Pentecost 23: 16 November Matthew 25:14-30
Talents! Talent quests! This passage has left its mark on our language and culture in a big way. It will have formed part of the Q collection, but has undergone significant change. Luke's version of the parable is in 19:12-27. There each servant is given 10 minas. A mina was worth about 100 denarii and a denarius about a day's living wage. Only Matthew's version speaks of talents. A talent was around 6000 denarii. So the first servant was given 30000 denarii. That is a hefty sum! What would it convert to in terms of a day's wage times 30000 today? $5m? Matthew - spinning a yarn! - but seriously.
Talent has so much become part of our vocabulary as a term for natural abilities, that we usually miss the point that the parable is talking about money and what you can do with it. The ancient world did not have our complex finance markets, but it knew about investments and profit. Many of Jesus' parables reflect economic practices of the day and how they affected people. People would know what you could do with such a sum. Money was powerful then, too.
The first parable used the image of oil to light lamps. This parable uses the image of money and what it can achieve. Just as in the first parable the oil comes close to being a description for the Spirit, so here the money is an image for what is potent in the kingdom and for the kingdom. It may also be seen as a way of talking about the Spirit or at least about the life of God within us. It is slightly missing the point to think it is talking about how we use our various natural abilities (talents in the modern sense). It has more to do with how we allow the life of God to flow through us - because it is powerful- like money!
There is a sting in the tail of the parable. The person who refused to let the money work identifies his fears. The owner reaps where he has not sown and gathers harvest that was not originally his. A pretty good description of hard business practice in any age. Fear of being abandoned seems to motivate burying the talents. Matthew's community might think of the controversy over the expansion of the gospel into the Gentile world and the refusal of some Jews to accept that the doors should be flung open so recklessly. God is misbehaving again and they cannot believe it and refuse to support the adventure. In typically Matthean style the text promises only damnation for such lack of trust.
The parable challenges us not to sit on the life of God in us. That is a variant on the Matthean theme of keeping the oil in supply, living from the life of God and not sitting back in complacency on the basis of status or, here, not snuffing out the flame because our narrow values will not allow us to keep up with God's generosity.
If the modern use of talents has any relation to the text, it is at the level of allowing God's life do its adventures with us and putting our talents (our natural abilities) at God's disposal. The talents of the parable are really about God's life and power, not about our natural abilities. But the appropriate response is to allow God's investing hand to employ our abilities.
The tragedy is that many people are afraid of losing or endangering God and so seek to protect God from adventures, to resist attempts at radical inclusion that might, they fear, compromise God's purity and holiness. Protecting God is a variant of not trusting God. Matthew wants his hearers to share God's adventure of inclusiveness. God is bigger than our religious industry. Sometimes we find God is pulling in great profits in areas which we had deemed beyond God's interests. It is a fascinating thing to have God compared to the entrepreneurial multimillionaire. "God's mercy never ends" is a way of saying grace has capital, love is rich. We need to encourage people to stop putting God under the mattress. As we begin to trust allowing God to move through us, our lives change as individuals and our communities have a better chance of change. There are rich pickings, so to speak, and the harvest is ripe.
Epistle: Pentecost 23: 16 November 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
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