16 November 2014
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28A (RCL)
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
This is another one of those parables no one likes: the master, who is God if we read this allegorically, turns out to be a mean guy. The poor slave who buried the talent in the ground gets thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. To which we say, “The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Christ.” Matthew’s Gospel has a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth — there must have been some conflict which necessitated drawing the boundaries of the community very tightly. The parable of the tenants and the vineyard, the parable of the wedding feast and the parable of the bridesmaids all make a distinction between who is in and who is out. Again, the parable of the talents makes the same point.
But here, the judgment really happens before the master returns. The slaves who receive the five and two talents are excited by the trust. And talent here doesn’t mean skill or ability (although this parable is where that use of this word comes from in English). A talent was an amount of silver, equal to about fifteen years wages at the minimum wage of the day. So the slave who receives the five talents receives 75 years income in one lump sum. Even the slave who receives the one talent receives 15 years wages in one lump sum. What would you do with fifteen years wages?
The slave who received the five talents immediately sets off on a journey (that’s the meaning of word in Greek that says he went off at once) to use his windfall to make more (there weren’t stockbrokers back then — you had to invest your money in your own schemes). Likewise the second slave sets out on a venture. The third slave is afraid, and knows that his master will require the talent back. The judgment is in the attitude of the slaves toward their master. It’s the same master, so one wonders why the different attitudes, but the parable won’t allow us to psychologize. The first two slave see this as an opportunity of grace; the third slave sees it as a likely moment of judgment, and so it is.
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is dealing with the delay of the parousia. He had expected Jesus to come back any moment, and here it is twenty years later. But, don’t worry, he writes, the day is coming like a thief in the night. The delay is just so we won’t be complacent. But God has not destined us to wrath. At the moment, we are living in a city on edge, waiting for “the day” when the grand jury announcement comes down. We can see this as a moment of grace, or a moment of judgment. It has been reported that the St. Louis County Police have spent $100,000 on tear gas and rubber bullets in anticipation of “the day.” This seems like burying the talent in the ground, and refusing to take the risk of the journey to make the city a better place. It would be very hard to shift our way of thinking around to see this opportunity as an amazing gift given, but the first two slaves see their opportunity that way. What are we going to do with what we’ve got?
One might compare the gifts of the talents to the privilege we enjoy in our secure suburb. What will we do with it? If we bury it in the ground, and don’t use it for the larger good, we will find ourselves outside, weeping and grinding teeth.