24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (15 November 2020)
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus said to the disciples: “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.’ ”
I came to faith in the age of Sunday School leaflets. Each week my Sunday School teachers (who were also my aunts) distributed beautiful, four-page, full-color leaflets to each of us as we walked in the classroom door. On the cover of the leaflet was a beautiful drawing of the bible story for the day. Inside were crossword puzzles and coloring pages and prayers, pictures of rosy cheeked children doing good things, as Jesus did good things.
Those Sunday School leaflets were a weekly treasure; we clutched them in our sweaty little hands all morning, as though they were gold. And those leaflets, that quaint, mid-century art taught me everything I knew about Jesus.
That’s why, in the age in which I came to faith, Jesus and the disciples looked like me: white skin, blue eyes, smooth, fair hair. I didn’t give it a second thought, assuming that his world was like mine. After all, what other world did I know?
That’s why, on the long-ago Sunday when our country Sunday School class discussed this morning’s gospel reading (yes, I remember the leaflet)—The Master Who Gave Away Talents—I assumed a “talent” to Jesus was the same thing as a “talent” to me. And I wondered, what were those five talents, those two talents, that one talent the master gave his servants?
Tap dancing? Card playing? Running faster than their brothers? Being the best speller in second grade? Singing like an angel? (Those are the talents I wanted, so why wouldn’t they?)
Somehow, eight-year-old me missed the end of the story—the part about investing talents and burying talents. So, it came as a surprise to me, as I grew in faith and understanding, to learn that a “talent” to Jesus was not a fabulous flair, but a measure. And a big one at that.
Scholars differ on their estimates, but a talent in the 1st century was both a measure of weight (like a bushel and a peck) AND a measure of money (like dollars and cents). And both meanings of “talent” were significant. Some estimate a monetary talent in Jesus’ day to be worth about $25,000 in current dollars. (That’s a lot of tap shoes.)
So, as I grew into this story over the years, I became increasingly confused. The servants to whom the master entrusted his estate—each according to his ability—had, in fact, each been given a ton of money. I can understand entrusting great wealth—five talents—to one’s most trusted advisor, but why give so much—even 1 talent—to a servant who had no ability?
And, to add to the confusion, why did the first two servants have the good sense (or the hubris) to bet it all on the stock market and score a 100% return? I’m not sure that, if you gave me all your money, I’d race to Wall Street with it. And, if the first two had such extraordinary investing success, why did the third servant—the one of questionable ability—bury his in the ground, like a dog with a bone?
The more I knew, the less I knew.
And in studying those three servants so closely, I committed a classic mistake—whether you are a second-grade Sunday School student or a middle-aged pastor. I made the mistake of assuming this was about the servants. And, by extension, about me. And my talents, or lack thereof.
I assumed—in second grade—that Jesus wanted me to use whatever talents I had for good. (I was particularly adept at chasing barn cats—perhaps that was the talent Jesus gave me?)
I assumed—in middle-age—that Jesus wants me to be like those first two servants, to invest wisely, whether that is the investment of my wealth, my abilities or my time.
But this parable is not about those servants. Or me. Or you. Some of his parables are directed at his hearers—the “go and do likewise” stories. But not this one. This is not a children’s story tied up with a nifty moral at the end.
Remember my rule: Jesus gives away the subject of the parable in the first sentence? In this case, “It is as if a man, going on a journey . . . “
The parable of the Master Who Gave Away Talents is about the Master. The Master who gave it all away to his servants—ready or not.
The first two servants, recognizing the tremendous gift they had been given, wanted to be worthy of the master’s trust. So they took a chance—going off at once to multiply their master’s money. Out of respect. Out of gratitude. They regarded their master as generous, and wanted to be generous in turn.
But the third servant, the one with the shovel in his hand and dirt on his knees, despised the master. The servant regarded his master a bloviating bully who took credit for work he had not done: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter.”
And because he regarded the master as small and selfish, he became exactly like the master he imagined.
This parable is not about what we think about ourselves—our ability to tap dance on a stage or around the facts—but about what we think about God. Who God is for us. For the world.
Like the servants in Jesus’ parable who thought of the master as they believed he thought of them, we expect God to think and act and judge as we do.
Here’s what I mean. If we know God to be generous, forgiving, gracious, we move through the world in the same way. Giving freely of our time and treasure, forgiving those who have wronged us, making space for second chances. Trusting that God has our best interests at heart. As did the first two servants.
But if we believe God to be stingy, angry, judgmental, harsh, we respond in kind, lashing out at God and each other. We become the Third Servant, burying all the good things we’ve been given in a hole in the ground. We become all those things we first thought about our master. Stingy. Angry. Judgmental. Harsh.
Who is God for you? The generous giver of all good things, or a miser who cares nothing for us.
Remember in pre-pandemic days, when we gathered socially or professionally with strangers in crowded rooms at meetings and banquets? Remember cradling a cocktail or coffee cup in our hands as we talked? Yeah, a thousand years ago.
I have met fascinating people in those spaces over the years, enjoyed intriguing and stimulating conversation. I loved those opportunities to meet people, make connections, tell stories. I remember often being surprised at how quickly the time passes. The gift of a person’s time and attention is a gift I don’t take lightly.
I also have uncomfortable memories of talking with “that person” at a social gathering who spends the whole time looking over my shoulder for a better conversation partner. The person who can’t wait to get away, because someone more important, more interesting, more attractive has caught their eye. Apparently, my time and attention are only place holders for the time and attention of a more valuable encounter.
Jesus’ parable is about gifts given to us by a Master who trusts us. Are those gifts enough? Do we value those gifts? Or are we always looking over God’s shoulder, wondering why we don’t have more, different, to our minds “better?”
The Master entrusts each of us with “talents,” not tap dancing or yodeling, but valuable gifts to be shared. Even multiplied. Time. Wealth. Expertise.
The Master entrusts us with everything the Master owns. In a few short chapters, God will even surrender the greatest treasure, God’s only Son, Jesus, to an angry mob for our sake.
Do we value that treasure? Or dismiss it as not enough?
I never did learn to tap dance, but I can make gravy with no lumps; I can calm a crying child—skills that have been much more useful.
But we have been entrusted with greater gifts than these. How shall we use them? If we use them well, if we use them for good, perhaps we will also be told, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”