Our lesson today, ladies and gents, is the parable of the talents and what it can tell us about ways we Christians end up being like the bad servant:
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The context here is Jesus speaking of the day of judgment when the son of man will return. As we start here, the word talent needs to be examined more closely. The word talent is actually a reasonable transliteration of the Greek word used – talanton. But it’s a poor translation which we hold onto more for tradition’s sake than anything else. A talanton is a measure of money by weight. So a talent of silver and a talent of gold would both weigh the same, but the gold would be worth more than the silver. Think of it like a jewel’s carat – it measures size, not value. It’s an arcaric term much like a cubit, but because of the way the word “talent” is used in English, using the word “talent” in this context creates a problem.
The problem is that the word talent in English is used to describe particular skills and abilities. And the story is often taught this way – we’ve each been entrusted with talents, skills and abilities which we ought to “invest” and grow in service to God. While the notion is certainly admirable, what about people who have little or no talent? Are they like the servant who has been given only one talent to invest and screwed it up? Are we to view those who have been abundantly blessed with gifts and abilities as being like the servant who has been given ten talents, invested them and earned the praise of the master? It’s certainly an easy enough connection to make. But one of the ideas that God repeatedly tries to convey to us is that these things which men value – appearances and skills and, well, talents – aren’t necessarily what he values. Besides which anytime we read scripture in such a way that it leads us to see some people as more blessed or more worthy than others, it ought to give us serious pause. When we read the story as if the talents Jesus spoke of and the talents we have are in anyway analogous that is the effect this story ends up having. Which cannot be the proper way to understand it.
So, let’s go back to what the original audience would have heard when Jesus told this story and view the talents as strictly dealing with money. Treasure, if you will. And pretty clearly this is a parable using an analogy. Jesus isn’t saying that God gives different people different amounts of money to be responsible for. The money represents something else. When Jesus speaks of treasure, it is often of treasure in heaven. In Jesus’ economy treasure would be good teachings, understanding, peace, love and other positive character traits. That is what servants of the master have been entrusted with and ought to be growing.
One of the things which I always found odd about this story was the way that the first two servants were able to double the money which they had been given so neatly. Investing money is always at least a little risky, isn’t it? It doesn’t seem so outrageous that the obviously less skilled servant would worry about botching the whole thing and losing all the money. I always thought the story would be better if one of the servants had lost all or some of the talents entrusted to them due to a bad investment and had to be forgiven by the landowner. Maybe he could be taken under his wing for investment lessons to reward his effort. But in Jesus’ story there is no such servant. Because Jesus understood the treasure the servants were entrusted with much better than me.
Since the money given to the servants represents heavenly treasures, investing that treasure doesn’t work the same way investing worldly treasure does. As Jesus says elsewhere, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” The treasure given by God (or in this case the wealthy landowner) isn’t like the treasure we have here on earth – a return on investment is guaranteed.
I sincerely believe that a lot of Christians are just like that last servant and not very much like the first one. Look at the way the issue of love is often handled in the church. Like the last servant, we’re convinced that love only works when properly invested – in the right people, the right circumstances, with the right qualifications added to keep everyone in line. Love just passed out willy-nilly without regard to anything else is treated very much like a risky investment, likely to cost us and the people its invested in everything. Unlike Jesus, we lack the understanding that it’s impossible for heavenly treasures not to yield a return.
Look at the way we handle our theology. The history of Christianity in the western church since at least the time of the Nicene Counsel has been the history of men attempting to pin down and preserve proper belief. Almost always disagreements around theology are framed in terms of which one is the most faithful to the true or traditional or proper understanding of the bible and the faith. Any attempt to expand our understanding or challenge what we already have are met with fierce opposition – just look at what ought to be fairly non-controversial matters like women in ministry, the science of evolution or environmental stewardship. And rarely does anyone dare to say, “I think I’ve figured out something no one else has figured out before!” In fact the very idea that someone would try to do such a thing is seen as a road to apostasy Like the last servant, we give priority to protecting what we already have over trying to grow it for the landowner.
Jesus said he came to set us free – “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The Galatians were told, “it is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” Ask a thousand people to come up with 20 words to describe Christians and I’ll bet money I don’t have that the word “free” won’t be found on any of their lists. We tell people that “he who the Son sets free is free indeed” and then we give them a list of does and don’ts to abide by. We don’t trust really trust freedom – freedom gets abused. It’s a lot like love that way. So rather than run the risk of seeing what happens when you really let people be free, we bury the treasure in the name of preserving it.
The reason the last servant gives for his actions is really the same one that rules a good many Christians as well – fear. “I was afraid.” Many, many Christians are afraid of God. They are afraid of falling outside his will. They are afraid of displeasing him. They are afraid that maybe they aren’t really “saved”. They are afraid of God’s judgment. And it rules them. (See here for a discussion of a proper understanding of the biblical idea of “fear of the Lord”. Fear of the Lord may be the beginning of wisdom, but if you stay at the starting line, you’re running the race wrong.)
The landowner tells the servant that if he was so afraid, he should have at least given the money to the bankers. The point being that this servant didn’t just avoid taking a risk with the money – he wouldn’t let anyone else take a risk with it either! He would rather keep what he was given under his own control, buried away for preservation’s sake than even put it to the smallest of uses. We all know Christians like this – those who patrol the boundaries and protect the little bit of treasure they’ve been entrusted with – some bit of theology or small understanding of a few scripture verses or some other meager thing. But they won’t allow for what they have to ever bloom and grow into anything more – not even in the hands of other believers.
I find it so interesting that when the servant says, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed”, the landowner doesn’t deny it or take offense. Instead, he says that this is exactly why the servant should have known better than to sit on the money. Not only has the servant completely misunderstood the nature of the treasure entrusted to him – fearing that it could be lost. And he’s misunderstood what he was supposed to do with it – choosing to protect and preserve rather than grow it. He’s also completely missed the way the landowner works. Does he think that the landowner swoops in and takes other men’s harvest and gathered from other men’s fields? Is he a thief? A despot? If the landowner is harvesting where he has not sown, it is because the field was sown for him. If he is gathering where he has not scattered seeds, it is because those seeds were planted so he could gather the harvest later. Either the servant grossly underestimates the extent of the landowner’s holdings or he doesn’t recognize the validity of the landowner’s claim on the harvest produced by other people’s work.
Again, I think that we see a similar attitude towards God among many Christians today. Scripture says that every good thing comes from God, yet many Christians seem to think that if it wasn’t sown directly by God, it doesn’t belong to him. I think this is the impulse which leads many Christians to reject “worldly” things. To this day, there are churches and schools which ban things like dancing, non-Christian music, alcohol and dating on the grounds that they are too worldly. Large numbers of Christians refuse to credit the evidence provided by science about God’s creation to God because it didn’t grow from seeds labeled “scripture”. Like the servant, they seem to be perfectly content seeing God as “a hard man” rather than a good one. They don’t understand that because this is God’s creation – it’s a good creation. That because every man, knowingly or unknowingly has been put here by and for God, the harvest they produce is for God. They say that all power and glory and all of creation belongs to God, but seem to think that the world can be divided into what belongs to God and what does not. And like the servant, they don’t see the contradiction.
If there is one thing I wish I could convince every Christian of it is of the need to overcome fear. Fear does not come from God. Fear shouldn’t be prodding us to God in order to escape punishment. Fear should be prodding us towards God in order to escape fear itself. Whenever fear is present, it is a sign of our imperfection and disunion with God. I believe that one of the goals of a proper Christian life ought to be to learn to live fearlessly. When we’re afraid, we make dumb choices and are prone to misunderstanding. Fear keeps us small. It keeps us from taking the treasures we have and letting them grow. Fear tells us that if we’re not careful, those treasures might be misused and abused and cause damage. Fear makes us protective and hostile rather than open and trusting. But real treasures from God can’t help but grow into something more once they are freed from the repressive effects of fear. Sure, sometimes we invest love and get nothing. Or we pick up an idea which is wrong. Or we abuse freedom. But the story says that the landowner was away for a long time. If there’s anything I’m sure of, it’s that God’s not into get-rich-quick schemes. This is a God who has been working in this universe for something like 17 billion years. There’s time for some ups and downs. Who kn0ws – if the landowner had returned a few years earlier perhaps one of the servants would have had to tell him that some of the wealth entrusted to him was lost. But the landowner, like God, returns when the harvest is ready, the seeds are ripe for gathering and the treasure given has doubled. The increase is guaranteed – in time. And like the first two servants, when that time comes, we will be handed back not just what we grew, but more as we share in the master’s happiness.