Sermon for 28th Sunday after Pentecost – O those talented slaves…

Readings for today

One of the marvelous aspects of Jesus teaching throughout scripture is that it is generally in the form of parables… Marvelous and frustrating. It’s marvelous because parables don’t go out of date. And frustrating because there is always ambiguity in a parable – even those that seem to have a nice little summary of the meaning at the end. The parable we heard this morning is one that has shaped us in ways we may hardly realize.  

We hear of a very wealthy man who, before going away for a long trip gives certain amounts of money over to three of his slaves. And the parable seems to concern itself with how the slaves proceed. 

Part of the ambiguity of a parable is that we can look at what the parable might have meant when it was told – in that time, in that place, and to that audience. We can also look at what it means to us, in this time, in this place. Both ways of understanding are important, but the second one may be the most important. It focuses us on what we are going to do in response. 

So, lets dig in. 

We’re told that this person is very wealthy, but we may not get just how wealthy he is. He seems to be dispensing money in the unit of talents… It’s a bit confusing because a talent is a unit of weight, not of money. So, it’s like he’s handing out 500 Kg of Rands… The important thing is it’s a lot of money… 

For perspective, scholars estimate a talent would be roughly equal to fifteen years of wages for the typical laborer. So, for the first slave who receives 5 talents, that is 75 years of average income – more money than most folks would see in their entire life. Today it would be equal to about twenty million Rands. It’s not an inconceivable amount of money, but it’s a lot… 

For slave number 2, who got 2 talents, that’s about 4 million Rands – which is still a big chunk of money. Slave number 3 receives about 2 million Rands. That is about 8 years of average wages.  

The parable picks up an interesting extra bit of resonance for us because the word “talent” has a precise meaning in English – it’s a God-given or natural ability. Talent, when combined with discipline or focus, is a most powerful thing. A great painter has to possess both talent and discipline. A great musician has to possess both talent and discipline.  

Talent, in the time of Jesus, did not have this meaning – it was just a certain weight. But our word “talent” in fact comes from this parable. The talents in this story are understood to be gifts from God – perhaps not by theologians, but at some organic level by the masses of English speakers – I would suggest there is also some inspiration from God… 

Now you can see how the parable understood in Jesus’ time begins to diverge from our modern, English-based understanding… Or our modern German-based understanding… Or our modern Afrikaans-based understanding. So, while folks in Jesus time may have understood this gift of talents as just a startling amount of money, in our modern world we seem to naturally understand the implication that we are talking about gifts, abilities, from God. 

Another important way in which the understanding, then to now, seems to diverge is in the way the economy works. We live in a world where the amount of money in circulation can change fairly easily. When something like COVID-19 strikes, governments across the planet ink up the printing presses and make more money. But in Jesus’ time there was no easy increase in the supply of money. You want more coins; you need more gold or silver…  

They lived in a world with a fixed amount of wealth. When we hear that two of these slaves doubled their money in fairly short order, we may be impressed, but not shocked. In Jesus day it simply was not possible. There was no equivalent of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Doubling your money would be nothing short of a miracle. 

One of the things about this parable that has bothered me over the years is the missing slave… the fourth slave… the one who made poor investment choices and lost it all. Why is that piece missing – since we know in our world that a high return on investment means that you must take a big risk. Where is the spectacular failure? 

Over time I’ve come to understand something… This is not a parable about investment strategies… It’s not even a parable about the way this world works. It’s a parable about God. When God has given us various gifts, the only way to fail is to refuse to risk using those gifts. That is the third slave. His God-given talents may not have been so great, but for reasons of fear, or perhaps laziness, he didn’t use them. He literally buried his talents. He refused a gift from God. 

We all have gifts from God, talents… They vary a great deal in type and in size. Some of us are meant to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and others in the shower… but we are meant to sing. Some of us are meant to win gold medals at the Olympics and others to walk slowly with someone who cannot walk by themselves. In fact, I don’t think God cares one little, tiny bit how we use the gifts we are given. But I do think God cares a great deal that we use our gifts for something. 

When we use our God-given abilities to our best ability, God is honored. Can we misuse our God-given abilities? Yes – and that is called evil. It’s not addressed in this parable – but we know it’s there…  

The call of this parable is to let go of fear… to risk to use our gifts. We’ve known since Adam and Eve were in the garden how to tell good from evil. So, the risk is not that we will do something evil without knowing. The risk is that fear will inhibit us from living into the generous gifts of a loving God.  

There is a little sleight of hand in the story that almost escapes notice… Slaves 1 and 2 return their talents to God – but when Slave 3’s talents are taken away, they are given to Slave 1, who still has all the talents he brought back. It seems God has not taken back the talents… While Slave 3 has accused the master of being quite greedy, it appears in fact he is rather profligate. This tells us something about God’s boundless love.  

This parable of risk-taking and generous spirit feels especially relevant today. This COVID-ravaged world is in desperate need of an outpouring of God’s generous love, and this is among the gifts we have been given. So, let us find the courage to risk living into this gift. 

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