Parable of the Abundant Talents

Talent in Abundance
Matthew 25:14-30

Today’s parable of the talents is often taken as a brief for capitalism – and perhaps in these times, when we are witnessing a kind of corporate socialism, such a brief is necessary. The apology for capitalism goes something like this: The master congratulates and rewards the servants who invest their resources and double their initial investments. At the same time, the master chastises the servant who, out of fear, buries his money in a hole. When the master comes and demands to see what the servant has done with his stake, the servant digs it up and returns the investment unimproved, whereupon the master explodes with rage. “You wicked and lazy slave!” he shouts. “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.”

Alternatively, in a somewhat more benign reading, this parable of the talents takes the word talent at face value as being, not a denomination of money or currency, but as talent in the sense of ability. The lesson then would be that we should use and develop our God-given abilities to the fullest. Anything less would be ungrateful and irresponsible, thereby earning for the laggard the enmity of the master.

I suppose that there are good reasons to embrace these interpretations, although I confess that I have my doubts that Jesus felt any need to offer a précis of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

I propose instead that we view this parable in the context of abundance rather than privation or judgment. Let’s remember that a talent, in first-century Palestine, was as an extraordinary sum. The master, then, was entrusting his wealth to the servants. And he was willing to do so over a long period of time; rather than seek instant gratification or a quick buck, he was willing to walk away and allow the servants, effectively, to enjoy the master’s wealth – not fully, perhaps, but at the least vicariously.

And what is it that the master – Christ, in this case – entrusts to his servants? I suppose the televangelists and the prosperity preachers would have us believe that Jesus is doling out huge dollops of affluence to the faithful – sports cars, furs, vacation homes – in hopes, of course, that the faithful will redirect some of those assets to the prosperity preachers themselves. I find no warrant for that in the New Testament.

We could enumerate the various theological virtues associated with the deity: omnipotence, compassion, mercy and the like. But the overriding characteristic attributed to Jesus was love, unconditional love….

So what the master dispenses out of his storehouse in copious measure is love, love without condition. And, when the recipient responds in kind – by responding in love toward others – that initial investment multiplies. But if the recipient of the gift of love does not reciprocate with a demonstration of love toward others, the initial gift becomes stagnant and yields no return. 

Love has a way of multiplying, not diminishing. The lesson of this parable – and of the New Testament generally – is that love is not finite. It’s not something that you dole out parsimoniously: “I’ll love my husband and my family and leave it at that.”
1 John 13:34 (NIV).

No. Like yeast, love grows and expands…. 

The servant who buried his master’s talent was not, therefore, acting unreasonably. It’s far easier and much safer to slink away and to cower in the corner. That way we don’t risk being hurt and disappointed.

But, in so doing, we miss out on the richness of life, the satisfactions of love offered freely and – in most cases – reciprocated. And when true, unconditional love is met with rejection, the response dictated in the Gospels is not a slinking away in despair but a redoubling of love. “For to all those who have,” Jesus says, “more will be given, and they will have an abundance.”

And that, to me, sounds like a good investment.

- Randall Balmer, "Talent in Abundance," Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2011; Christ Church, Middle Haddam, Connecticut.