The Reverend Kathleen Killian, Celebrant
Proper 28A Sunday Nov. 15, 2020
Diamond in the Rough
Our gospel passage for today is one of the last parables that Jesus told, a small story with a large point. But what is the point of the Parable of the Talents? I’ve heard that parables are like diamonds, which depending on the way they are turned and looked at, reflect a light or reveal a truth unique to that angle. The whole truth or the whole of Jesus’s teachings are neither contained within a single parable nor meant to be—the word parable literally meaning “a throwing alongside” of things. Set side by side, these small stories that Jesus often told can seem opposed or at odds with each other.
Indeed, I wrestled over the Parable of the Talents this week, to try and make sense of what seems at odds with who Jesus is. He tells this parable in a highly charged atmosphere: he has just delivered an excoriating sevenfold indictment of the scribes and Pharisees’s gross hypocrisy, greed, and willful lack of repentance (Matthew 23:13– 29), and is soon to pass over the dangerous and painful threshold of the cross. As he faces his own end, he speaks to the end of time and his Second Coming, of the Great Tribulation and the Last Judgment (Matthew 24). Heavy stuff. Uncomfortable stuff.
Like Jesus, we will one day face our own death, and so too will face the final end of this great cosmic drama in which we are all players. And so we must ask: are we the first servant who has been given five talents, or the second with two or the third who has one? Who do we want to be?
But before answering, let’s turn the diamond of this parable around and look at it from different angles. Perhaps most often gleaned is the message of stewardship: to be good and trustworthy stewards of what God has given us—whether one, two, or five talents—and not bury our gifts and abilities but shine, share, and grow them—a worthy reflection, to be sure.
Another facet of the story reveals the master’s or God’s extraordinary generosity to entrust us with so much. We’re to act the same: generously, boldly, and with great trust even at risk of self, in imitation of Jesus’s life, which was nothing if not a whole-hearted high-risk venture in which he gambled everything and lost everything. Western Christianity, however, is for the most part no longer such a high-risk proposition. Many of us simply seek to live a moderate and well-balanced life—one with not too much sin—or too much good.
But I do wonder if I might be more like Deborah from our Old Testament passage, “wife of Lappidoth”—it means “woman of fire” (Judges 4:1-7). Can we imagine ourselves “on fire” under the palm tree of truth, prophesying the Spirit and speaking the same to the powers at be? Might we be less fearful in Jesus’s mission of new life for all? How deeply do I trust in God? Or rather ,do I ask God to show me the money?
When Jesus told this parable, the word “talent” indeed meant money, money only, and a whole lot of it, like a lot of bags of silver and gold. Even one single talent would have equaled about twenty years of a laborer’s wage, a relative absurdity, and the better to get your attention, which Jesus’s listeners got in the hyperbole of his throwing together of things.
But by the 15th century, the word “talent” came to be understood differently and is no longer used to mean money, but rather gifts, abilities and personal resources, like having a talent for music or sports or hospitality. The lectionary has given the church this parable in what is often stewardship season, and unfortunately, at times in the wider church, it has been coopted in the name of prosperity preaching: the more money one gives to the church or even a cause, the more blessing is received from God; like the first and second servant who doubled God’s investment, so the master’s favor is bestowed upon them. Prosperity preaching turns punitive—because we’d best do the same or else, like the good-for-nothing servant, be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But everyone listening to Jesus would have known how such impressive returns were made. Money was lent to subsistence farmers at exorbitant interest rates, a practice which made the rich richer and the poor poorer. If any church treasurer announced that investments had doubled in a year, I would hope that it would raise suspicions about how the heck this happened: is there a high-stakes poker game going on in the back room of the parish hall?
I cannot image Jesus or God—the supposed master in the story—applauding this practice or saying to anyone: you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. Because this is the same Jesus, poor himself, who says to the rich young man: if you wish to follow me, sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor (Matthew 19:211); and, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24); who overturns the tables of the money-lenders in the temple (Matthew 21:12-13), who challenges the elite ruling class and champions the oppressed and underprivileged; who says blessed are the poor, blessed are those who hunger, blessed are the persecuted (Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12).
Could it be that the third servant who buried his money in the ground—a common and honest practice in ancient Israel—might be the only one who refuses to play the game, who stands up to a corrupt system, who won’t make money off the backs of others? Of course he’d be thrown out of the master’s house! Like Jesus was from the house of the world, whipped for standing up to hypocrisy and greed, and thrown into the outer darkness of the cross for speaking truth to power, for refusing to do evil and admitting only to love.
Immediately following the Parable of the Talents, Jesus goes on to tell another story, about the sorting of the sheep and the goats that will take place at the Last Judgement and is next Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 25: 31-46). The English translation leaves out one perhaps vital word as it’s found in the Greek, which is the word “but” at the very beginning of the passage: But, when the son of man comes in glory escorted by this angels, he will separate out the sheep from the goats, the blessed from the cursed.
In this light, might we consider: But, despite being thrown into outer darkness, the son of man will gather up the third servant, the lost and least of the three. Perhaps he is a blessed sheep rather than a cursed goat, who will be gathered up into Jesus’ arms and God’s kingdom where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the stranger is welcomed, and the sick and imprisoned are cared for (Matthew 25:31-46). Maybe, in the small story of the talents, Jesus is pointing to the large-scale and corrupt reality of economic oppression that is not of God’s kingdom, whose economy is one of justice, mercy, and love.
Whether we look at the Parable of the Talents through the lens of the poor and liberation theology, from a social and historical or purely personal perspective, both clarity and ambiguity are revealed. I for one am still wrestling over the ambiguous fate of all three servants, not to mention my own. But what is clear is that the faithful are called to be what we are: faithful: ever receptive and responsive to the presence and word of God. As we prayed first thing this morning: Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.
Thus Jesus sounds the clarion call to vigilance, for in this and every moment of time and breath is the Holy One, and at the end of time and breath is the Holy One. Let us pray with St. Paul for the strength to keep awake (Thessalonians 5:6).
Perhaps the kingdom of Heaven is like the diamond of the parable itself; “already” thrown alongside “not yet,” its multifaceted light shining now but not yet fully revealed.