Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Matthew 25:14-30 The Parable of the Talents
‘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.”
Today’s scripture is a story about fear. It is the middle parable in a series of three, beginning last week with the story of the bridesmaids who were stingy with their oil, and continuing with next week’s scripture about the sheep and the goats. We go from a story about staying awake and tending to your calling to a story about being afraid and how that can impact what you do with something that has been entrusted to you. And, both last week’s parable and this week’s parable are put into the context of waiting... waiting for the groom to arrive or waiting for person who loaned the money to return. It is wise to consider how fear, particularly fear of angering someone powerful, can shape how you wait.
A talent is a lot of money. In her commentary on this text, Carla Works notes that one talent is worth 6,000 days wages for an average worker. That is 20 years of income. I can’t imagine anyone walking up to me and handing me twenty years of my salary, especially with few instructions on what to do with it. Just “I’m leaving. I’m entrusting you with this.” That’s it. I wouldn’t blame you if you were tempted to hide it away so nothing happened to it. Especially if, as we learn later, the person who has entrusted you with this life-changing amount of money is known to be harsh in judgement. What if you do the wrong thing? What if, God forbid, you lose some of what has been entrusted to you?
I think it matters that we pay attention to the power dynamics in this story. In his commentary on the text, Larry Morris III notes that the translation of the Greek work “doulos” is complex. It can be used for a servant, which would be an employee, or a slave, who is owned, often against their will. Morris argues that it can mean “bond-servant” here, that an indication that the person has entered servitude willingly. He also notes that often in Christian writings, it is used with a positive connotation to describe one who believes and “willingly submits under the authority of Christ.” I’m not totally sure that the willingness cancels out the slavery part, but I will buy that this word is consistently used to describe people who are faithful to Christ and shape their lives around his teaching. But, I can’t help but remember that with servitude comes a lack of control.
Morris also notes that the Greek word Kyrios that is translated here as “master,” can also be translated as “sir” or “lord,” like the aristocratic title, or “Lord,” with a capital “L.” This is what we might call God or Jesus. There is power inherent in this title. Morris notes that this title implies that one is able to exercise “absolute ownership” and “exercise full rights.” But, this master wields power in a surprising way. He entrusts an extraordinary amount of money to people over whom he has absolute control. Susan Bonds calls it a “sacrificial gift of epic proportions” in her commentary on this text. Twenty, forty, and one hundred years of funds. Bonds says that the word for property likely means not just money or material possessions but something more like “one’s entire substance and life.” The rich person is trusting these three with so very much.
When reading this text, we should avoid interpretations that reinforce behaviors that reproduce inequality. Just because the master in this story gives people money based on their capability to manage that money, that doesn’t mean that the differences in the amount of money we observe people having in our everyday life is somehow ordained by God. As Morris says, “money has to pass through numerous unjust systems in our world before it reaches many of us.” If you have more money, that doesn’t mean God gave you more money. If you have less money, that doesn’t mean that God wants you to have less. That kind of theology is death-dealing and dangerous.
What is useful to us, especially as we consider what it means to be stewards of God’s church, is a closer look at how the people who received the generous sums of money stewarded it. After a long time, the wealthy person returned and spoke to the three to whom he entrusted his livelihood. The two who had received larger sums had taken risks with it, trading it, and doubled what had been given to them. The one who had trusted them rewarded them and praised them for trustworthiness. Morris points out that the word that is translated as “trustworthiness” can also mean “faithfulness” or “belief.” They believed they could and should do something with that money, so they did. And, they found themselves having acted wisely, increasing what they had been given, and doing exactly what the master had tasked them to do while he was away.
The fearful servant... his was a different story. His fear kept him from putting what he was given to use. Morris makes an insightful point in his commentary. He says that there is a difference between fear and reverence. What this person felt was dread. He dreaded falling short of what was expected of him. He dreaded doing the wrong thing. He dreaded making any choice really, beyond hide away and hope for the best. His fear narrowed down his vision so much that he didn’t even think to put the money in the bank where it would have gained a meager interest. Those of us who’ve spent time not having enough know what it’s like to feel like you have to hide away what you have so it doesn’t get taken away. It may be easy to empathize with this fearful slave. But, in the end, we can see that his fear made him a poor steward and kept him from living out the faithful actions to which he had been called.
If Jesus was trying to help prepare his disciples for the trials that were to come (remember this story is happening after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday but before Jesus’ trial and execution), why would he tell them this story? Carla Works argues that he is instructing his followers to be like the servants who emulated their master’s actions... who took risks and gained from it, just as he had. In the face of tribulations and oppression, in the time of waiting for Jesus’ return, then, to be trustworthy, to be faithful, is to risk modeling our behavior on the ministry of Jesus. We can’t let our fear make us hide away and try to protect what little we have. While fear can be useful, in this case, it turns us away from our calling. We have been given much. May we be faithful enough to make use of it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33/commentary-on-matthew-2514-30-3
L. Susan Bond, “Proper 28,” Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Larry Morris III, “Faithfully or Fearfully Generous,” From the “Because of You, Our Church Changes Lives” stewardship materials
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.