The Talent of Paying Attention – Matthew 25:14-30
"For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, "Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, "Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 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. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
We tell stories to convey truths that cannot be expressed in numbers and facts. Stories transport us beyond the limited scope of our personal experiences. The issue, however, with many stories in the Judeo-Christian scriptures is that they reference people, situations, and cultural norms that are foreign to us. So any hopeful message about todays’ gospel story has to revisit some of the subtle and easily-misunderstood elements of the story. Here’s what is going on:
The master is going away.
- This echoes the parable immediately prior to this one, where the bridgeroom is away for most of the parable.
- Jesus tells these parables to his disciples with his betrayal and crucifixion firmly in view.
- These parables are of particular interest to Matthew because of how his group of Christ-followers have become quite antsy awaiting Christ’s return.
The three slaves are not all equal in terms of ability.
- The highest ability slave is entrusted with 5 talents
- The medium-ability slave is entrusted with 2 talents
- The lowest-ability slave is given 1 talent
What’s a talent?
- a sum of money equal to 15-20 years of wages for labor
- shows us that the master is very generous (or at least very trusting of his slaves)
While the master is gone away “for a long time”….
- the slaves with 5 and 2 talents trade them and end up with double what they started with. Those are all the details we’re given.
- The lowest-ability slave does not double the talent by trading it; but instead buries it in the ground.
- Financially speaking, it’s not the most irresponsible thing one can do. At least he didn’t spend it, gamble it away, lose it on an ill-fated investment, or walk around with a giant purse of money hanging from his belt.
- He returns the one talent to the master.
- In many respects, he was responsible with his money.
- This, combined with the fact that we don’t have any details about what the other servants did with their money, means that this parable is not about money, stewardship, financial investments, or personal wealth.
This is not a parable about money; rather, it is a parable about the consequences of what we believe. Jesus wants his disciples to live lives informed by hope and trust that the kingdom of heaven is how our world works.
The third slave made a poor decision. Jesus says the slave buried it because he was afraid. The slave was motivated by fear because he understood his master as a wicked man who was quick to punish anyone who did wrong.
Which begs the question, “Why weren’t the first two slaves afraid?” Why did they have the courage and confidence and freedom to do the right thing with the gifts their master gave them?
When we look at the God whom Jesus reveals in his teachings, we realize the two slaves were not afraid of the master because they had been paying attention. They knew the master. They knew that he was joyful, not harsh. They knew he was generous, not greedy. The first two slaves were not motivated by fear, they were motivated by gratitude and love for their master. Their actions were rooted in a belief of the master’s promises and as a result were invited to share in the joy of the master.
This good news makes the story of the third slave that much more tragic. If only he had known his master better, if only he had paid enough attention to realize that his master was joyful and generous, then he too could have shared in that joy and generosity. But instead, the master returns and is perplexed and disappointed with the slaves actions, effectively saying, “Your impression of me as a harsh, unjust person is not only wrong, but has caused you to miss out on the joys of life. Instead, now your life is characterized by weeping and worrying.”
Through this parable Jesus is reminding us of the power of our perception.
Some perceive God as loving and kind; for others God is stern and judgmental.
For some God is protective; for others God is always on the verge of anger.
For some God is patient and long-suffering; while for others God is impatient and dour.
How we perceive God has a direct relationship to how we actually experience God’s presence in our lives.
If you think God is angry and unjust, it is likely that you will engage in the world with a spirit of fear and distrust. If you think God is forgiving, gracious, and loving; then you will be more likely to experience God’s forgiveness, grace, and love. Your beliefs have real and inevitable consequences.
The truth about God’s nature is that God loves us deeply. God loves us so much that God will come in the person of Jesus and take on our lot and our life, sharing our hopes and dreams, fears and failures. And God loves us so much that Jesus will willingly suffer death on the cross in order to show us the end result of our sin and misguided beliefs.
I hope you know that it is not too late for you to change your perception of God.
Some of you grew up with an understanding that God is wrathful, vengeful, and something to be feared. Some of you were raised with a faith that taught you you could never be certain of where you stood with God; a belief that your actions could cause God to take away any number of promised gifts, namely the privilege of spending eternity worshipping this flippant, angry God who requires the blood sacrifice of his own Son to open the gates of heaven in the first place. That’s not a God who deserves to be followed. That’s not what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Our world doesn’t need any more people running around thinking they’re in with God at the expense of others who are beyond God’s gracious and loving reach. Our world doesn’t need any more people hiding their gifts and resources out of misplaced fear and a desire to maintain the status quo.
Rather, the kingdom of heaven is like people who have been entrusted with a generous gift from God and are guided to boldly share their gifts with others because in sharing they experience God’s miraculous abundance and live a joyful life.
We are rapidly approaching the season of Advent – the annual opportunity set aside for us to anticipate the arrival of something new, wonderful, and divine. What would it take for you to engage in the season of Advent with the expectation that God would reveal God’s self to you as more loving, gracious than you have previously imagined? What fears and false images of God need to be cast aside so that you will finally be able to love yourself and others?
Maybe it means turning off cable news or social media.
Maybe it means reading scripture alongside someone (your pastor?) or something (a helpful book like Rob Bell's What is the Bible?) that can help you see that it is all good news.
Maybe it means gathering here to be surrounded by people who ask the same questions and have the same fears as you.
Maybe it means going to counseling in order to address your fears and ager (use this search tool to find a therapist, psychologist, or counselor near you).
Maybe it means getting out of the church building and bringing the church to people in the most need.
Please take the time to think about who/what you believe God to be. Articulating your beliefs is the essential first step towards discovering the God of love and becoming a source of love for the world.