The same is true of the parable we have heard again this morning. Have you any idea how much a talent, for it was a unity of money before the word, largely because of this parable, came to mean ‘a special ability’, was worth? I do know this one. It was worth as much as an average worker could expect to earn in fifteen years. It would take seventy-five years to earn the amount entrusted to the first servant in the story. Jesus is talking about stupendous sums. Perhaps that should make us sit up and take notice of this very familiar story once again. But that’s not the only reason.
Here’s an interpretation of this story which you’ve probably heard before. God gives us gifts, skills and resources – talents in their modern sense – and expects us to use them. If we do, we will be rewarded. If we don’t, he’ll be very angry with us, and we won’t like that at all. We are to work hard basically to avoid God’s wrath. That seems obvious, and would lead to a very short sermon. But is that what the parable is really saying? Is that what Jesus was teaching?
When you look closely at the parable, there is a lot in it which is actually quite disturbing. If we assume that the man who goes away is Jesus, what does that imply? That Jesus is fantastically wealthy, and wants above all to increase that wealth, that he rewards success, that he is harsh, that he “reaps where he does not sow”, that he punishes failure? You could draw all those conclusions if you wished, but I’m not sure you’d be right. That Jesus just doesn’t sound like the Jesus who stopped a woman being stoned for adultery, or who healed a woman of years of bleeding, or fed a huge crowd with just a small amount of fish and bread, or put himself on chummy terms with Zaccheus the tax collector, or who shed his own blood on the cross.
So let’s step back and look at this story afresh, and let’s start with the money. There’s so much of it, and that’s surely part of the point. These are numbers beyond our reasonable comprehension, so let’s not allow them to be a distraction. Let’s think, instead, about what they may stand for.
To do that, we have to look at the context of this story. Last week, we read the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Next week, we will hear Jesus speaking quite explicitly about his return. All three readings are from Matthew chapter twenty-five. All these stories and sayings are grouped together just as Jesus nears Jerusalem for the last time. It is a time of great personal risk. The stakes are high. He knows he is leaving, so to speak. The stories reflect all this. They are full of heightened tension, full of drama.
Jesus doesn’t introduce this story at all. He doesn’t give any clues to its interpretation. Instead, he launches straight in to describing a wealthy man who, before he goes away on a journey, decides to invest his money. He distributes unequal amounts among three slaves. He gives them no instructions, and then he’s off.
The first one senses an opportunity, or a duty, and goes and engages in a commercial venture. He’s good at it, and doubles his master’s money. The second does the same. But why tell of two servants, achieving proportionately identical outcomes, both able to return twice what had been invested in them. The answer is in the story. The master gave to each what he judged they were able to handle.
Which raises an interesting question. Who was the most able? If you want to make a lot of money, starting out rich makes it a lot easier than if you start our poor. Which, in a way, brings us to the third slave, the one to whom only one talent was entrusted.
Let’s get some things straight about him. He is not a bad man. In fact, he is quite a sensible man, and an articulate man too. He’s an honest man, who has kept the money safe, and returned it, every penny of it. He’s not at all smug either, which is an accusation which could fairly be levelled at the others. In Jesus’ day, burying money and other valuables was considered a good way of keeping them safe. Furthermore, usury, the lending of money for interest, was forbidden in Jewish law. It’s a bit strange that the wealthy man tells him he could at least have done that.
What the third servant is, though, and this is where I think he went wrong, is a man who was afraid. He was afraid of the master and he was afraid of losing his master’s money. And the other two hadn’t been. They had been prepared to take the risk. They had been prepared to turn up on the day of reckoning and say, “We invested it all but the business went bust. Sorry.”
Had that happened, what, I wonder, would have been the reaction of the master? As a businessman, he must have understood the nature, the inherent riskiness, of business and investment. I cannot imagine that he would have been harsh on a servant who had tried his best, but had failed to make money.
So I’m drawn to the conclusion that what matters here is not the return on the investment, the doubling of the money, but the effort of investing. That’s even more true when we remind ourselves that this is only a story and the characters and the money and the situation they play out all have symbolic meaning.
While I do not think we should equate the master too closely with Jesus, in certain regards, he is. As in the story, Jesus trusts us with responsibility commensurate with our talents. As in the story, Jesus trusts us to take the initiative and does not prescribe a course of action.
The servants, though, are maybe more directly readable as representing those who seek to serve Jesus, or think they serve Jesus. In the story, the two who receive commendation, and greater responsibility, are the ones who take the risks. The one who receives condemnation is the one who plays it safe. And, if we remind ourselves to think of this story less in monetary terms, the sin of the third servant, the sin of playing it safe, may be seen not as not taking the opportunity to make money, but rather not daring to care, not risking to love, not living up to the full potential of our humanity, not putting much effort in, being over cautious and over prudent, allowing ourselves to think we’re not much good and there will always be someone better than us for whatever the task is, and so why should we bother.
There’s something about this which applies to life in general. I think that what Jesus is saying is that playing it safe – not caring, not loving passionately, not investing yourself, not risking anything – is a bit like death, not really life at all, certainly not life in all its fullness, and even a bit like being banished to the outer darkness.
And there’s something about this which applies to church life in particular. For most of us, religion and personal faith are not really risky ventures. Not at all, in fact. Faith seems more like a personal comfort zone. Many think that it is about personal security here and in the hereafter. To many, faith is only about believing ideas in our heads about God and Jesus, holding a list of beliefs we more or less subscribe to intellectually. Many, because this is what they have been taught, think that faith is about getting their personal theology right and then living a good life by avoiding bad things.
Not so. Faith is not like that. Faith is about life, and the life Jesus invites us into is the life of discipleship. Subtly, he is telling us something. For most, at least in our culture, the life of discipleship is not really going to involve risk or danger – after all, the servants who took the plunge made incredible returns. Rather, it is about living less cautious lives, daring to lose as well as to gain, daring to love and risking being hurt, daring to rejoice and risking being ridiculed.
The life of faith is not about believing ideas about Jesus. It is about following him. And following him means investing the lives and the gifts and the talents he has given us, using them and living to the full. It is about being bold, brave sometimes, about reaching high and caring deeply. It is about being confident, confident in ourselves because who we are and what we have all comes from God.