Matthean version of the Parable of the Talents
In these days of higher interest rates, many people have been asking the question “where would it be best to invest our savings?” We are, of course, very fortunate if that’s a question for us since many people have no savings to invest. I remember some years ago checking out the website of a major British bank, which shall remain nameless, where you could only get at information about savings accounts and interest rates by first answering a series of intrusive questions. “None of your business” was my immediate reaction to that exercise – but I had no trouble whatsoever in deciding what sort of saver I am. I plumped for the cautious option.
Today’s Gospel – the Parable of the Talents – reads like the story of an over-cautious investor and seems to paint a picture of a scarily judgemental God. It’s one of a series of parables in which Jesus is explaining what the kingdom of heaven will be like, and most people down the centuries have assumed that God is there in the parable – that God is the master who goes away on a journey, leaving his three servants in charge of his wealth.
It's important to bear in mind that Jesus’ style of storytelling was vivid, and that he sometimes made use of hyperbole – he exaggerated to make the story more emphatic. It’s also important not to take the story out of the context of Jesus’ whole teaching about God. Keep in mind that he told his friends that God, mindful of the fall of every sparrow, was far more mindful of their needs and problems. Keep in mind also one of his most memorable stories – the loving father who welcomes home the prodigal son without a word of blame or criticism. I don’t think that the point of this story is that we should think of God as the master who condemns the cautious and fearful servant who has buried his share of the money.
A talent was a vast sum of money. The best way of explaining it is to think about how many years of a labourer’s pay it amounted to, and the answer is twenty years. Expressed in terms of someone in Scotland working a forty-hour week on the National Minimum Wage for twenty years, a single talent equals £433,472 at 2023 values. The employer in Jesus’ story is therefore a very trusting person. Between them, the three slaves are entrusted with almost £3.5 million. These facts may help us to understand what is at first reading a puzzling parable.
I say puzzling because at first reading the master in the story seems harsh and judgemental and that’s not the God whom I encounter in Jesus Christ. I don’t believe that God “reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he did not scatter?”
Perhaps the question we need to ask of this story is “For what is the servant being condemned?” On the face of it, it looks as though he is being condemned for failing to make a profit. Read a little more carefully and you’ll see that isn’t the case. The failure of the cautious servant wasn’t a failure to make money for his master. Rather it was that he had a fearful and negative view of his master.
Anyone who has watched small children develop knows that the child who is able to take risks and become more adventurous is the child who is secure in her or his parents’ love. The third servant was paralyzed by fear of his master and was completely unable to take risks. And it is that fearful view of his master for which he is condemned. So we have two kinds of servant here – the first two know that their master is generous and kind, that he trusts them rather than micro-managing them, that he wants them to be free to take risks and that he will reward them generously for making good use of their freedom. The third servant has a false image of the master – he imagines him to be hard and unreasonable in his demands. He is afraid of the master, and his fear paralyses him.
So today’s Gospel asks us the question – “What’s your image of God?” Is it a loving heavenly Father who gives you the gift of freedom and wants you to venture into the world, to take risks and to make yourself and your talents available to others? Or is it a stern disciplinarian – a very demanding parent who is quick to punish? The latter image is unhealthy and unhelpful because it makes people fearful and cautious and fear and caution are the very opposite of what Christianity, the faith into which Zoe will shortly be baptized, is about.
It's helpful to know that our English word “talent” is derived from the Greek word talanton that the Gospel writer uses. We are all blessed with God-given talents and part of the adventure on which Zoe has embarked is the adventure of discovering, with the help of Katie and Drummond and her Godparents, what her talents are. May she enjoy them in the freedom that God gives her. May she never think of God as an exacting disciplinarian but rather as the loving and generous source of her existence and the existence of everyone and everything. The call of Jesus is not a call to be cautious and to obey the rules, but rather a call to the kind of love and outreach that Jesus himself practised, a call to engage with the world and to use our God-given talents to make it the place of love and acceptance that God means it to be.