A sermon preached for Preston High Street Uniting Church on 12/11/20 for the Twenty-Fourth Week after Pentecost Proper 28(33)
The Parable of the Talents is not just a disturbing story but a mysterious one. Masters and slaves, talents buried in fields rather than traded or invested in the bank, mysterious rewards and disturbing punishment… there is a lot going on.
However, at base, it asks one question which is both profound and contemporary: what do we invest our lives in?
First things first: What actually is a talent? We use the word pretty readily in day to day life – our favourite writer is talented, a painter we dislike is a talentless hack. Have you ever stopped and thought about where the word came from? It comes from this story. And, given that we tend to use the word “talent” to refer to our gifts, our God-given abilities, it can make the story even more confusing. I would like to think I could “take my talent to the bank”, but I know that, at best, I could expect a baffled reaction from the bank teller, and there is no option on the ATM to deposit my talent.
What on earth is going on here?
The simple answer is that a talent is, in fact, an amount of money. It’s the largest form of currency which the ancient world used. It was originally a measure of weight, rather like a “pound” is both a measurement and something I might spend on holidays in the UK, if I ever get to go on a plane ever again.
As a measure of weight, it was about 26kg. Which is a lot of silver. It was worth 6000 denarii, which, we gather from Scripture, was the daily wage of a labourer. So one way to think of it is as being around a million dollars, based on the minimum wage. It is a sizeable amount of money the master left his slaves with: about one, two, or five million dollars.
So perhaps we might understand how disappointed he was with the least enthusiastic slave for not doing something more creative with his enormous mountain of cash.
Hang on a minute – aren’t these slaves we are talking about? The NIV says “servants”, as does the King James. The Greek doulos is used for both, and perhaps that suggests that the boundaries were pretty fluid between servant and slave in the Ancient world. My suspicion is that some translations go for “servant” to make the text less knobbly and complex. Less shocking. We don’t like to have nasty words in our Bibles. But I think we need to engage with Scripture in all its complexity and difficulty if we want to actually learn something from it, rather than just have our prejudices confirmed. We might wish that Jesus had not lived in a world where slavery was rife, indeed taken for granted, but he did.
As do we. Google Modern Slavery some time if you want to be depressed.
Let me add a few caveats. When we hear “slavery” we immediately think of African slaves toiling in the sun under the overseer’s lash. But this is clearly a different situation: as I said previously, these are serious amounts of money to have under management. They were clearly trusted members of the household.
One of the major differences between the ancient world and our own is just how common slavery was, and how important their roles could be. It is a big area, but here’s a good example: Emperor Augustus staffed his civil service primarily with his slaves and freemen – that is, slaves who he had set free. There were a lot of reasons for it, but the primary one which interests us here is that you could trust your slaves much more than non-slaves, because slaves were entirely dependent on you in a way free people were not. When you spoke to one of Augustus’ senior slaves, you were, essentially talking to Augustus in the same way that when you talk to someone in the ATO over the phone, you are essentially talking to the Tax Office as such.
In short, slaves could be trusted functionaries, accustomed to handling serious affairs for their masters.
What about the alarming note of judgement? The choice between “enter into my joy” and “you lazy and wicked slave” seems pretty stark.
This passage is part of a set of parables which, in Matthew’s account of the gospel, Jesus preached right at the end of his ministry. Technically it is known as “apocalyptic” teaching, where “apocalyptic” means something like uncovering, or revealing.
There’s a lot of argument about this whole area, and what sense we can make of the apocalyptic today. My personal take-home from this sort of parable is that it is wisdom. It’s a sort of x-ray vision which can see beyond the ebb and flow of surface events which zoom past us as fast as thought, to get beyond “what is happening” and reveals “what is really going on.
Finally, it is important to note that this is not the only revelation of the good news in Scripture. The fundamental thing to bear in mind is that “the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and rich in love.” In the story, Jesus is about to go to the cross – to endure “weeping and gnashing of teeth” on our account. The primary thing we have to get about God is that God loves us individually and specifically and wants us for Godself.
There is work to be getting on with. It turns out that what is really going on is that God has given us at least one talent – our gifts and abilities and resources and all the rest – and beyond that, our very selves. That goes for us both as individuals, and as a church. God has given us what we need to collaborate with God’s plan. And we have a corresponding opportunity to invest our lives in the best way we know how.
It seems to me that one of the key differences between the different slaves is that one hid their talent, the others got on with using them. That required thought, creativity, risk-taking. The one talent slave was paralysed with fear: the other two were courageous.
This gets to the heart of the gospel as I understand it: the very key and purpose of our life is to collaborate with God. To take what God has given us – large or small – and to choose to use it in God’s service. It isn’t a question of being punished or not: if you fail to invest your life in service to God, then you have invested it in something else, something unworthy of our full service.
It’s not really something someone else can do for us: we have to do it ourselves. God’s grace to us is to offer us the free gift of collaborating with God – of investing ourselves in God’s work, of being joined into the love between the Father and the Son. Of taking the treasure of our lives, and giving it back to God, or of burying it in a hole in the ground, clutching it to ourselves, not taking a risk, not trusting ourselves to God.
It can seem a bit banal – the Gospel as investment advice. We might prefer something more heroic, and less commercial. But the reading today asks us: where are we investing our lives? Are we investing ourselves in what leads to life? Or are we burying our talents, investing in self and safety?
 Actually, given the minimum wage in Australia is $19.84, and the average work day is 7.5 hours, it would be $892,800, which is $649277.19 in US dollars for my international friends.
 Or just check this out: https://www.antislavery.org/slavery-today/modern-slavery/
 Dead for several decades by the time Jesus was telling this parable, but the system persisted.
 Psalm 145:8-9