The parable of the talents is definitely familiar. Stewardship messages have worn it out. But if we think this parable is about stewardship, we are missing the point! It’s been used to beg volunteers to serve in the church. But if we think that this parable is about sharing our abilities, we are also missing the point. This is one of the kingdom parables, a parable of the Parousia – the time of the coming again of the Christ. Let’s listen! This parable deals with salvation!
Have you ever been given a huge responsibility with NO instructions? As if parents left on a trip without saying, “Take care of the house. Mow the grass, water the plants, feed the dog….” And instead leave you the keys and a debit card for the bank? Hard to imagine, isn’t it? But that is the set-up for this parable. Three servants receive a rather large trust from their master who is leaving on a trip. But there are no instructions!
The master handed over about 15 years’ worth of wages to one servant, and 30 years’ worth and 60 years’ worth to two others – with no instructions! There are some clues in the text. The word used here “delivered over” (hyparxonta) is the same word that describes how Jesus was “delivered over” to the authorities, and the wording in the Greek means delivering not just material goods, but one’s very life. The master in this story is making a “sacrificial gift of epic proportions to his slaves, and then he leaves.” We are supposed to understand that the master in the story parallels Jesus, and the treasure entrusted to the servants is his life and message. How are the servants supposed to know what he wants them to do?
Scholars tell us that within the story, these are tried and true servants who had been managing things for the master for some time, a trusted part of the household. Like disciples….But still! That’s a lot of trust! The have to decide what to do with a lot of money!
Two servants do business and make a profit. That seems to be the expectation based on the ending-- that they would use the money. Not an unreasonable assumption.
The third servant misunderstood the master’s unspoken intent. He hid the money in the ground where it would be safe. The irony is that burying money in the ground was the safest way to care for it in the time before banks. It was a way to protect against theft – and protected against liability in case of theft. This servant was careful, and probably expected praise when he produced it, intact, for the master on his return. What was so wrong with his actions? He was careful. He played it safe. He minimized the risks of holding onto such a large sum entrusted, not given, to him. The master’s living was delivered over to the servants -- with no instructions!
God takes issue with “Playing it Safe.”
Remember: this is a parable of the kingdom. Jesus is warning us against playing it safe. We live in anticipation of Christ’s second coming, and should live in certain ways in light of that. This is, as Tom Long puts it, “a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel as they wait for the coming of the kingdom of heaven.”
In our story, the first two servants are praised because they DID SOMETHING with what had been entrusted to them. It wasn’t really about profit – this was about action! Remember, Jesus has said over and over that faithful disciples are those who hear his words and then ACT on them! The lack of specific instructions shows that being faithful means taking initiative and risk!
The careful servant is condemned as “lazy.” He responds with security, not service. And he doesn’t love his master – when challenged, he shows disrespect and more awareness of the master’s power than his grace. Entrusted with a huge amount of money, he shows that he was afraid that it was entrusted to him!
The context of this parable heightens our awareness of its meaning. This follows the text referred to as the “little apocalypse” which ends with contrasting descriptions of faithful and unfaithful servants (Mt 24: 45-51). This parable may have been directed at the Pharisees and Sadducees, who played it safe with religion, living within the law and guarding religious purity, but not showing much of God’s love and grace towards others.
CONTRA: This all makes us a bit uncomfortable. As much as we hate to admit it, we tend to play it safe too. In Finance, we diversify our investments to reduce our risk. In religion, we tend to stick to the middle rather than the extremes. We conform socially so we aren’t too far “out there.” We know the dangers of gambling, and we become concerned about fanaticism. We tend towards safety or moderation much of the time. We may have assumed that God is on the side of stability. But that isn’t what this parable tells us. The “play it safe, no risk, hold-on-for dear life” character in the story is condemned – even thrown out into the darkness.
In the movie, “Moxie,” directed by Amy Poehler, Vivian, an 11th grade girl who is a creative introvert, awakens to the reality that her high school is oppressive towards women. A nudge comes from a college essay that wants to know what she cares passionately about. Then her new friend Lucy opens her eyes to a dark side of the harassment culture and the enablement of boys whose behavior is potentially dangerous. And shy Vivian, who wanted to get through the year without anyone noticing her, acts. She stops playing it safe and in the process, the culture changes. She risks suspension to speak, not alone now, but with a supportive community. She doesn’t play it safe. She takes risks.
When it comes the kingdom, God doesn’t want a “play it safe” approach.
Look! Judgment on different criteria than we might imagine! We can start living kingdom values now! Judgement is a reality – and it doesn’t wait for the Parousia. The question is “What would we have done if we had devoted ourselves to God’s purposes?”
“Matthew’s parable of the Talents is a continuation of the reflections about how the church deals with the absence of Jesus and its survival amid imperial rule.” God has entrusted us with the message of life, a work of justice and reconciliation, and the charge to live in a community of love and grace. How are we doing with THAT?
This parable challenges us, the church, to live in ways that contrast with the world around us. Protest injustice instead of turning a blind eye. Speak out against racism, sexism, homophobia, and any biases that prohibit parts of God’s family from living fully into who they were created to be. In this time of Jesus’ absence, we are called to be faithful by living out the risky business of revealing God’s kingdom values in our lives, instead of blending in with the world around us.
far too long, with our goal to just survive in the midst of a world that values faith less and less and culture which finds itself too busy to make faith living a priority! This parable disrupts “business as usual” by recommending risk over caution! Jesus warns us that if we play it safe, we may find ourselves excluded from God’s kingdom! Kingdom business means risky business! Scholar Joachim Jeremias explains that this parable was originally one of “a group of crisis parables, intended to arouse a deluded people and its leaders to a realization of the terrible gravity of the moment.”
This parable needs to function this way for us today. God’s judgement doesn’t wait for the last days. The question for us is if we are making good use of the gifts of Jesus’ life and ministry, or if we have turned these gifts to serve our own purposes. Have we opened the doors of the kingdom of God to others, or have we closed them to preserve our safety?
We gather today around the in-breaking and present WORD of God – we gather to share the table of love to strengthen us for the work that is before us – to CHOOSE to do God’s will in opening up God’s kingdom to others. Will we risk living out our faith, or will we bury it for safekeeping? The choice is ours!
God doesn’t want another lovely building. God doesn’t want another congregation holding on in fear to each other, trying to survive. God wants a group of followers of Jesus willing to do the risky business of serving kingdom purposes, doing kingdom business in the world! God doesn’t want us to play it safe, but to do something! Kingdom business is risky business – risking action to accomplish God’s purposes! This too is the word of God for the people of God!
[i] Bond, in commentary, 485. [ii] Madeleine Boucher, Parables, 139. [iii] Susan Bond in Dale’s commentary, 483. [iv] Douglas Hare, Matthew, 287-8. [v] David Buttrick, Speaking Parable, 174. [vi] Buttrick, 174. [vii] Bond, in commentary, 485. [viii] Alyce McKenzie, The Parables for Today, 90. [ix] Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering Parables, 50.