Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost; 15 November 2020; Proper 28A (RCL); Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30.
Here’s another parable, the ending of which we don’t like very much. Take the one talent away from this slave and give it to the one who has ten. To those who have more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away. This sounds too much like the way the world already works to be the punch line of a parable of Jesus.
A talent was a lot of money — about 75 pounds of silver, worth six thousand denarii, or twenty years wages for the average worker. So, five talents is 100 years wages. It would be really easy for us, who live in a capitalist world, to distort this parable to mean that we should invest our money and make more money, and God will be pleased with us when we do. And the punch line would imply that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and God approves. This sounds suspiciously like the prosperity gospel.
So, what’s really going on? Parables are notoriously hard to pin down — that’s the point. But this master has eight talents — he’s a wealthy man, far richer than anyone Jesus’ hearers would be likely to know. Part of the point of the story is just the huge amount of money involved.
In that regard, it reminds us of the story of the slave who owed his king 10,000 talents, who forgives the man when he can’t repay. That same slave strangles a fellow-slave for the debt of 100 denarii. That parable directs the attention away from what is owed to the Roman Empire — the crushing tax debt on the land — and back toward how we live the covenant with our neighbors.
In this parable, when the first slave returns the ten talents, the master commends him for having been faithful in a few things, and places him in charge of many things. This calls into question what we consider much and little. What is it we have been given much of? We need to be faithful with that.
And what is faithfulness? The two slaves who use their master’s money to make more put it out there into the economy. Even the frightened slave could have invested it with the bankers, who could have loaned it and made interest. Living in a capitalist society, we can only think of currency in terms of money, and can only think of relationships in terms of transactions. This parable raises the question of what currencies really matter.
And once we have determined what we’re rich in, what we have been given a lot of, our attitude toward the giver matters — are we expansive or fearful? Do we think the giver desires us to put that currency out into the economy, or do we think the giver will demand it back? Is the game open sum, or zero sum?
Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians lines up with the parable. As we await the return of the king, we should be building each other up, not waiting in terror, for fear we will do something wrong in the meantime. The prospect of the kingdom should give joy, rather than fear.