The Parable of the Talents can make readers uneasy. It can leave us with an unsettling aftertaste of a vengeful God that doesn’t square up to the image of the loving God in which we profess our faith. So what’s the rub? Do assumptions cloud our ability to find any grace in the parable? As Vernon writes, “What if these are words of love?”
Matthew 25: 14-30
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.’ 21His 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.’ 22And 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.’ 23His 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.’ 24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
Before we tackle this passage, I’d like you to consider the ‘appropriate’ response to the statement: “You look nice today.” Would it be a simple “thank you”; perhaps an embarrassed, ‘Not really’; or an indignant, “What do you mean, today?” The opening words are the same (You look nice today.) but the response reflects the listeners’ assumptions about themselves, as well as their assumptions about the speaker’s intent. ‘Simple’ exchanges can be infinitely more complicated than they first appear.
Embedded in this example (and there are thousands like it) is a major interpretive problem when reading scripture. In this passage, our understanding of God and of ourselves greatly influence how we read the exact same words. For years, I read this as an appallingly judgmental passage. The talents are unevenly distributed, the servants are slaves who lived and died at the behest of the master. When one of the slaves operates out of fear, he is cast into outer darkness. The third slave didn’t do anything wrong. Even if he did, there is no forgiveness. And finally the rich get richer and the poor have what little they have taken away. You better ‘do my will’ and not make any mistakes or you’re going to hell.
Not too surprisingly, in FIRL, the first reactions to the passage were similar: ‘This isn’t my God.’; ‘This sounds like a ‘prosperity gospel.’; ‘It could be that we are supposed to live on the edge but the punishment is severe.’ No one viewed these words as words of grace. This God says I gave you everything. You should use what I have given. You should ‘do your job’ (be faithful) and make me richer. Only the phrase, ‘Enter into the joy of the master” gave pause but it was overwhelmed by the visceral knowledge that we have all been that third slave and there was no redemption. Everyone of us has had times of depression, anxiety or fear which immobilizes us. We ‘knew’ we needed to do something different but it was too hard or too frightening. Knowing what we should do is a whole lot different than being able to follow through. If this is what is expected, we fail and there is no grace. We are damned.
While these conclusions can easily be argued, they understand God and his kingdom in a dark—albeit familiar way. It is a God that expects obedience and a God who punishes.
But what if these same words are from a God who cares for us and who wants the best for us—a God who is not finding fault but a God who is protecting us? These same words can take on an entirely different meaning. (In real life relationships I ask couples who are ‘sure’ of their partners negative meaning to pause and ask: ‘ What if he/she loves me?’ before they react. Even considering the possibility opens up new ways of responding. This is the biblical version of that dilemma.)
Each of us are offered a priceless gift—the gift of our creation. There are disparities we can acknowledge but we cannot explain. Why am I born into the middle class rather than born into a homeless family or born into a third world country? By any human measure, there are inequities of birth and ability. The passage acknowledges those differences, it does not explain them— but neither are the slaves measured by them. The slaves enter the joy of their master by using and growing the gifts they have been given.
Love requires risky investments of ourselves. Relationships will die if we fail to put energy into them. Trying to be safe because we might be hurt is understandable but it leads to isolation and loneliness. And there will be gnashing of teeth. This does not mean that all of our investments will pay off. Many will end in rejection and hurt. But it does mean that the only way for love to grow is to risk that rejection and hurt. To borrow from another parable, even if three out of four seeds do not bear fruit, none will bear fruit if you quit planting. That’s ‘how it is’ in real life and God wants us to know that.
This is a warning and a cautionary tale. It is not necessarily punitive There are lots of warnings in our lives. They are designed to protect and enhance life. In real life we often ignore warnings but we ignore them at our peril. A sign on the beach can warn us of rip tides. We may well be swept out to sea if we ignore them. Is our drowning a natural consequence or divine punishment? We may even describe our drowning as punishment but that doesn’t make it true.
This passage describes what is required to live the life we have been given as well as the disastrous consequences of living a life of fear. The only way we get the most out of our bodies is to work our bodies. The only way to grow in love—the only way to the abundant life God wants for us is to risk ourselves. It is the life Jesus lived and the life he calls us to. It is hard to risk the vulnerability that love requires and sometimes we cannot do it. But the consequences are still there.
We all know these things but we don’t live that way. All of us have a death sentence but we act like it will never happen to us. We almost have to be hit over the head to become intentional about our lives. How many of us sit down and discuss with the people we love, what is the best use of our time together? Facing our finiteness will focus that question. Unfortunately most of us cannot stand to dwell on our mortality. In his book Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Castaneda writes that we should live as if death were sitting on our left shoulder. We cannot bear to look at it face to face all of the time but we should never forget its presence. We only have so much time to live and love. Use it or lose it.
God wants us to have an abundant life. He shows us the way and he puts warning signs out there to guide us. It is the biblical equivalent of the secular ‘It is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.” Loving is what gives our lives meaning. Risking ourselves is an inescapable requirement of loving. Living a life based only on self-protection will end in gnashing of teeth and isolation. These words may be hard but they are words of grace.
May we follow into the joy of the master. May we be sustained when we are immobilized and afraid. May we find God’s abundant life. Let it be so.