Jesus said to the disciples: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 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, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the 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 25:14-30
My sermon from the 25th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2023) on Matthew 25:14-30.
So last Sunday, I ended the sermon by inviting you to pay attention to what happened when the last person crossed the finish line at the New York City Marathon. The race, by that point, had been going on for over 12 hours and most people had already gone home. Yet when the last runner – who was so worn out she needed someone to hold her up while taking those final few steps in Central Park – neared the finish line, there was a huge crowd cheering her on. When the race was over, someone was already there to place a medal around her neck, wrap her in a warm blanket, and see if there were any medical needs she needed addressed. This image, I think, helps us notice what Jesus was getting at when shared 3 stories in the gospel according to Matthew right before his arrest, trial, and death. Jesus wanted to help his friends live faithfully while they waited for the moment when the kingdom of God became fully realized in our world. He started with a story about ten bridesmaids who fell asleep at a wedding as a way to remind them how they were already part of what God was up to. And he followed that up with another story about a rich man who went on a journey.
Now before we dig too deep into the parable, it’s important to remember that not every character in the stories Jesus told were meant to represent ourselves, God, or Jesus himself. Sometimes Jesus simply wanted to illustrate a scene that invites us to think and wonder. We could, I think, decide that the rich man in the story should be a kind of stand-in for Jesus since he was about to take his own journey through death and resurrection. But if we pay close attention to the details within the story itself, that comparison begins to collapse. The rich man was described as one who reaps where he does not sow, gathers where he has not scattered seed, and who seems to care an awful lot about profit rather than people. He even endorsed the unBiblical practice of investing money to generate interest with the bankers. The rich man always tried to expand his estate and to maximize his personal gain at the expense of everything else. That doesn’t sound much like Jesus at all which is why we shouldn’t make the rich man a stand-in for Jesus or God. Jesus, though, told this story because he knew those who first heard it would recognize the kind of story he was trying to share. In the ancient world, there were a ton of stories, plays, and songs about an enslaved person who suddenly found themselves with a lot of wealth. Each story had a kind of vibe that was a mix of the fairytale Cindrella, the 1983 movie Trading Places, and the show “My Lottery Dream Home” on HGTV. These stories sometimes showed someone without a future finally gaining one. But they also showed how harsh slavery could be since the enslaved person had little to no control over the violence done to their bodies or their lives. When Jesus began his story about a rich man leaving on a journey, those listening to him assumed the story would flow in a certain way. Yet the literary trope Jesus used also served as a signal that those listening should pay close attention to the bits of the story they didn’t expect.
Now as I mentioned in my children’s sermon, a talent in Jesus’s world was a unit of measure. And when a talent was used as currency, it amounted to what an average laborer earned over 20 years of work. The rich man in our story entrusted one of the enslaved people with 100 years worth of wages, another 40 years worth of wages, and a third person with only 20. The amount of money described in this story is meant to be pretty obscene especially when we realize enslaved people never received a wage in the first place. Jesus, in his introduction to the story, does not describe the rich man’s expectations of those he gave money to. But we get the sense that being entrusted meant they were to use the money as if the rich man had never left. That means that those around the rich man had learned or been trained to wheel and deal like he did. The rich man not only invested them with resources but also with an education and way of life that exploited others in the quest for money and power. The rich man wanted them to be like him and, according to Jesus, two of them followed that to a T. But the third one decided to do something else. Instead of embodying the actions, behaviors, and practices of the person no one should admire, he buried the talent he was given in the ground. The rich man, when he came back, was furious – which, for those listening to the story, might have come as a bit of a surprise. The rich man didn’t lose a dime yet he tossed him into a place full of weeping and gnashing of teeth. The rich man wanted those around him to be like him in all that they said and did. And that, I think, is the vibe Jesus wanted us to pay attention to rather than seeing this as simply another story of someone poor becoming rich. We are meant to ask who has a claim on us and what risks we are meant to take so that we can be exactly who God calls us to be.
And that, I think, points to one other aspect of Jesus’ story that is a bit unique. When the rich man left on his journey, he already knew what each person was capable of. He gave them all they needed to be like him. And God, in the same way, has already given to you what you need to be who God knows you can be. The gift of baptism, the gift of faith, the gift of a community that prays with and for you, as well as your own skills, abilities, traits, strengths and weaknesses – all of that is how you can be faithfully You. These gifts will grow and change while life takes us on a journey that goes to places we don’t always expect. Yet being faithful doesn’t mean you need to become some kind of holy and wonderful and perfect person that no one can truly ever measure up to. Sometimes being faithful is running the race to its end or being there for a friend to hold them while they cross the finish line. You are not faithless because your practice of faith doesn’t match the person next to you. Nor are you worthless just because the world has decided that someone else is, somehow, worth more. You are, and always have been, worth dying and rising for. And Jesus wanted all those who followed him to claim that truth as their own. Next week, we’ll learn a little more of what faithfulness looks like in the 3rd parable Jesus shared. But until then, remember that God has invested God’s own grace, hope, and peace into you because God knows that you can make Jesus’ ongoing story of love real in our world.