Parable of the talents

I have to be honest, I find today’s parable very tricky. The message isn’t hard to grasp, but how does it fit with the rest of the Bible and what it tells us about a God of grace? I looked through my sermons on the computer and in almost twenty years of preaching I’ve never spoken on this gospel reading. It looks like I’ve always decided ‘let’s go with Thessalonians instead’! But if we want to hear all of God’s message to us, we have to deal with the difficult parts of his word, so here goes!

It’s Matthew 25:14. The first word in the reading is ‘For’ – that it always a sign that we need to look at what has come before. Jesus has just told the parable of the bridesmaids – how his followers need to be ready for when he comes back. Today’s parable is one of a whole group that we hear as we approach Advent. The common theme is that the time of judgement will be unexpected, Jesus will come back but he may be later than we thought, so don’t give up and be ready.

In this reading a man goes away for a while and gives his property to his slaves for them to look after. Usually in the parables the boss man represents God or Jesus and the servants represent Christian disciples. If we assume that’s right, then the message here is that we are given things by God to look after. That God is the creator, everything belongs to him, but to help us grow he delegates responsibility to us.

The things we look after might be, as in the parable, money. A talent is originally a great big lump of silver. The word entered the English language through the parable and gained the meaning that we would think of today – Britain’s Got Talent and so on. For us, talents are usually the skills we have, abilities, our time and labour. Everything we have comes from God – as we sometimes say in Communion ‘all things come from you and of your own do we give you.’ So the message of the parable seems to be: we are responsible to God for the way we spend our time and money, what we do with our talents.

In v.15 ‘to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability’. This is a manager who knows his staff. Some are more capable and are given more responsibility, others less so. The one who has two talents makes two more in v16. It’s less profit than the guy who was given five – but that’s not a problem for the boss. He did what he could with what he was given, according to his ability.

That’s ok. We are not all the same, God has made us different, wonderfully diverse, with various skills. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. We are not to be envious of what others can do, nor proud of our abilities, for all come ultimately from God. We should not compare, nor judge, nor spend our time trying to be like someone else, but be who God has called us to be. When I meet God I don’t think he’ll ask me ‘Why weren’t you Billy Graham, or Nicky Gumbel?’ He might ask me ‘Why weren’t you Christopher Bryan?’

God knows each of us and gives us our own responsibilities, through which we can grow, flourish and serve. It is a great privilege – in the parable even the smallest sum of money involved is equivalent to many years’ wages, hundreds of thousands of pounds. Perhaps that suggests even if we do not feel skilful, God sees huge potential in us. We have a choice to use what we have been given or, as in v18, to hide it away.

Eventually the owner returns and in verses 19-21 settles accounts. Like Jesus, he has been away for a long time. There is a final reckoning, a judgement. There are words of praise for the servants who have been faithful. They are invited to join in the joy of their master – an echo here of heaven perhaps? But perhaps surprisingly, in v.21, ‘you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things’. Those who have done well are given more to look after. Jesus tells us that growth in responsibility is good and right and proper. Sometimes Christians hide their light under bushels, keep their talents under wraps. But Jesus tells us that promotion is fine and having responsibility is good.

But all is not well. In v.24-25 ‘Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

Fear can be paralysing. This servant was afraid of failure and so he did nothing. Rightly or wrongly, he feared his master and the consequences of getting it wrong. So rather than risk loss, he hid what he had.

That can so often happen in all sorts of ways, for instance: Cash savings are not keeping up with inflation, but I’ll keep it in the bank because shares can go down as well as up. Somebody hates their job but carries on doing it because the alternative is uncertain. God might be calling me, but there’s a lot to give up and I’m not sure I can do it.

A church I once knew had grown and grown and reached the point where they could barely fit in the building. To allow further growth, perhaps they could divide and hold two morning services one after the other? The congregation thought about it – the times were less convenient, would the worship be the same, they might lose some of the people they’d already got. Nothing changed, and looking back you can see that’s when the attendance peaked.

So how do we tackle these fears? The first thing is to name them. Recognise when a fear is at work. Actually allow it to play through your mind and identify what it is, what the concerns are. For instance you might say – I’ve been offered more responsibility but I’m nervous I’ll get it wrong. If I stuff it up people will be angry and won’t like me.

Just saying it you realise the fears are often irrational and overblown. So next, think rationally: Yes, if I do something new, I might get things wrong, but it won’t be all the time and I can learn from the experience. I don’t expect perfection from others – will they expect it in me? Most people will be supportive and those who aren’t, well it’s their problem.

Think about anything you can do to mitigate the risks, such as: I’ll take the responsibility but I’ll also ask for training. Bring it to God, pray through the pros and cons and ask him to give you wisdom. Allow him to speak to the fear and put it in perspective. And then act according to the wisdom and strength he gives you.

The problem with the third servant is he was paralysed by fear. In v.26 -27 the master basically says ‘Even if what you say about me is true, you could have put the money in the bank to gain some interest. But you just didn’t bother.’ So the single talent is taken away and given to the one who has five. And the servant is booted out for his faithlessness. A reminder here that any skill, whether it be piano, badminton or Biblical Hebrew, grows when it is exercised. But if we bury it away, do not use it, even the little we have fades away.

Let me ask you: who feels sorry for the third servant? I do a bit. Owning slaves would not have been remarkable at the time, but even so his master does seem a tough man. Maybe we ought to ask what the alternative would be? This master is tough, but on the plus side he knows his staff and rewards effort.

Might we want someone who was less intense? A distant bureaucrat, not knowing his staff, spending all his time in his office completing forms. A boss like that produces an office culture which is risk averse, time serving, promoting on length of service. No-one creative or dynamic stays there for long as they get bored and cannot shine.

Or might we want the master to be more indulgent? If problems are never addressed, then there’s no incentive to work. Good staff  become resentful of those who coast and are allowed to get away with it. The rest of the team throttles back, the good people leave and only the lazy and manipulative remain.

Which boss would we want to work for? Given the choice, I’d prefer the one who was tough but fair and on the ball. So, is that the picture of God the parable gives us? A God who entrusts us with great talents, which he expects us to use, and holds us accountable for them? Use what you’ve got, for the good, don’t let it go to waste!

But how does that fit in with the rest of the Bible? If that is the message, it sounds a lot like judgement according to what we have done. Can it really be saying work hard, use your talents, and enter into the joy of the Lord? Doesn’t that sound a bit like earning your salvation? Where is the Biblical message of grace – of God’s love freely given, of forgiveness for the unworthy, of Christ dying for our sins so that anyone can repent and be saved?  How does this parable connect to Paul’s teaching on grace or the thief on the cross who had no chance to do good but simply asked for mercy?

But what is a talent? Remember, the talent in the parable is a lump of silver. The English word talent comes from the traditional understanding of this parable. And perhaps the talents of silver do stand for skills, time, money and so on. Perhaps the talent can stand for something else? For the gospel message with which we have all been entrusted? For the gift of faith?

I need to remember, it’s a parable. A picture. Parables engage us, they challenge, they build on doctrine and bring it to life.  It’s one of a series of stories which cast different angles of light on what it means to respond to God’s love. Next week it’s all about care for the poor.

Both parables emphasise that true faith makes a change in our lives. Real faith is always accompanied by good deeds. You can see our faith is real by what we do. What sort of faith is it if we do not respond with compassion to the world’s needs? Have we really understood faith if we regard our time, money and skills as our own? Faith recognises that all we have comes from God, and it is joy to use those gifts in serving him