Hidden Talent

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 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.’  21His 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.’  22 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.’  23 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.’  24 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;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  26 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?  27 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.  28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 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.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I saw a video of a painting not long ago that was nothing short of mind-boggling.  It was a painting by Spanish artist Sergi Cadenas who has developed a technique that allows him to paint multiple images on the same canvas so that if you view the painting from one angle you see one thing but if you see it from a different angle you see something completely different.  For instance, in the first painting of his that I saw when you view the left side you see a portrait of a young woman but as you move to the right you see her age and when you come all the way to the right side of the painting, you see her as an old woman.  In another one of his paintings you see Marilyn Monroe transition into Albert Einstein as you move from left to right.  What you see depends entirely on where you stand.

Sometimes the parables of Jesus are like that.  Mark Allen Powell once talked about how his students in different countries interpreted the Parable of the Prodigal Son very differently.  When he asked his students, “Why did the prodigal have nothing to eat?”  His students in Tanzania replied, “Because no one gave him anything.” To them the idea that no one would give a hungry person something to eat was a shocking element in the story.   His students in St. Petersburg in Russia replied, “Because there was a famine in the land.”  They still had a cultural memory of the famine of World War II and that element of the story stood out to them.  His American students answered, “Because he wasted his father’s money.”  That’s the thing that stood out to them.  All of those things are in the text of the story, but people heard the same story very differently because of their history, culture and location.

“How you hear a parable has a lot to do with where you are hearing it from,” said Barbara Brown Taylor.  The same parable can look different or sound different to different people depending on where they’re hearing it from.  It’s like a Sergi Cadenas painting: what you see depends on where you’re standing.

I think when it comes to this parable, the Parable of the Talents, most of us have been standing in the same spot and hearing it or seeing it pretty much the same way all of our lives.  We hear it primarily as a stewardship parable.  God, the Master, gives each of us certain gifts and resources and abilities, talents, each according to our abilities.  We’re supposed to use our talents—our resources, gifts and abilities—to build up the church and further the kingdom of God.  Someday, either when Jesus returns or when we meet our Maker, there will be an accounting, and you surely do not want to be the “wicked and lazy slave” who just buried your talent in the ground.

There are some real strengths in hearing the parable this way.  We can focus on those first two slaves who apparently have a high opinion of their master and want to follow his example.  We can put our talents to good use.  We can put our abilities to good use.  We can enlarge them.  And in the end we can be praised and rewarded for doing so.

That raises the issue of how we see and understand God and God’s generosity, and that is always a good thing for each of us to spend some time thinking about.  You’ll notice that at the beginning of the parable the Master doesn’t actually give any instructions as he doles out the money, nor does he give any warnings about consequences.  The actions the slaves take depend entirely on how well they know the master and what they think about him.  

It’s the same for us.  The actions we take or fail to take with the gifts and resources God has placed in our hands depends entirely on how well we know God, how much we trust God, how we see God, how we understand God, how much we love God.  The first two slaves have a positive opinion of their Master and act accordingly.  The third slave regards him as “a harsh man” and something of a thief and acts accordingly.  So how do you picture God?  What kind of God are you responding to as you use the talents that are at your disposal?  Are you responding in trust to a benevolent God of grace and generosity or are you responding in timid fear to a God of harsh judgment?  Or are you just obliviously toodling along in life and not giving much thought to either God or your gifts?

God gives us talents and resources to help make God’s kin-dom a reality on earth as it is in heaven and to build up the church as the nucleus of that reality.  You’ve been blessed so you can be a blessing.  And I suppose I should stop right there and ask you to get out your checkbooks and sign up to volunteer for various ministries because what I’ve said so far is pretty much the bottom line of good stewardship and we’re long overdue for a word about stewardship.  

As I implied earlier, however, there is another way to hear this parable.  There is another place to stand so that we see the story differently, but to get there we need to be reminded of a few facts.

If we’re going to try to hear this parable the way those listening to Jesus heard it, one of the first things we need to know is that a talent was a huge amount of money.  One talent was equivalent to twenty years’ wages.  So there’s a bit of shock value right at the beginning of the story.  A man going on a journey summons three slaves.  He gives the first one of the equivalent of 100 years’ wages.  He gives the next one 40 years’ wages.  The third one gets 20 years’ wages.  It’s tempting to try to calculate what that would be in our money in our time, but it’s really kind of pointless because the other differences between their culture and ours and their economy and ours are too vast for the numbers to really have any meaning.  

The next thing to know if we’re going to try to hear this the way Jesus’ audience was hearing it is that, according to Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, most people in the first century Mediterranean world had a “limited good” understanding of the world.  They believed that there was only so much of the pie to go around, so if someone had a great deal of the worlds goods it meant that someone else had been deprived.  Honorable people did not try to get more and those who did were regarded as thieves, even if their means were technically legal.  “Noblemen avoided such accusations of getting rich at the expense of others by having their affairs handled by slaves. Such behavior could be condoned in slaves, since slaves were without honor anyway.”[1]

Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23:19 expressly forbid Jews to charge interest to other Jews, although Deuteronomy 23:20 says that interest may be charged to a foreigner.  Here again the wealthy used their slaves as a bypass of the law, making loans to the poor at interest rates anywhere from 60% to as high as 200%. According to Will Herzog,[2]  the poor would put their fields up as security and when they couldn’t pay the exorbitant interest, the wealthy would take their land.  So those first century people gathered around Jesus listening to this parable would probably assume that the wealthy master and his two slaves who doubled their money had “traded” in this way.

The slave who buried his Master’s talent in the ground was actually acting in accordance with Jewish law and custom.  The Talmud states that this is the safest way to safeguard someone else’s money.  As for the suggestion the Master makes that he should have left the talent with the banker so it could have at least made some interest, a case could be made that to do so would violate Torah.

So for those listening to Jesus, the Master who is wealthy enough to hand his slaves such staggering amounts of money must be a crook because how else would he ever come by such wealth?  He gives his money to his slaves to invest because that’s what rich people do to sidestep Torah and avoid tainting their reputations any further.  Two of the slaves enter wholeheartedly into this economic scheme and manage to double their master’s money.  One can only assume, if you’re in the crowd listening to Jesus, that they did it on the backs of the poor.  

And now comes the big question.  What if the third slave—the one the master calls wicked and lazy, the one who hid the talent in the ground—what if the third slave is really the hero of the story? What if when he says, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” –what if he’s simply calling him out and telling the truth.  What if Jesus is simply saying, then and now, this is how the system works, folks.  This is what the money people do.  This is why the CEO makes 300 times what the clerk makes.

Will Herzog, Amy-Jill Levine, Malina & Rohrbaugh and others have pointed out that, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was often using parables to highlight the disparities, inequities and injustices of the political and economic systems of his time…and ours.  

And yes, the third slave is punished.  His talent is taken away and given to the one who has ten.  Even though he does the right thing, according to the Talmud, he’s thrown out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  But then a few days after telling this story, at least in Matthew’s chronology, after turning over the tables of the money changers and standing up to both political and religious authorities, Jesus, himself, is thrown to the darkness of crucifixion and death.  He will be buried like the third slave’s talent.  But he will rise again.

So how do you hear this parable now?

Do you hear it as a call to stewardship?  Do you hear it as a call to take stock of the gifts God has entrusted to you, a call to evaluate how you have been using those gifts?  That’s still a perfectly good way to hear it.

Do you hear it as an invitation to consider how you have been thinking about and seeing God and how you respond to your picture of God?

Do you hear this parable as an invitation to take another look at how our economic systems work—to look at who benefits and who gets the shaft?

There is more than one way to hear it.  There is more than one face in  this painting.

And that is so Jesus.

Regardless of how you hear it, how are you going to respond to it?


[1] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 149

[2] William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

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