The Rev. Jay Lawlor
“How Do We Hear the Parable of the Talents?”
24th Sunday After Pentecost Year A Proper 28 – November 19, 2017
St. John’s Episcopal Church – Speedway, IN
The talents in the parable from Matthew are often used in our modern English language context and preached as a sermon on stewardship – it is that time of year in many congregations. It is also, if I’m being honest, the easier place to go for the preacher. There is less risk in talking about talents as our gifts from God and how we are to faithfully give back a portion in service to God.
While we are to give back a portion of our gifts to God – there are plenty of other examples of this in scripture. Today, I would like to invite us to consider this parable as it was most likely heard by its first hearers in Jesus’ day. We tend to read scripture – especially Jesus’ parables – through our current cultural context and norms rather than first understanding them in the context of the first century Roman Palestine of Jesus’ day. The context in which Jesus told the story.
But we miss some very big – and important – points Jesus is making if we rush to the place of our modern context. Our conversation needs to take a different direction if we are to be honest with the parable in both its original context, and application for Christians today.
The first thing to notice is that Jesus makes no mention of the scene he describes as being an allegory about the kingdom of God, like so many of his other parables. Absent is the “Kingdom of God is like…” which Jesus uses when he wants to tell us how his disciples are to be in the world. What we have is a story about a man going on a journey and leaving his property in the care of his slaves.
The property here are five talents, two talents, and one talent. A talent in the parable was the largest unit of currency in Jesus’ day, a single talent estimated to be worth about fifteen years’ wages for a day laborer. Needless to say, the man in the story is rich. Very rich.
The first two slaves go off and double the money that had been given to them. The third slave buries the one talent for safekeeping, so as not to risk losing it. Our modern contextual, capitalist, lens often interprets this parable as the first two slaves being faithful to what had been entrusted to them, and the third slave as lazy for not having produced a return on investment. The rich master in the parable certainly sees it this way – rewarding the first two slaves, and punishing the third slave as “wicked and lazy.” He then takes the one talent from him and gives it to the first slave and instructs that the third slave be tossed out as worthless: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 25:30 NRSV)
But is this how Jesus sees it? Is this how Jesus told the story? Remember, Jesus is not presenting the parable as like the Kingdom of God. It is a parable about the way things often were in Jesus’ day, rather than the way things ought to be.
The first century Roman Palestine world of Jesus was seen as a Rich/Poor, Limited Good society. Biblical scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain:
In the “limited good” world of the peasant, seeking “more” was always morally wrong. Because the pie (of all good and goods) was both “limited” and already distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else. Honorable people, therefore, did not try to get more of anything, and those who did were considered thieves. […] Thus, from the peasant point of view, the two servants who increased their master’s wealth would have been viewed as simple robbers who cooperated with the evil master in extortionist schemes designed to steal the resources of others. (Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 385)
Further, it should be noted, Rabbinic law prohibited the charging and collection of interest on money. Given this context, it is the third slave who acts in the honorable and morally responsible way. However, the treatment of the third slave is exactly what peasants in Jesus’ day came to expect: the rich always take care of their own.
Jesus makes this very point when the rich master says to the third servant in the parable: 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.” (Matthew 25:26-27 NRSV)
Jesus does not paint a flattering picture of the rich master. It is clear that the rich master reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he did not scatter. That he expects to gain interest – to gain more – from what he already has rather than from his own labor. In the context of a limited good society, someone else needed to have less for him to have more.
Jesus is not asking us to invest as the first two slaves invested for their master. Jesus isn’t looking for a return on financial investment or to make the rich richer. Jesus is asking us to act in honorable and morally responsible ways, no matter how the world views such actions. Jesus wants us to act in honorable and morally responsible ways even when we know what to expect in return from the world. And Jesus wants us to challenge the world as it is, to change it into the way the world should be. Today’s parable from Matthew is not a depiction of the kingdom of God; it is a depiction of the way Jesus’ world was. A world Jesus came to change. A world in which Jesus gathered followers and started a movement of transformation.
This is the Jesus Movement we continue to be a part of today. We are Jesus’ followers today. We are Jesus’ disciples today. We are to see the world as it is with Jesus’ eyes and be about the work of transforming the world into what Jesus wants to see when he looks at the world. We must love with the heart of Jesus and heal with the hands of Jesus to be the change Jesus seeks.
On the back of U.S. Currency is the phrase “In God We Trust,” yet we live in a society gripped not by the phrase but, rather, the currency it is printed on. What we witness, when we look at the world with Jesus’ eyes, is that money and power are valued more than human life.
Men with money and power, mostly white men with money and power, have for too long mattered more than their victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and molestation. Money and power for too long has been valued by those with them over equal rights based on gender, race, sexual orientation or sexual identity. Money and power have for too long been valued by those with them to do anything to stop senseless violence. Those with money and power have for too long said that inequality in areas of income, healthcare, education, opportunity, and incarceration is just how it is.
The parable of the talents is a parable about how it was in Jesus’ day. If it is to have any honest meaning for us as Christians today, we need to accept the parable first in its original context. We then need to ask where we place our trust and what we value?
Do we place our trust in God or in a system which leaves too many people in want and need? Do we value our relationship with God and human community or a society of division, fear, mistrust, and oppression?
Jesus asked his disciples to hear the parable of the talents as a depiction of the way the world was. Everything about Jesus’ ministry and call to his disciples was about changing that world. How do we hear the parable of the talents? What is Jesus’ call to us?
I don’t believe how we hear the parable or our call to follow Jesus is any different. Let us see the world with Jesus’ eyes as it is, and then let us be about the work of following Jesus as his heart and hands to transform the world into what it should be. Because we worship a God and follow a Jesus who offer a loving, liberating, life-giving way for all. Amen.
A note on commentaries for this sermon:
I don’t typically include a detailed list of commentaries (beyond what is directly referenced in my sermon). But the Parable of the Talents often generates more interest. This is likely due to the the fact that it is a rather famous parable which has most often been preached more as a stewardship sermon, and not wasting what God has given us. However, historical biblical scholarship and social science studies of early centuries have helped us better understand the contexts in which Jesus lived, and first told the parables.
The Parable of the Talents is a perfect example of how this knowledge can help us read scripture through a lens more focused on the original audience (rather than reading back through our own lens). If we want to understand the Bible for our day, we first need to understand it as it was first communicated. Here are some commentaries which were extremely helpful in writing this sermon, particularly Malina and Rohrbaugh’s Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels:
Stan Duncan, “The Parable of the Life-Risking, Faithful Servant,” Commentary on Matthew 25:14-31 on HuffPost, November 18, 2014.
Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), pp. 124-125 and 384-385.
William Herzog, “The Vulnerability of the Whistleblower,” Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Westminster/John Knox: 1994), pp.157-158.
Audrey West, “Some parables sound like bad jokes,” Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30 in The Christian Century, October 13, 2017.
Carla Works, “Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30,” WorkingPreacher.org for November 13, 2011.