If America is about anything, it is about freedom. The state motto of New Hampshire sums up the national attitude quite well: live free or die. During the time of our Revolution, our cause was represented by a flag with a snake on it and the words “Don’t Tread On Me.” The arc of freedom kept rising over time. The abomination of slavery ended in 1865. The right to vote, to obtain gainful employment, and other forms of freedom eventually became available to all adults regardless of race or gender. The only arguments we have about freedom is how far and how fast to extend it. I do not know of anyone who advocates abolishing freedom.
So what do we do with this passage from Matthew’s Gospel? This is not a passage that glorifies freedom. If anything, it seems to glorify … slavery. Some translations of this passage use the word “servants” as a description, but in reality these servants were not free to leave their employ, and they certainly had no bargaining rights. The master gave them orders, and they carried them out … or else. They owned nothing; the master owned everything. They had no rights as we understand them, or at least the only rights or consideration they had came from their master as a gift. Certainly, the word “slaves” is a more accurate description of their status.
This parable is certainly a familiar one. The master is leaving his estate, and before he goes he entrusts each slave with an important task. He has observed their abilities and decides to give them responsibility over a certain amount of money. The first slave receives five talents to invest. The second slave receives two talents. And the third slave receives one talent. Before going further, let me return to a point I’ve made before. A talent was a very large amount of money. It represented what an average laborer could hope to earn in half of a lifetime. Try to imagine. If you had even a minimum wage job for say, 25 years, that would add up to between 250 and 300 thousand dollars. And an ordinary worker can hope for much more than that. So we’re looking at the equivalent of several hundred thousand dollars for the least gifted slave to invest … and twice as much for the middle slave, and five times more for the most gifted slave … perhaps two million dollars for that one.
The master has confidence in all of his slaves, but in differing amounts. He has observed them. He knows what they can accomplish. They all can accomplish something. But obviously there are different levels of potential accomplishment. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? We are more likely to expect Mozart to write a beautiful opera or symphony than a talented music student, for instance. And so the master has different expectations of his slaves. But he does expect each of them to respond with eagerness to what he has given them to do.
We see the results. The most talented slave has doubled the amount of money the master gave him. The second slave has done likewise. Both of them had eagerly invested the master’s money. There was likely a risk involved … you do not receive 100% returns without risk. But they plunged ahead and gained much for their master. He in turn, being a generous master, rewarded them richly. In the context of the parable, the good slaves are rewarded in this life. But is that what Jesus meant, that you will be rewarded for your good use of God’s gifts in this life? I do not think that is the best reading of the passage. Rather, their faithful use of God’s gifts means that the slaves will, in the words of the parable, enter into the happiness of their master. That is something that does exist in this life, although not necessarily in a material sense. The feeling of closeness with God, and the comfort of a clear conscience, are tremendously valuable in themselves.
But the third slave has acted differently, out of what seems to be a mixture of fear and resentment. He feared risking the money he had been given. And he didn’t think much of his master, either, by his choice of words. So he buries the money entrusted to him, and gives back the exact same sum. It had appreciated not at all.
The master is angry. He pointed out that the least the slave could have done was to invest the money with the bankers. It would have gained some interest … probably not 100%, but something (although at that time, banks as we know them barely existed. Conceivably the slave would have run some risk even trying to get a small rate of return). The slave made no effort at all to increase what had been entrusted to him. He was so afraid of making a mistake that he did nothing with what he had been given. And so he was banished to the outer darkness, sent away from his master’s presence. And again, Jesus is pointing to eternity in his description. Over and over again in his parables and other speeches, Jesus points to eternity. And eternity includes heaven, of course, but we are never to forget that it also includes hell.
We learn a number of truths from this parable. First, God is sovereign. He has created us. He has endowed us with certain gifts. He watches us as we use them (or neglect them or even abuse them). He dispenses judgment based on how we use these gifts. If you look at it negatively, it means that nothing truly belongs to us, and we have no rights outside of God’s gifts. God is our master, and to him we owe total obedience. That is a hard teaching to accept. I already talked about the freedom we believe is our birthright as Americans. Among the freedoms we cherish is the freedom to make money for ourselves. Once the government has taken its (big) cut, the rest of it belongs to us. It is our property. And that is true in our human economy, and it makes a fair amount of sense. But in God’s economy, it is very different. All good things come from God. We are only stewards of whatever we have, whether it is wealth, or talent, or intelligence, or whatever it may be. And God expects us to use whatever he has entrusted to us in the service of his kingdom. We are accountable to God. And the more God has entrusted us with, the more he expects from us.
Again, this is a hard teaching to accept in this day and age. Some interpreters of this passage see the third slave as the hero, rebelling against the unfair and cruel master who arbitrarily grants favors and dispenses punishment. Why should the master have so much while the slaves have nothing? The problem is that Jesus did not tell the parable in that way. Jesus told it to reinforce the sovereignty and authority of God, and our human responsibility to him. Now, it is true that Jesus told this parable two thousand years ago, but the truth of the parable has not changed. And that is really the second truth: that God’s Word does not change. It is eternal and unchanging. Even if our sentiments change, God does not. And if we struggle with a passage from Scripture, it is not God’s responsibility to conform his Word to our feelings, but rather our responsibility to conform our feelings to his Word. Consider the Word as a gift to us. How will we use it? Will we allow ourselves to be conformed to the Word and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit?
Or will we put the Word in a compartment somewhere and treat it like a burden that makes unfair demands on us? Isn’t it amazing how God has given us this gift, his will in an understandable way? He has given us all we need to know for our salvation. Are we not grateful for this incredible gift? If so, how will we show our gratitude?
I ask that because God should have our gratitude. In all of the emphasis on God’s power and authority, I would not want to neglect his character. The words of the third slave are simply not accurate. He is speaking from a proud and rebellious heart. From my perspective, a proud and rebellious heart is the greatest barrier to a relationship with God. It is not a matter of the intellect (plenty of smart and educated people believe in God), but simply a matter of pride. But God is gracious to us. He does not have to give us anything. He does not have to entrust us with any resources or gifts. But he does. He gives us the opportunity to use our intelligence, energy, imagination and love in his service (I got those words from the Presbyterian Book of Order … that is one of the ordination questions). And God will honor our sincere use of our gifts. We are called upon to use our gifts, whatever they are, with confidence and hope, and not fear and resentment. God looks for opportunities to bless us. That is the third truth I would point out in this passage.
Let me close with some most provocative questions. Are you a good slave? Do you trust God as your Master? Do you accept the gifts he has given you with gratitude? Will you use them to his service? Do you believe that his judgments are righteous and gracious? If you struggle with this passage, may I ask you to consider some great examples of faith who use their talents to God’s glory, never forgetting to thank him? Will you consider the example of Billy Graham? Will you look to Tim Tebow? They have been given amazing gifts and have never forgotten God. Our gifts may not be as prominent as theirs, but surely we can contribute to the kingdom of God in our own way. Are you ready and willing to do so?
To God alone be the glory. May we give up our pride before him, and bow down to him, and serve him to the best of our God-given abilities. Amen.