Prefer to listen? Here’s the podcast version of The Talents.
Yesterday was the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, and this year the gospel reading was one of my favorite parables: The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The author of Matthew uses this parable to portray the End Times, a discussion begun by the disciples’ question “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” On the other hand, looking at this narrative from the perspective of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom, what is Jesus telling us?
First, it may be surprising to learn that the parable of the talents is not actually about talents in the usual English sense of “gift” or “skill.” Oddly enough, the English word “talent” actually came from this parable, but the original word didn’t have that meaning. In most translations, the word “talent” is an Englishized version of the Greek word talanton, which was a unit of measurement for weight — probably around 75 pounds. Most likely, then, what the master gave the slaves was a particular weight of silver or gold. Five talanton would be 375 pounds of silver or gold, so if you google the price of silver and do a little math, the master dropped at least $77k on the first slave. Depending on whom you ask, scholars think that one talanton is probably 9 years’ pay for an ordinary laborer. Yes, that’s 9 years — at least.
So think about this: The master hands his slave the equivalent of nine years’ wages on the way out the door. If you were that slave, what would you do with that kind of money — knowing that you were going to account for your decisions when your master returns? If you lose that money, it will be practically impossible for you to repay it. Nine years, remember? But anxiety about that is not what the first or second slaves exhibit. On the contrary, they go out immediately and risk the money in “doing business.”
To those in Jesus’ audience, those first two slaves’ behavior is breathtakingly irresponsible. It wasn’t their money, and they risked their livelihoods if not their lives in using their master’s wealth in that way. No, the third slave, surely, is the responsible one: He did not take a risk, and he kept the master’s money safe. Think about that the next time someone interprets this parable to mean that Jesus is giving us lessons in business with a bit of a spiritual message thrown in.
That’s not how the master — again, from the perspective of the Kingdom — approached the slaves’ choices. Who is rewarded, and how? Yes, it’s those outrageously irresponsible slaves, who risked everything against the wisdom of this kingdom in pursuit of that other, hidden Kingdom. Read the master’s response to each of them very carefully: “Share in your master’s joy.” What does he mean?
And what about the responsible, prudent slave? He lived out his fear and anxiety — and the result was the wisdom of this world. Play it safe, take care of yourself, don’t risk, everything’s fine. Except that the master rejects this prudence — and even throws the slave out!
But not before he has someone, perhaps his guards, take the talanton of his wealth from the prudent slave and give it to the one with ten. Here, we find out what “Share in your master’s joy” is all about: The master rewards recklessness by giving the reckless his wealth with their return.
What does this tell us about the upside-down values in the Kingdom, so tantalizingly near at hand? What’s kingdom-wise is foolish in the eyes of the Master, and what is foolish by our standards — imprudent generosity, reckless compassion, outrageous self-giving — that is what the Master rewards, and the reward is taking part in the Master’s very unkingdomlike joy.
When you see someone in need, when you see injustice, when you see your neighbor demeaned and devalued, when you see exploitation, abuse, injury, falsehood — that is the very moment when the Master is handing you his wealth. The question is: What will you be willing to risk for the Kingdom?
Let’s circle back to “talents.” The talanton inspired people to move from a literal gift of wealth to a metaphorical gift, a skill or an ability. It’s a short step from sharing this gift to excellencifying. Don’t hold back, don’t play it safe. Take the risk, live your virtue.