November 16, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)
Jesus said, “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.’”
Responding to what we have been given by sending it out to multiply flourishing in the world is a much better posture than the posture of fear.
If yesterday’s devotion didn’t deal with a troubling enough passage, today we read a very perturbing parable in the Gospel for this coming Sunday. (I found it difficult to excerpt any of it, so you get the whole thing.)
When we think of the phrase “well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, 23; I always hear it in the KJV in my head) we often think of it in connection with retirements and, even more, funerals. Someone’s life has been fruitful for the Kingdom, and we quote that verse selectively to praise them. The entire parable where we find the verse is much more complex and haunting, however.
A master entrusts “talents” (each talent was a significant sum of money) to his servants while he travels. Two of them invest the money and it multiplies (they are the ones who get the “well done” praise); the other one is so frightened of his master that he buries the property in the ground, and it does not grow. The master is so upset about this when he gets back that he doesn’t just censure the servant—he takes the money from him, gives it to the servant with ten talents, and casts the non-investor out. What is this parable about? Is God the master in this story? Is the story praising capitalism and/or speculation? Why is more given to those who already have and taken from those who have not?
Matthew 25:14-30 is part of a discussion Jesus is having with his disciples (during Holy Week, remember) about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Second Coming. The parables and remarks in this discourse comprise all of Matthew 24-25. Jesus moves from an (admittedly frightening) description of the coming apocalypse (Matthew 24:3-31) to an insistence on our need to be ready for that apocalypse by being alert and at work when our Master arrives (24:27, 24:33, 36-44, 50; 25:1-14). Then Jesus follows today’s parable with the equally famous one about the sheep and the goats, who are judged ultimately on how they have treated the least of these (25:31-46).
So this parabolic man is not going on a journey in isolation. He is entrusting his property to his servants against the backdrop of an apocalyptic world, where Christ may come back at any moment. If you recall our discussion yesterday, we noted that the takeaway from 1 Thessalonians 5 is not to ignore Christ’s Second Coming, nor to focus on the fear and horror we imagine around the event, but to spend whatever time is given to us in faith, hope, and love towards those around us.
And so I think one way to look at the parable of the talents is to read it in conjunction with that message. The third servant, the one who hides the talent in the ground, responds to the situation in fear of what is coming. The others go on with business as usual. There is a tension here, of course; if “business as usual” is eating and drinking with drunkards (24:49), then we should leave that and be more alert to the possibility of the Second Advent; but if it is responding to what we have been given by sending it out to multiply flourishing in the world, then that is a much better posture than the posture of fear.
When Christ comes, it may be difficult for us, but Christ will be with us. In the meantime—and even then, too—we need not fear.
What talents, literal or metaphorical, are yours to use for the kingdom?
What do you fear?
What should you turn away from?
What should you turn towards?
“Hark, A Thrilling Voice is Sounding” is a little-known hymn about the Second Coming, but one relevant to today’s passage. (Lyrics are on the screen.) Listen, sing along, and ponder.
(Prayer for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost in the Book of Common Prayer) Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Banner image by Furkan Dokuzlar on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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