We have some leftover business from last week. Have you been bothered about those five bridesmaids who got locked out of the party, just because they didn’t bring along an extra flask of oil? They came with their lamps, and their lamps had oil, but they didn’t bring along any extra. They thought they were prepared, but they weren’t. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough, after all. And instead of continuing to wait, even if it meant waiting in the dark, they went off looking for what they needed somewhere else. When they finally arrived, the door had been shut, and they were out of luck.
The nagging question left over from last week comes up again this week. Why isn’t “good enough” good enough? In today’s passage, Jesus tells another parable that forces us to consider this question from a different angle.
For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 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.’ 21 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.’ 22 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.’ 23 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.’ 24 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; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’26 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? 27 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. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 25:14-30)
Why isn’t “good enough” good enough, as we wait for Christ to come again? What is it about following Jesus that requires more from us than we may be prepared to offer? Does the abundant life Jesus promises to us only come at extravagant cost?
From today’s parable, it would seem that’s the case. In Luke’s version of this story, each servant is given a pound, but here in Matthew, the unit of measure is a talent. One talent was worth 6000 denarii, and we already know from previous stories that a denarius was the usual daily wage for a common laborer. So, one talent was worth about 20 years of labor.
Here we have an obviously wealthy master entrusting huge sums of money to his servants, and even the least of these would have had to work for twenty years to earn as much as his master hands over to him. This is extravagance on a grand scale.
We usually think of a talent as some special ability or giftedness, and linguistic experts will tell you that the root of our word “talent” probably comes from the original Greek word we find in this parable. But they will also tell you that the meaning we give to “talent” today did not come into common usage until sometime in the 1500s. At the time Jesus told the story, everyone understood that a talent was a fortune, and five talents was an enormous amount of money, a hundred years’ worth of wages.
Why is this important to know? The traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents has focused on using our abilities while we wait for Christ’s return. Use your talents well, or you might lose them. God gave you special gifts, and you don’t want to be caught on judgment day having to explain why you failed to make the most of your talents. Because the master in our story gave to each “according to his ability,” people have made “ability” the central theme of this parable.
But if we realize that Jesus wasn’t necessarily talking about our abilities as much as the greatest treasure we can imagine, it puts a little different spin on the story. Now, instead of using our abilities as best we can, the question becomes, “what are we willing to risk to get the greatest return on our investment in the kingdom of God?”
And before we can even ask that question, we need to know what great treasure has our master entrusted to us?
If we use the parable of the ten bridesmaids as our pattern, we could consider that the great treasure entrusted to us is the faith God gives each of us. Some invest in their own spiritual development, and they see their faith grow. Others may try to hide their faith, and their faith shrivels away. But then we run into the problem of the one-talent servant who is cast into outer darkness, and we are left wondering if perhaps his faith was not real faith, or if it was not deep enough. And that idea doesn’t match up with the promise that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
But what if the talents don’t represent faith, any more than they represent our God-given abilities? What if this great, immense treasure is something else entirely? What do we as Christians can claim as our most precious treasure, worth more than we can possibly imagine?
The Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection is the most powerful and amazing story we know! Instead of teaching us to multiply our faith, or develop our abilities – good and worthy as those things are! – perhaps this parable is here to remind us that our greatest treasure, as Christians, is the gospel itself.
Investing in the gospel involves letting it change us, first of all. It means allowing its transforming power to work in us until our lives are fully centered on Christ. Then it means spreading that good news, so others can come to know and love Jesus as we do. Living into our faith, showing the world what a difference following Jesus makes in the way we live our lives, telling people about the ways God has transformed us – That is how the gospel multiplies and grows. Not by being buried in the ground, but by being shared. And sharing the gospel is a risky business.
Those first two servants understood the need to risk everything. They invested radically in order to double their investment. The third hid his in the ground, in order to return it risk-free to his master. And before we tell ourselves, “I would never do something like that,” we should keep in mind that the third servant was simply doing what was considered prudent at the time. “Rabbinic law stipulated that burying was the best safeguard against theft and that when one buries entrusted money one is free from liability for it” (Boucher, 139, quoted by Alyce McKenzie.).
Two servants invest radically, and double their money. The third followed a perfectly acceptable course of action, with minimal risk. He did what would have been considered “good enough.” But it wasn’t.
Because if we are talking about the gospel, about following Jesus and being obedient to his teaching, we have to act on that teaching for it to do any good. This parable teaches that the master will return, the promised kingdom is coming, and when it comes all the false values of this age will become obsolete. The gospel of mercy, peace, and forgiveness is all that will matter in the age to come. “What will stand at the end is the gospel and nothing else.”
There’s something else in this parable that we need to see clearly for it to make sense. The relationship between the master and his servants determined how they responded to the trust he placed in them. The two servants who doubled their investment clearly trusted their master enough to risk losing his fortune. He rewards them with greater responsibility, and invites them into his joy. The mutual trust between the master and these servants made it possible for them to invest fearlessly what had been entrusted to them. But the third servant does not see his master in such a positive light. In fact, the third servant’s conservative handling of his master’s wealth is clearly based in fear.
If we think about our relationship with God in these terms, we must ask ourselves, what is our image of God, and how does that image dictate the way we act? Try it for a moment. What does God look like to you when you close your eyes? What do his hair and his face look like? His clothing? His posture? Is he smiling, or looking stern? Does he have a beard?
Those images we hold in our minds dictate the way we behave. If we see God as a stern ruler who punishes those who disobey him, we will act in fear, just as the third servant did. But if we see God as a generous and loving caregiver who wants only the best for us, we will act in confidence that he will forgive us when we do wrong. We can depend on God’s abundance being made available to us.
Our image of God determines how we invest in his kingdom. Either we will share lavishly, or we will hide the good news where it does no one any good. It all depends on how we view God, and how much we trust the One who entrusts us with his greatest treasure.
To be trustworthy servants, we must be willing to trust the One who trusts us. And that trust is the key to understanding what this parable is really about. It isn’t about using the abilities we’ve been given, even though that is a worthy thing to do. It isn’t about believing that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins, even though that belief is necessary for our salvation. But faith is more than simply believing something to be true. James 2:19 says even the demons believe in God, and they shudder. Faith is more than that.
Faith is trusting what you believe, which means becoming vulnerable, putting yourself at risk. The master trusted his servants. Two of them trusted him back. The third one, not so much. Faith is more than just believing something to be true; faith means trusting in that truth to the point of greatest risk. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what he asks of us.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of fear. It takes a conscious effort to choose faith that is more than mere belief, faith that is rooted in trust. Are you willing to trust Jesus, to risk everything in order to hear him say to you, at the end of time, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master?’
November 15, 2020