A master entrusts property to slaves before going on a journey: five talents to one, two talents to another, and one talent to the third. Some scholars say this is a huge amount, a talent as a lifetime’s wages.[i] It’s extravagant, an amazing invitation. I’m entrusting you with all of this. Either way it is a surprise, a gift, and an invitation to act. They are differing amounts, “according to the ability of each.” The master trusted with particularity, noting the unique ability of each.
After a long time, the master returns. The first two say: You entrusted me with this amount, and see I have doubled it. “Well done, [you are] good and trustworthy.” Having been trustworthy, I will give you more. The master doesn’t say: You are successful. Rather: you are good and trustworthy.[ii] You stepped out on my behalf buying and selling property, investing what I handed over. It appears that engagement and participation are more important than a particular return.
“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.”1
“…I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground…I was afraid…”1
That slave, who received one talent, often speaks for many of us. Isn’t fear of making a mistake, of trespassing, capable of paralyzing us into passivity and inaction? And when fear and inertia entrap us it is easy to imagine ourselves living in the freedom of the gospel while we are, in fact, trapped in slavery to the Law.
We hear today another parable of the kingdom—it follows directly on the parable of the ten bridesmaids from last Sunday. A parable is, of course, open to interpretation. It’s often hard to know exactly what Jesus had in mind, but the effect of a parable is to draw the listener in, to engage the imagination and intellect and moral sensibilities. But the parables of Jesus often leave us scratching our heads a bit.
Those who have get more and those who have nothing lose even what they have? We may find ourselves in a kind of wrestling match to sort it all out. Jesus being the consummate teacher, I suspect the wrestling match, even some indignation, is what he desires. The personal engagement with the Living Word, even if it’s arguing, is better than spineless passivity. So, as Jacob wrestled mightily with the angel of God, we often wrestle with the Living Word as he comes to us by means of texts, sometimes confusing or obscure texts.
In Jesus’ day, there was considerable conversation about “talent.” Hearing about a “talent” was not in reference to someone’s ability; rather, talent was about money, as we hear in this Gospel reading today. If Jesus is referring here to the talent-weight of silver, one talent would be approximately $300,000; if gold, upwards to $3 million in today’s exchange. That’s one talent.