too heavy. Way too much. Way too valuable. I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.
It’s an incredible amount of money and the master entrusted his property to them for a long time. As the story is told, he handed out the talents, each according to their ability, and then he went away. Hearers and readers of the Word then receive the investment report that indicates two out of three double their talents and the one dug a hole. Then, according to Matthew’s Jesus, after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts. After a long time. Assuming reasonable investment return, some would argue that the man was gone 12, 14 years or so. A double your money time frame. Assuming a 13 quarter rolling average to determine the endowment value, and if those quarters included 2007 and 2008, the master would to have stayed away a lot longer. Even longer, when you remember that the Parable of the Talents is snuggled here in Matthew 25 between the Wise and Foolish Maidens and the Sheep and the Goats; so called end time parables. Even longer when you remember that Jesus is sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem with his suffering and death on the horizon. Even longer when you read ahead to see that after Jesus finished saying these things, he told his disciples that after two days the Passover is coming and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified. A long time. Like the delay at the wedding banquet just prior, the long time refers to the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection and his coming again. A long time, 2000 some years and counting. It’s a long time alright. Put away your pencil and paper. It’s a long time.
Some write and preach not only in defense but in praise of the one; the one talent slave who challenged the master’s business practices. Here the one talent slave is a whistle blower speaking truth to power. Here the master is a hard driving, profit driven, fallen off the ethical deep end succeed at any cost magnate. I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. Such an upside down reading of the parable requires an opposite view of the master, opposite of the commonly held allegorical approach that identities the wealthy landowner as a Jesus-type figure. But to be fair to the alternative reading of the Parable of the Talents, the one talent slave’s business practice allegation is no less unsettling than the response of the master/jesus figure/messianic prototype. You knew, did you, that reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?.....Take the talent from him and give 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.” That’s not the Jesus I know; the Jesus I believe in. And if Jesus isn’t the master in the parable of the talents, than a defense of the one talent servant isn’t all that crazy. How about a word for the one?
To the other two, the man said, Well done, good and faithful servant. That’s what two out of three heard. Well done, good and faithful servant. Some here this morning may not know but we have had quite a season of memorial and funeral services this fall at Nassau Church. Maybe it is because of the grief adding up, but it’s difficult to hear that phrase, “Well done, good and faithful servant” and not think of the traditional prayer life and prayer language that surrounds death. I was surprised to find out this week that the only time this expression occurs in scripture, “well done good and trustworthy servant” is in the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Pounds. Well done, good servant. It occurs nowhere else in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus never said it directly to someone; like “Go in peace, your faith has made you well”, or “neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more”, or “take up your mat and walk.” No, it was only the master saying it to two out of three in the parable. Yet, the verse seems to be so much a part of how the church interprets the end of a faithful life here on earth. “Well done, good and faithful servant”
Actually, I couldn’t find the expression in any of the traditional liturgies for services in witness to the resurrection or committal services at the grave. But we’ve all heard it. We’ve all prayed it. We’ve all said it. We’ve all hoped it. At the time of death, in celebration of life. Giving thanks for one of the saints among us, who has now heard those words and received the commendation of the Savior, “well done good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
Enter into the joy; like the wise bridesmaids coming into the wedding banquet with their lamps ablazing, like those at the right hand of king in the parable of the sheep and the goats, those who inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world. Enter into the joy; like the younger, wandering son who moves from his father’s embrace and his father’s kiss to a joyful celebration like no other, because he once was lost and now is found! Enter into the joy of your master. It’s not simply a pat on the back for job well done. It’s hardly a business expression that that alludes to a performance bonus of Wall Street proportion. The joy of your master. It’s clearly a deeply rooted biblical expression that carries not the weight of gold but the weight of eternal. No wonder we reference it, draw upon it, yearn to hear it when confronted yet again by death. It’s a promise of life and joy forever in the kingdom of heaven.
But it comes from the Parable of the Talents? Well done, good and faithful servant? The Parable of the Talents? Where, if we are being faithful to the text of the parable, you and I have a one in three chance of hearing you wicked and lazy slave! You want numbers? You want values? You want percentage? You want statistics? Well, according to the parable, you and I have one in three chance of a bad lifetime performance review when the rich landowner comes back after a long, long time and asks, “So how did you do with my stuff?” One in three chance if you’re going to be faithful to the parable. A nasty word of judgment to the one talent servant if you’re going to be faithful to the parable. An absolutely absurd hypothetical in terms of money and the business expectations of a servant and the unfathomable generosity of the master who then morphs into a snarky bearer of judgment, if you’re going to be faithful to the parable.
But of course, you and I aren’t called to be faithful to the parable. We are called to be faithful to Jesus Christ and his gospel. Instead of cramming Jesus into every nook and cranny of the parable, we ought to be asking how the parable fits into the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of knocking our heads against the wall with the questions that constantly arise when you try to start inside the parable and work out, we ought to begin with our life shaped by the gospel, and ask how that informs our reading of the parable. Which is exactly what happens when we lift the phrase “well done good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master”. When we lift and liberate that phrase from the parable and attribute the commendation and the promise to our Savior in response to a life lived in his name. You and I have been called, redeemed, saved by Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, and we live for him, and him alone. Not that man who when going on a journey summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. Remember, according to Matthew, it was Jesus who said, For it is as if….
Last week when we were studying the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens, in that sermon I said more than once, “It is all about the oil.” So let me be equally bold and clear when it comes to the Parable of the Talents. It has nothing to do with the money. You can shake your head in wonder and remember this Stewardship season for a long time, when your pastor stood before you and said “it has nothing to do with the money”. The Parable of the Talents. Talent. Servants. Master. Property entrusted. A long time. Wicked and lazy servant. Well done good and trustworthy servant. The joy of the master. It has nothing to do with the money. It has everything to do with your life. Your life in service to the Living God. Your life in God. In God alone.
With a generosity beyond imagination, God blesses as with the gift of life. As a bestower of grace, we receive gifts from God to be used for life in God’s name. As the author of salvation, we taste forgiveness, and we know the fullness of life, and this longing for eternity stirs within us, and we are blessed with a glimpse of the world the way God wants it to be. God our creator crafts each one of us as a unique instrument to life for God’s glory. And the Risen Christ has handed us, entrusted to us, a piece of the kingdom. You and I, we have the privilege, the responsibility, the task, the gift of living and toiling in the faith for a long time. Some of us longer than others. Every one of us shall serve with full confidence, not in ourselves, but in the One who calls us, redeems us, saves us, entrusts us. For there is absolutely no room, no room, no place, no reason for any fear in your relationship to God. Regardless of your doubt, or your questions, or your struggles, or what you’ve done with all God’s stuff in your life. Do not fear. “Do not fear, for I am with you always”, Jesus said.
Begin with how you have been shaped by the gospel, and ask how that informs your reading of the Parable of the Talents. Because it has everything to do with your life, your relationship to the Almighty, your service to the Risen Christ, every day, each night, for a long time. It has everything to do with you and your life; your work, your play, your time, your money, what’s important, what’s not. Your life in Christ; it has everything to do with your relationships, your family, your love, your giving and returning and helping and speaking and praising and thanking.
It’s not about counting talents. It’s about your life. All of it.
© 2011, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
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