The parable concludes by seeming to reward and congratulate and perhaps legitimate the proclivities of the wealthy: “…. Take the talent from [the servant that did not invest the talent], and give it to the one with ten talents. For to all 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:28-30)
The rich get richer; the poor get poorer. So it goes….
The Bible could not give any clearer investment advice, right? Many preachers might stop here, invoking the plain reading of scripture, and focus all their attention on stewardship, on financial giving – especially on Stewardship Sunday!
But I’m not one of those preachers. Many Lutheran Christians are theologically suspicious of the notion of simplistically or reductionistically plain readings of scripture, particularly when it comes to parables in the gospels.
We’ve had parables from Matthew’s gospel throughout these Sundays after Pentecost. Again and again, I’ve spoken of the pitfalls of making parables into allegories.
So, if the parable of the talents is not about a bold, bullish investment strategy, then what’s the parable all about?
Lutherans are called upon to read the Bible Christologically. That is, we read the scriptures always with an eye toward discerning that which points to Jesus Christ. With that hermeneutic in mind, then, where might we see Christ in the parable of the talents?
I would take too many liberties if I simply said that Jesus is the one who made five more talents with the five that had been given him. But I think that I can confidently conclude more generally to say that God was bullish on humanity and all of creation in sending Christ to be the divine word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, who was the Word at the beginning in creation, God invested everything in us and for us.
There is a kind of bold, courageous confidence in the whole Christ event – Jesus having been offered to the world out of a sense of God’s great abundance in love, mercy and grace. This kind of divine self-offering bore much fruit for the salvation and healing of the world and its inhabitants in Jesus Christ.
In short, Jesus Christ, God’s word made flesh, was very talented. That is, he bore the weight in his flesh of the abundance of God’s great value, God’s riches, not of money, but of creative, generative, restorative, redemptive, reconciling potency.
This Lutheran preacher is not done with the parable of the talents in terms of its meanings beyond apparent financial investment advice. We Lutherans also are drawn to preach law and gospel, to see how the scriptures convey sacred demands that lead to divine grace.
I get a sense in this parable of the weight of the law residing in the servant who was given one talent, who “went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” (Matthew 25:18)
I see the weight of the law in this servant’s fear and the effects of fear in burying that which is entrusted to him. The talent was buried, as in a grave, the place of death. Here’s the testimony of the fearful servant that reveals his burdened concern: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” (Matthew 25:24b-25) The heavy weight of the law is the fear, our fear which often weighs us down, too.
In contrast, I identify the freedom of the gospel in the courageous engagement of the other servants with the wider world, a reflection of God’s prodigal, perhaps recklessly abundant giving to the world in Christ.
So, when it’s all said and done, the parable of the talents in Matthew’s Gospel, seen through Lutheran eyes, is about God and God’s generous, generative abundance in sending Christ Jesus, the one who frees us from fear to engage the world in confidence, in faith.
But there’s still the difficult accounting with the fate of the fearful servant who was thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The tone of judgement on the last day is reinforced by the other readings for today as well.
From the prophet Zephaniah: “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests…. At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs…” (Zephaniah 7, 12a) And on the word of judgement goes in today’s first reading.
Likewise, from 1 Thessalonians, today’s second reading: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thessalonians 5:2)
What are we to do in these days as we live our days, looking also for the day of the Lord? In short, we can do, we get to do whatever we do because of what God in Christ has first done for us.
Because God has graciously invested Christ in us and in the world, we are empowered by the Spirit to live in that same spirit of generosity.
So here now, by way of conclusion, there are, in fact, stewardship themes in the parable even if it’s not a recipe for an investment strategy. We love because God first loved us. And by logical extension, we give because God has first given to us.
Here is how the late Herbert Chilstrom, the first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA said it as he cast his vision for our church in the early years following its founding in 1988, and I paraphrase him: “My vision is that we would be a church so confidently rooted in the gospel of God’s grace, that we are free to give ourselves away for the sake of the world.” That’s not the exact quote, but it’s the spirit.
And it’s in that spirit of generosity, rooted in God’s generosity, that we live our lives and give our tithes and offerings.
Or to put it in the words of Paul from our second reading to bring these gospel musings to a close: “Since we belong to the day, let us…. put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (1Thessalonias 5:8-10) Amen.
And now for your reflection and conversation at home:
- Recall and name occasions when you have seen and known God’s lavish generosity in Christ in your own lives and circumstances.
- In what ways has God’s generosity in Christ inspired your own generosity?