Matthew 25: 14-30
I bet you have it all figured out--- this parable, I mean. You know it, because you have heard it all before, and if you are past the blush of youth, you have probably also preached it before--- to your kids, your grandkids, or even a friend: “It’s up to you,” you have said. “Take your gifts, whatever they are--- intelligence, a tender heart, artistic ability, business acumen---whatever you have been given. Go out and use them in a way that multiplies their value and adds something substantial to life, not just your own life, but others as well. Wise advice, I would say, but after everything I have been through; after all I have learned and pondered, I just don’t think that is the main point of the story, at least it’s not the depth of the story. All Jesus’ parables have many layers of meaning. And though it is not wrong to read it on the first level, if that is where you stay, I think you will miss something.
Let me introduce myself: I am the unnamed third servant or slave, the one to whom one talent was given. Yes, I buried it, but let me explain why. You need to understand a few facts. First of all, this word talent: it was initially a measure of weight, which like the British pound, came to mean money---the equivalent of about 16.5 years of wages in my time. So, one talent was hardly an insignificant sum for me to receive. In fact, all the people who came to hear Jesus preach would have been blown away (as you say) by even the suggestion of such an amount. It was a lot of money, especially for the poor people, who were the majority of those who gathered around Jesus. And let me tell you something else, I was not in the least unhappy that I received only one talent, while the others received five and then two. One talent was far more than I had ever expected to be trusted with.
Now what were people in my day supposed to do with large sums of money? Remember, my economy knew nothing of capitalism. We had neither stock markets nor banks in the sense that you understand banks. We could trade and yes, there was money to be made in trade. You could lend, but in my time we Jews were not supposed to charge interest. Though it sounds funny or foolish to you, the burying of treasure was a completely acceptable practice. The rabbis said so, and if you buried treasure, and you could prove that you did so through witnesses, if someone came along and stole what you had buried, you could not be sued for the money, even if the treasure you buried belonged to your master. That was Jewish law. It was not uncommon in my day for servants and slaves to be given responsibility for their master’s wealth, and yes, many servants did indeed bury their master’s money.
So, I was really doing what the law not only permitted me to do, but also suggested I do. It was a way of being safe, of playing it safe. And is there anything wrong with that? I mean considering some of the recent financial crises, when stock markets plunged along with housing prices, I imagine that a number of people had wished they had played it safe. So, let me make it perfectly clear. If this were a parable only about money, there is no way I should have been accused of being wicked and lazy. Do you think it is easy to bury treasure, I mean to really bury it; to find a good hiding place and then dig deeply into the earth? Let me tell you, it takes work. Lazy? Not on your life! And wicked? That is an absurd charge---unless you want to call fear and worry wicked. When a slave is given money to oversee, and he knows his master to be harsh, why would he not take a conservative path? So what if the other two were willing to take more risk? Not everyone has the personality to accept such risk. It’s the same today. Some people should NEVER get into the markets. They don’t have the stomach for the ups and downs. Some of us are by nature more careful, more circumspect, more suspicious.
But the money is not the real thing here. And the people who heard this parable would have figured that out, because they would have realized that I did not deserve condemnation. They would have understood that the word talents means far more than money. Talents here are a symbol, a symbol for something great, something important and valuable. Of course, people always think money is the most valuable thing, because without it, you can’t live. But this is Matthew’s Gospel, and he has a particular way of telling Jesus’ story. It is always important to note where a story is placed in the gospel. And in this case, Matthew put this story toward the end of Jesus’ life—a few days before he celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples. And in these last few days Matthew shows us a Jesus very busy teaching that the Kingdom of God is near. It’s moving closer, Jesus said, and so Matthew shows Jesus teaching what God is like and what God’s Kingdom looks like---like a place where one wandering lost sheep is found, a place where the meek inherit the earth and the mournful receive comfort, a place where the last are first and the blind see and the deaf hear.
I had heard these stories, and I also knew that Jesus’ demands could be hard--- like leaving your family to follow him, or letting the dead bury the dead. Jesus once told a rich young ruler to give away everything he had, because his wealth had become a stumbling block. Matthew shows Jesus calling the scribes, priests and Pharisees vipers and fools, and throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple courtyard, although they were only doing what they were supposed to do. Money had to be changed, since only Jewish money could be used inside the Temple.
So yes, I knew the stories and I also knew the comfort of his words, and yet as wonderful as they were, as consoling and as hopeful as they seemed, they also terrified me. “You ask too much,” I thought. This tender hearted and compassionate God who loved the least among us was also the one who demanded everything from us. And so I took what Jesus had given me---this great treasure, this one talent, this truth of new and abundant life, and I buried it, deep within my heart, deep within my memory, where it felt safe and consoling. Now and then I would take that treasure out, and sometimes I would manage to do something---like give money to someone even poorer than I. So you see, though I heard Jesus’ teaching, though I understood the demands, I did not follow him. I was his admirer, not his disciple. I remained a Jew, faithful to the Law. And because there was so much tension between Jews, who remained Jews (like me) and Jews who became Christians like the two and five talent men and because Matthew’s gospel is on the side of Christian Jews and because I remained a Jew, I am called lazy and wicked, cast out into the darkness, where, the text says, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Well, those are Matthew’s words, written in his time and place. An option was put before me, and I thought it safer to remain a Jew. Was I really so wrong, so far off the mark? Oh, the story is told to make me look bad, as if I lacked the courage, imagination and faith to follow the one true Lord, but in the end I thought the Jewish Law more reasonable than the law of higher righteousness, which Jesus had laid down. You see, those who followed Jesus paid a price, a high price. Some lost their families, their friends and in time even their lives. Some were willing to pay that price, but I was not. And maybe that is what the question of this text finally comes down to. What price are you willing to pay to follow Jesus? What does following Jesus really cost you? Are you his admirer or are you his disciple?
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!