The Parable of the Talents
The Rugby World Cup began on Friday evening. It is being held in England and Wales. It is a highly prestigious, big money and large scale international event. Scotland are included but we are unlikely to win. No change there. The favourite is New Zealand, the All Blacks, a nation smaller in population than ours. Over decades the New Zealanders have evolved their rugby skills to an extraordinary degree. They have taken a singular talent and multiplied its value many times.
Professional rugby is both a brutal and a beautiful game. It has lots of rules and they are difficult to follow. Referees interpret the laws differently. There is a 'use it or lose it' rule. When scrummaging for the ball in open play the ball is passed through arms legs and bodies to the back. There it used to lie until the scrum half opted to pick it up and pass it. This slowed the game up. Now the referee shouts 'use it' and the scrum half has five seconds to pass the ball or his side is penalised and the ball is given to the other team. Use it or lose it is one of the messages of the Parable of the Talents.
A talent was not a coin. It was a weight measure. So you could have a copper talent, a silver talent and a gold talent. The most common currency was the silver talent. Exodus 38:24 reads 'All the gold that was used for the work, in all the construction of the sanctuary, the gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents ...". The Hebrew term for "talent" was kikkār, meaning a round gold or silver disk, or disk-shaped loaf. In the Greek language the word comes from tálanton, a large monetary measurement equal to 6,000 drachmas or denarii, the Greek and Roman silver coins. The talent was the heaviest or largest biblical unit of measurement for weight, equal to about 75 pounds or 35 kilograms. A talent of silver was a very large amount, as much perhaps as nine years of a labourer's wages. Today we might say at least £160,000. Jesus is talking big money. One servant gets £800,000, another gets £320,000 and the third gets the £160,000. The man is very trusting. These are his servants. He owns them. They are not free men to do what they like and want with the money. Their lives are at stake with these sums of money on trust. It would not be unusual for a man to hand over money to specific servants if he had to go abroad for a time. There were no absolutely safe places to deposit money. The money was 'entrusted' – given on trust – perhaps legal documents were signed. Maybe trust funds were set up. The money was not the servants' money. They could not use it as they wished. They would not themselves profit from its use.
Each man is given 'according to his ability'. Human abilities are not equal. Some are better at some things than others. There would be no life as we know it without this differentiation and distinction. There would be no variety, no change, no competition, no success, no failure. But under the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, it is not to be 'survival of the fittest' only. It is not just to be the tooth and claw of nature. It is not to be the biggest and strongest all the time winning. Calvary is the opposite of these things. Jesus came as a servant. He built a community not based on rivalry but on love and recognition and acceptance.
But this is a great parable and with Jesus we need to find out what he really meant. Margaret Thatcher liked to say that this parable was about the commercial market, about acumen, hard work and reward. And indeed it is on the surface. The man given the largest sum to invest and speculate did so astutely and doubled his master's money. We are not told how he did this. Did he buy and sell properties? Perhaps. Did he deal in high value jewellery. Maybe. Did he make and sell arms for the Romans? We don't know. Did he purchase farms and produce and sell wine and olives, fruit and crops. Possibly. Whatever he did worked. He was faithful obedient and successful. Given the money on trust, he repaid that trust.
The second servant had a lot less to invest and so his options were fewer. He could not spread the amount around so widely nor take so many risks. He did not try to multiply his amount to rival or overtake the servant who had been given more. He worked with what he had. Maybe he bought a bakery and a carpenter's business. Perhaps he went into house building. Possibly he bought and sold horses. He might have done all three or more. At any rate, he too was obedient, faithful and successful within his competence. He was not too ambitious and neither did he fail. He returned double the investment – the same proportion as the servant who had been entrusted with much more.
The third servant did not have the same abilities as the other two. For whatever reason, he did not have the imagination or the knowledge to use this start up funding to make something of it. Perhaps he lacked confidence. Some people are good at making money, others are not. He was not sure that he would make the right decisions and he was not sure that he could run a business anyway. So he just hid the money in the ground so that at least, no-one would steal it and he could hand it back to his master when he returned. Was he extremely lazy perhaps? Did he not care at all for his master? With him being a way, did he fancy a less taxing time doing not very much at all? Was he complacent or silently rebellious? Was he perhaps just not very clever?
In this great parable, when the master returns - it says - after a long time, the first two servants are commended and promoted to greater responsibilities. The text does not say that they got a share of the profits or bonuses but maybe they did. Some servants although indentured had good lives depending on their usefulness. It is likely that they did receive rewards for their endeavours. The third servant gave an explanation for why he had not increased his master's investment although he had returned it intact. I suppose that if there was middle east inflation at that time, the value of the investment had actually decreased in the ensuing years. The master was not happy, he was not pleased. The text says, 'Then the man who had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed: So I was afraid, and went and out hid your talent in the ground See, here is what belongs to you'. His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant!...You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest'.
The morality of this parable causes problems for Christians. Does Jesus condone such wealth-gathering? Is Jesus a free market capitalist? Why does the parable advise gaining interest when usury was forbidden in the Old Testament? Exodus 22: 25 reads 'If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest'. So this master was not a devout Jew. Business is business. Someone has even suggested that this businessman was actually a loan shark. There's no proof of such but it is clear that he was what we call a hard-nosed businessman. He saw the main chance and took it. He didn't mind tramping on toes or feet or bodies. Maybe he was an asset stripper. Maybe he short-changed his suppliers. Maybe he paid poor wages. John Moulton is one of Britain's best known asset strippers although he does everything within the law. He is a venture capitalist. He buys bankrupt and failing companies, strips out their assets, sells them and makes a profit. He also saves and revitalises businesses and saves and provides jobs. In the parable the master reaps where he did not sow. He is an unattractive figure and he is harsh and retributive. The third servant is shown no mercy. He is thrown out on to the street. He will have to beg for food. If he has family, they will suffer with him.
Use it or lose it. He loses it. And here we have what seems a very contradictory teaching from Jesus. 'For everyone who has will be given more and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him'. What was Jesus getting at with this parable? The context is that he is talking about the end of the age. Matthew 24: 36 says 'No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father'. Jesus then goes on to teach his disciples about being awake and aware and ready for what is to happen. He tells a story about a lazy and drunken house servant. He tells the Parable of the Ten Virgins only five of whom were awake and ready when the bridegroom arrived. 'Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning'...And then Jesus teaches this parable of the talents. We should not take it for granted that the Church came into being and that Christianity was established. Jesus had to hammer it into his disciples minds and hearts that they and only they would usher in the new Kingdom. He had to prepare them mentally and emotionally for their future tasks and responsibilities. It was not easy. We know they were a fractious bunch of men with their own ideas about everything.
Look at the way our Scottish football team plays. Sometimes they don't look committed, interested even. Their minds are not on the game. They appear to be sleep-walking. They get beaten when they should be winning. Our national rugby team is the same. They have skilled and talented players but they so often fail to achieve anything. They were bottom of the Six Nations last year. Even Italy beat them. The current coach has managed to get them to concentrate more and play together more but they are not as disciplined as other teams. Professional sports often need a strong and tough coach to get the best out of those they are training. The Parable of the Talents could be Jesus toughening up the disciples for their amazing calling to come. There's to be no slacking. There has to be a positive return from His resurrection and from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But it won't just happen. The disciples' attitude and commitment is key, central and essential to the creation of the new Israel, the Christian Church. And so at the end of the parable is the harsh judgement of anyone who does not step up to the mark and follow through with Jesus. He or she loses even the little faith that they had. The Holy Spirit is added to those who are actively doing their very best for the Lord. What are you doing to increase the Kingdom of God? What could you do more to increase the Name of Jesus here in these villages? What more can you do for this Church? For Him?