This Sunday’s gospel is Matthew 25:14-30. Matthew 25 is part of the last of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel. It is sometimes called the Olivet Discourse, so called because Jesus delivered it from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3). Lectionary outlines and podcasts can be found at www.bishopmike.com.
Incidentally, the Mount of Olives is pivotal land in the Palestinian/Israeli struggle. There is a Lutheran hospital now on the Mount of Olives, called the Augusta Victoria Hospital. AVH serves all in need regardless of race, religion, nationality or ability to pay. They specialize in ear, nose and throat, as well as pediatric nephrology. They also have a first-rate cancer center. Because of the wall, many Palestinians have no access to Jerusalem’s top medical centers. Located outside the wall, AVH is a critical center of care for Palestinian people. There are 800 olive trees on the Lutheran World Federation’s property on the Mount of Olives. Your church can plant a tree on the Mount of Olives.
I might also note that the ELCA is supporting a housing project on the Mount of Olives. Christians have been leaving Jerusalem. The Christian population has fallen from 30,000 to 10,000 since 1946. The dramatic settlement of East Jerusalem combined with the demolition of Palestinian homes has led to a housing crisis. The project has been delayed due to fact that Israeli authorities have not issued building permits, but in time 84 apartments will be built on LWF property, God willing.
Perhaps Jesus was sitting on what is now Lutheran World Federation property when he was uttering these words. In Matthew 24 we have Jesus’ description of the end times, and the persecution/tribulation that Christians will endure before the final victory. Some see this a prediction of the Roman persecution and the destruction of Jerusalem, while others see this as the cosmic battle at the end of time. The Left Behind series parlayed this into a fictional series playing on the idea of the rapture, a concept that faithful Christians would be preserved from this persecution and taken to heaven before the tribulation. This theology emerged in American evangelicalism after the 17th century and is rejected by traditional Lutheran theology.
Matthew 25 contains three parables:
1. The Virgins (November 6 for those who don’t do All Saints),
2. The Talents (November 13) and
3. The Sheep and the Goats (November 20, Christ the King)
So this week we’re on the Parable of the Talents. So the story goes, a man goes on a journey and entrusts his property to three slaves. The word is δούλους, so it should be translated "slave" and not "servant." To the first he gave πέντε τάλαντα, five "talents." To another he gave two, and to the final slave he gave one talent. A talent was a measure of mass or weight. It varied in different times and cultures. The talent is the largest weight mentioned in the Bible. From Exodus 38:25-26 someone good at math can figure a talent is about 3,000 shekels. This is the Canaanite system (based on Ugaritic), and not the Mesopotamian system, which divided the talent into 3,600 shekels. I believe both shekel and talent mean "weight," hearkening back to a time when business was done not with minted coins, but by trading certain weights of grain, wool and the like. 10 gerahs made a bekah (Gen. 24:22; Ex. 38:26). 2 bekah made a shekel (Gen. 23:16, 2 Sam. 14:26). 50 shekels made a maneh or mina (Ezekiel. 45:12; Ezra 2:69; Nehemiah. 7:70, 71). 60 maneh made a talent. Eventually weights were made corresponding to these amounts. These weights eventually morphed into coins. In New Testament times, a talent was 130 pounds.
This is all more than any parishioner would want to know, but us Bible geeks find it interesting. We can’t be sure what this much weight would correspond to American dollars in a November 2011 economy. But some folks estimate a talent would have been considered over 8,000 denarii. Since a denarius was a day’s wage, this means 8,000 days of pay, or something like 22 years. At an average income of $50,000 today, that’s over $1M. 5 talents then would be well over $5M. I think the point here is that it’s an absurd sum of money. As usual, Jesus is using outrageous images to capture his listener’s imagination. Like the image of gouging your eyes out if they cause you to sin, or a camel through the eye of the needle, Jesus is being provocative, if not very, very funny.
The ones with five and two talents double their investment through trading. The one with one talent buries it out of fear of the master. The first two are praised by the master. The third is chastised for being wicked and lazy. The story is designed from the get go to inspire outrage. It still works today. People hear this story and flinch. What? Those who have much receive more, and those with little have even the smidgeon they have taken away? What? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer? And the slave who returned the masters original sum gets thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? What kind of master is this?
Several things emerge from this text. First of all, on judgment day there will be a weighing of sorts. An accounting. This is a God of accountability. Perhaps deeds will be weighed, and the use of our time and talents. The word talent today, meaning a special aptitude comes from this very passage. The traditional interpretation of the passage was that Jesus was talking about the use of the gifts that God has given to us. So the weight "talent" came into Middle English as "special natural ability," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In other words, this word, that originally meant a measure of weight, came to mean a special aptitude because of Jesus’ use of it in this parable.
Another point that is clear is that the master gives a vast amount. We are blessed with immeasurable gifts. They all ultimately belong to the master, but they are ours to use for the time we are on this earth. Like the stories in which Jesus curses the fig tree, we have the sense that the master expects fruit, results. The gifts God has given us are to be used for God’s purposes, and not wasted. This seems to be a theme that Jesus hammered. Consider his words in Luke 12:48, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."
The poet John Milton seemed to understand it in this sense:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He, returning, chide
Joachim Jeremias saw it as a critique of the Scribes and Pharisees, who were given charge of the invaluable kingdom of God, and had squandered it. Will Herzog has a completely different interpretation, based on liberation theology. This interpretation requires us to forget everything we’ve ever read on this passage. The master is not analogous to God, but rather a very bad absentee landlord. He’s a slumlord, who praises those who exploit the poor for unrighteous gain. After all, as Calvin pointed out, lending money at interest was strictly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 22:25-27, Deut. 23:19-20). These stories are recorded in Matthew half a century after they were told. Each gospel writer appropriates the story in a way that speaks to the community to whom they’re writing. (We need to do the same. How does this story speak to your people?) It is hard to say, maybe even impossible to say, what point Jesus might have been making to his original hearers.
Luther noted that a tree is either growing or dying. This is true of our spiritual lives as well. Luther said the Christian life is semper in motu, always in motion. Bernard of Clairveau noticed that people who do not progress in spiritual life tend to regress. There is little stasis. Lange also likes the idea of these talents as spiritual gifts, or the spiritual life.
Here’s what the story does for me. It causes me to ask the question, "What am I doing with what God has given me?" The preacher might want to consider this question for the entire congregation. Luther said that one of the most important qualities of an excellent preacher is boldness. The good news is that God has generously given the world so much: natural resources, our talents, our gifts. The question is now how will we use them?
What has God given us? How are we using it for God’s glory? Consider our wealth, for starters. Professor of Economics and Finance (University of Michigan, Flint) Mark Perry notes that even the poorest 5% percent of Americans are richer than most of the world. http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2011/01/americas-poor-indias-richest.html We are the wealthiest people in the world. How are we using those gifts? From a divine perspective, are we using them well? Are you using your wealth for God’s purposes? To wit: Are you using your money for the things God really, really cares about?
What about your gifts, talents, abilities? We know what God cares about. Just read the Bible. Are we leveraging our gifts for God’s purposes? As we step back and look at our congregation, what assets do we have as a body? Is our congregation using its assets for God’s purposes, or are we sitting on our assets? (If you say it that way in a sermon, be very careful to pronounce assets clearly.) A bold preacher might dare to title the sermon, "Sitting on Your Assets?"
Taken as a trilogy the three parables of Matthew 25 might roll like this… Virgins: Be ready for Christ’s coming. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming. Be ready for the great reckoning at the end of time. What constitutes readiness? Talents: Perhaps the equitable use of one’s gifts – using what God has given us for the things that God really cares about. What does God care about? Sheep and Goats: When I was hungry you gave me food… Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me… God cares about those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick and imprisoned.
November 13 I will be preaching at a congregation that is in between pastors. The interim pastor has told me he has heard from the congregation consistently that they are hungering for a deeper spirituality. We can talk about spiritual practices of prayer, worship and reading Scripture, but one of the greatest tools for spiritual development is giving. One of the greatest strategies for growing ourselves may be assessing our gifts, and then putting them to use for God’s purposes. It is there that we so often are surprised to turn around and come face to face with Jesus.