19 November 2017
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28A (RCL)
1 Thessalonians 5:1-7
This parable sticks uncomfortably in our craw. If we are to read it as an allegory, with the man going on the journey as God, we get a picture of God as judgmental and even vengeful: take the talent away from him who has one and give it to him who has ten. We react strongly against this image of God.
As well we should. That may, in fact, be the point of the parable. It gives us two images of the master of the household, as extremely generous and as extremely judgmental. Which is it? As the master prepares for his journey, he ‘hands over’ his belongings to his slaves. The verb, paradidomi, means to hand over, or to betray – the Gospel writers use for Jesus being handed over to the authorities. The master surrenders his belongings to his slaves.
And it is no small amount. A talent is about 75 pounds (as in weight, not money), and used as a measure of money, it means 75 pounds of silver – roughly 6000 denarii, or thirty years of wages at minimum wage. These servants can’t even dream of money like this.
When the master returns, and the sit down to take account, the Greek says they took up together a word; according to Liddel and Scott, only in the NT does it mean to settle an account. It means something like they sat down together and spoke. The first two servants experience the master as incredibly generous. He invites them into his joy, and presumably lets them keep the money they’ve earned (at the end of the passage, the one talent goes to the slave who already has ten – he got to keep those ten talents). The third slave experience the master as harsh and greedy.
Who is right? I think both are. Some people experience God as incredibly gracious, while others experience God as judgmental. The first live with joy in the world, the others live in great fear of damnation. If we experience God as generous, we will be happy to invest what we have in God’s economy, sharing our joy (and even our sorrows) for others good, and increase the overall supply of grace. If we live in fear, we will hoard what little joy we can find, and decrease the overall supply of grace.
I think the money economy works the same way. Some people who have wealth (of whatever form) see its value to do good, and spread it widely in the economy, increasing the overall supply of goods. Others will hoard what they have so it can do good for no one else. The question, then, is what is in exchange in the economies in which we participate. The slave who received only one talent was judged by his own attitude; he saw the master as harsh, so he was. That was the judgment. If we see God as stingy, we will punish ourselves.
We also try to limit where God can sow God’s graces – you gather where you did not scatter seed. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages us to be complete as your heavenly Father is complete, for God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust and causes the sun to shine on the good and evil. How can we be jealous of the ‘success’ or joy of others, when it is God who gives all joy.
This parable comes immediately on the heels of the parable of the 10 virgins. Having a flask of oil means being prepared to see grace whenever and wherever it happens. If we learn to be watchful for grace, we will be ready to invest the grace we have been given in the greater economy, and so have it come back to us manyfold.