The rather obvious and certainly oft-repeated application of today’s Gospel reading lies in the very literal interpretation of the word “talent,” at least as it appears in English. That interpretation goes like this: we have been given many talents, and it’s up to us to use them wisely for the benefit of the kingdom of God. Woe to the one who ignores his gifts and buries them out of fear. And that’s a wonderful message. I could go there, particularly on the heels of our time, talent and treasure campaign. But it’s wrong – that’s not what Jesus meant, and I think we have to dig just a little bit deeper.
The word we have translated “talent” here does not mean what we think it means. When our English ears hear that word, we think gifts, we think of abilities, of things we can do. But that’s not what it means in the original Greek. “Talent” here does not mean gifts; a talent was a unit of money. It was actually rather a large sum of money, equal to something like one thousand days’ wages, or what a poor person could have lived on for fifteen or twenty years. So think about it, even the servant who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years! That’s a lot of money for anyone.
The next thing we have to look at is who it was that was receiving such a large sum of cash. On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions. But that’s not what it says. It says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers. And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!
If we think of the master as God, and accept the talents simply as money, I think God comes off sounding rather harsh. The poor servants differed in their ability; that’s pointed out in the story and certainly the master would have known that. So why would God be so horribly harsh when a simple slave with limited capabilities does nothing with his gifts? It makes us bristle, I think, to imagine God treating someone like that so poorly.
So I think this raises a few questions for us. Who is the master? What do the talents represent? Why would the master entrust such a large sum of money to common slaves? Who are the slaves? And what on earth was that third slave thinking when he buried such a wonderful gift in the sand?
Well, first off, let’s suppose the master is God here – God the Father. This isn’t supposed to be a perfect allegory, so let’s just bracket the harshness of the parable. And I think it’s our first reading that gives us a clue as to what’s really going on here. That first reading speaks of the worthy wife whose value is far beyond that of fine pearls. What, or rather who, could be that valuable? Our theology teaches us that the husband in the first reading is Christ, the bridegroom, and the worthy wife is the Church. So we are the ones called to be worthy, to be industrious, to take care of the poor and to fear the Lord. Hold on to that thought for a bit.
Now the talents, they’re not abilities or gifts, and they aren’t simply money. The Gospel parable says the Master called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. What we have translated “entrusted” here means, in the original Greek, something more like “handed over.” In just the same way, God the Father “handed over” his only Son to us, for the salvation of the whole world. What could possibly be worth more than that?
Now the slaves of course are the disciples, they’re you and me, people of every time and place who Christ has come to save. We are slaves to sin, and we need a redeemer. Some are more open to redemption and to the work of Christ and the call of the Gospel. They might get five talents or ten, or however many God chooses to give them. These go forth into the world, pouring out those riches of Christ into a world that desperately needs salvation, healing and hope. As that message goes forth, proclaimed and lived by disciples ready to embrace it, they are able to earn five more, or ten more, to double or even triple what they were given for the sake of the kingdom.
But some are not as open to Christ’s life and work and Gospel. There’s too much at stake. They worry about what might happen if our world totally embraced Jesus’ teaching. They can’t get past what discipleship might personally cost them. And in Matthew’s Gospel, this is the cardinal sin, because in at least a dozen places, Jesus says “do not be afraid” in one form or another. That was Jesus’ message in Matthew’s Gospel, and so this third servant, who was afraid of what the Master might be like, buried his treasure out of fear. And the parable points out that that fear wasn’t even reasonable, since he dealt so wonderfully with the other two servants, rewarding their work by calling them to share in his joy.
So today’s Gospel is a summary of the whole Gospel of Matthew that we’ve been reading with the Church this year. We are told that the greatest gift is Christ, that we are called to live the Gospel, that we must take up the task before us without being afraid, that we are called to go out and invest Christ’s presence into a world that always needs to be renewed. As we come here on this second-to-last Sunday of the Church year, we are brought to this little summary so that we might look back and see how we’ve done that this year. Have we treasured Christ as the greatest of all that we have been given? Have we taken on the mission without being afraid, knowing that the gift we have been given in Christ can make up for anything that we ourselves may lack? Have we accepted that wonderful gift and invested it in the world, proclaiming the Gospel by the way that we live, challenging the corner of the world in which we live to take it up also, so that we might bring back another five or ten or a million talents?
Or have we been afraid, thinking that the Master is demanding beyond reason, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of what living the Gospel would mean for us, afraid of what it might cost us? Because if we have lived this way, we have failed the mission. Everything we have will be taken from us. There will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Here at the end of this Church year, we can renew our commitment, make a new year’s resolution, if you will, to live the Gospel and proclaim the kingdom in the year ahead. It doesn’t have to be huge. It doesn’t cost us anything, because everything that we need has been given to us. Maybe proclaiming the Gospel means doing some kind of service for us. Reaching out at a homeless shelter or at a soup kitchen or our own food pantry. Maybe we’ll help teach a religious education class, or sing in the choir, or become a lector. Maybe we’ll make an effort every day to put prayer in the course of our work day, and try to be people of integrity in our business lives. Maybe we’ll read the Scriptures each day before we go to bed, even just a few verses, so that the Lord can change our lives and our hearts. Throughout this Church year, we have received the greatest gift we’ll ever get – Jesus Christ the Lord himself. Soon it will be time for us to bring back the gift with interest, taking a world of watching people with us. The Psalmist sings of our reward today: “For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork; blessed shall you be, and favored.” Come, share your Master’s joy!