The first thing to stress about this parable is that it isn’t about money.
It’s the second in a set of three parables, and while Jesus talks about money, this parable is no more about literal money than the one before is about literal oil or the one after about literal sheep and goats. The money here is a part of a larger metaphor.
The question then becomes what those talenta represent. Talenta were almost impossibly valuable — at least fifteen years’ worth of income for the average laborer. They would be worth somewhere between 2 and 6 million dollars today, depending on how you do the math. They could weigh around 75 pounds, meaning a single person might struggle to even pick one up. This is an obscene, ridiculous, hyperbolic amount of money. It’s shorthand for “the most valuable thing you can think of.”
Jesus tells this parable just a few days before his arrest and crucifixion. Like the master in the parable, Jesus is getting ready to be absent from those who have served under him. I think it’s possible that the weighty, valuable talenta in this parable are a metaphor for Jesus’ own ministry that the disciples will now have to manage on their own.
In the parable, the master “entrusts” talenta with three servants, based on their ability to manage such riches. Two of the servants take to their commission enthusiastically, but the third stays frozen. It’s not that he embezzles or wastes the money. He simply buries that talenta in the ground, because he believes the master is harsh, and he’s afraid.
And the master who returns is harsh, with a harshness I find hard to reconcile, especially if Jesus is connecting himself with the master who will be temporarily absent. But perhaps it’s a harshness I need to hear.
I feel for this third servant. Even though I believe in a loving and gracious Savior, I still get scared and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of Christ’s call on my life. I still want to avoid risks and play it safe. Sometimes, though, not doing anything is just as bad as doing something, even imperfectly. Sometimes avoiding action is the sin we commit.
German theologian Eberhard Bethge reflected on this sin after WWII, contrasting it with the life of German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was ultimately killed by the Nazis for speaking out against their regime. In his introduction to Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, John W. Doberstein quotes Bethge, writing: “The sin of respectable people reveals itself in flight from responsibility. [Bonhoeffer] saw that sin falling upon him and he took his stand.”
Bonhoeffer’s actions did not single-handedly bring down the Third Reich, but they did serve as a beacon to encourage others to work faithfully towards the same cause, despite the dangers.
…the joy of God is not in the profit, the result, or the magnitude of our Christian living. God’s joy is simply that we try.
Our instinct to bury Christ’s call for our lives – that instinct towards inaction and a flight from responsibility – is itself evil. It is not an evil that Christ cannot redeem, but it is one that must be faced if we are serious about our Christianity. If Jesus is the master in this story, then I am astonished that, at the beginning, he does trust all three servants with those extraordinarily valuable talentas, even though he knows their abilities differ. Given that the master praises the first two servants equally, even though one produced a much higher return on investment than the other, I must conclude that the joy of God is not in the profit, the result, or the magnitude of our Christian living.
God’s joy is simply that we try. God’s joy is that we put our faith into action, however uncertainly, to move the world closer to the kingdom of God.
Questions for reflection
- What is the most valuable thing God has given you? Your congregation?
- Why do you think we are so prone to doing nothing in situations of injustice or gracelessness?
- What is one area in which you see your congregation putting their faith into action?
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