Talk on Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25. 14-30 - The Parable of the Bags of Gold (or The Parable of the Talents)

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This parable is a bit like the TV programme,  ‘The Apprentice’, featuring Lord Sugar who either tells contestants, ‘You’re fired’ or invites them to become his business partner. In either case it’s about the money, obviously.

I say obviously, but that’s not necessarily the case. The story is best known as the Parable of the Talents.  The problem is that when we hear the word ‘talent’ we think of anything that we show an aptitude or gift for: ‘she has a real talent for teaching’; ‘he has a talent for listening to people.’ Our English word comes from the Greek word talanton, but for Greek speakers a talanton wasn’t a gift, it was a unit of money. So rather confusingly the story can seem to be about people’s gifts, their talents, whereas when Jesus told it he was talking quite specifically about money (lots of money: a talent was worth about 20 years of a day labourer’s wage).

I make this point so that we don’t water down the story and reduce its impact. In the New Testament Jesus talks more about money than he does about prayer. Why? I suspect because money is so important to us, and constantly tries to become a god, taking God’s place. It’s therefore really important that we allow Jesus’ teaching to reach us in the form it appears in the Bible.

So, back to this story. It comes in a chunk of teaching that Jesus is giving about his return. We’re about to enter Advent, when we prepare ourselves to hear again the events of Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, and remind ourselves that he will come again. Jesus leaves us with a number of stories, warning us that we need to be ready for his return.

There’s a T-shirt you may have seen, ‘Jesus is coming - look busy’ which picks up this idea. (It also features in a hilarious way in the first Jonny English film with Rowan Atkinson.) 

In the story a rich man is going away for a while, and calls together his three servants. He gives each of them a large amount of money. The story doesn’t say that he told them to do anything with the money, but the fact that he gave the three different amounts ‘according to their ability’ suggests he expected them to do something with it. And indeed that’s what happens. The first who received five bags of gold ‘put his money to work’. Perhaps today he would have invested it on the stock market, or in property development, or gone onto ‘Dragons’ Den’.  Whatever he did it worked; he doubled his money. The second with two bags did the same, putting his money to work and doubling it. The third could not have acted more differently, digging a hole and hiding the money. 

The servants had no idea when the master of the house would return, but return he does ‘after a long time’. He’s thrilled to hear that two of his servants have doubled the money he entrusted them with. Having seen what they did with ‘a few things’ he promotes them both, using exactly the same words, to be ‘in charge of many things’.  He declares the reason he’s doing this is because they are ‘faithful’ servants who’ve been ‘faithful’ with the money with which they’ve been entrusted. Moreover, he invites them to share his happiness or joy. This is a time for celebration.

Now the atmosphere changes. Servant number three steps forward, and justifies why he didn’t put to work the money with he was entrusted. His justification rests on his assessment of his master’s character; it’s a real ad hominem attack. In an extraordinary outburst he tells his master to his face that he is a ‘hard man’ (the word translated hard is the one from which we get ‘sclerotic’) who gains wealth in ways that he doesn’t deserve. Consequently, the servant says, he was ‘afraid’ and went and hid the money in the ground. When I read this part of the story I have a chilling experience of the atmosphere shrivelling up, the interaction between servant and master anything but celebratory. All the joy has been squeezed out.

Unsurprisingly the master is furious. He doesn’t attempt to refute the allegations made against him, and instead plays the servant at his own game. He tells the servant that if he believed this about his master, as a minimum he should have put the money in the bank to earn interest. Instead he’s been ‘wicked and lazy’, and the money he had is given to the most able servant who had been given the five bags of gold in the first place. Being ‘worthless’ the third servant is sent out into the darkness.

Quite a story! And as I said at the start, in many ways it’s puzzling. As I’ve wrestled with it this week, the main point that’s emerged for me goes something like this:

How often do we as the church find ourselves talking about money? We’re constantly worrying about raising money to pay the parish share, to keep the building in good repair, to pay the bills. All five churches in our benefice have these same concerns, and many give sacrificially to meet them. You may be tempted to say, ‘Donald, of course we talk a lot about money - ‘twas ever thus. Money’s important. It’s a struggle to raise it. I wish we didn’t spend so much time talking and worrying about it, but what else are we supposed to do?’ I wonder if this story is challenging us to change the way we think. Let me explain:

Although puzzling, the story seems to be clear in portraying the first two servants in a positive light, and the third in a negative light.  There’s something effortlessly positive and expansive about the actions of the first two servants, and something of Eeyore - pessimistic and gloomy - about the third.  Surely we want to be like the first two! The difference between the servants lies in the way they thought about their master and therefore what they did with the money he’d entrusted to them. It also led to two very different outcomes, one of rejoicing, the other of separation.

The question the story asks of us is this: which servant are we like when it comes to the church and money? Too often I suspect we think of the God we serve, not as the creator of the universe with limitless resources, in whose presence we can have confidence and know the freedom to take risks (as with a good earthly boss); but more as a distant, rather unloving figure of whom we’re somewhat afraid, who’s very frugal if not mean, who’s gone away and isn’t coming back.

But what if we caught a fresh, expanded vision of God, and became more like the first two servants? Then we might think of money in a new way, as something entrusted to us by a trusting and good master, who wants to rejoice with him as co-workers in his church?

Or, to put it in more worldly terms, we’ll hear the words, ‘you’re hired’, not ‘you’re fired’.




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Page last updated: 15th November 2020 1:40 PM