Today message arises from Jesus’ parable about talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Jesus’ overt language focuses on using talents—ancient units of money—in a manner that multiplies through wise investment. What was an ancient talent worth? The closest reckoning indicates that in Jesus’ day, one talent was the amount that an ordinary day laborer would receive in twenty years.
In the parable, three slaves had each received talents from a departing owner. One slave received five talents, the second was given two, and the third received only one talent, each according to their ability (an important qualification). When the master returned, he demanded an account of what each man had done with his money. The first two slaves had each doubled their initial investment, which means they had a 100% growth of principle. The third slave was too scared to invest, and he hid the one talent without so much as receiving ordinary banking interest. Not good!
The slave who refused to invest the owner’s money had heck to pay. The fool was punished because the owner was angry that the slave had not generated any additional income. Jesus went on to say that “[f]or 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” (Matthew 25:29). Does this mean that the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer? If that’s the case, then many people will feel encouraged by recent economic trends.
The issue doesn’t end with what seems to be a call to multiply money. Jesus also implicated the issue of character in his parable, saying about the third slave “[a]s for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30). Why was Jesus so harsh? Or, should we just stay quiet and give a gratuitous pass to these troubling verses? Some people cheer wise Wall Street investment banking, arbitrage, options and other forms of wealth-generation. For better and for worse, people who make money from money can’t find another passage in the entire Bible that supports what they do more than today’s parable. This is one of the few instances where Jesus so explicitly taught the virtue of multiplying wealth.
Given the potential harshness of today’s financially-oriented parable, is it possible that Jesus was misquoted or that the words were inserted by an ancient editor? Sure, but then that could be the case for any Bible passage. Perhaps we as modern, critical readers have a right and responsibility to transform the parable into something more expansive, such as to push an interpretation involving a person’s special abilities (i.e., talents—ironically the same word, borrowed from the financial meaning of talent). Referring to people’s talents as special abilities has been the norm, in part because it seems to be more just and socially acceptable. What do we get out of this interpretation? Well, something far more interesting than a raw lesson of multiplying finances. The result can be the urgency of how proper management results in all sorts of gain.
When examining all Bible narratives about Jesus there isn’t 100% consistency. Just when you Jesus seems neatly packaged and predicted something like today’s parable may complicate things. For example, do you think that Jesus was completely pacifist? Not so fast. There are at least two instances challenging that. One case has Jesus telling his followers to buy a sword (Luke 22:36) and the other passage describes how Jesus made a weapon to drive out people and animals from the Temple (John 2:15). Serious Bible students soon realize that the monochromatic, smiling Jesus they thought they embraced vanishes in a hail of contradictory images.
Just when people think that they have Jesus figured out, something arises that challenges them to think otherwise. This may be for the better. Jesus seems to become more real and relevant when the thin façade of regularity disappears. I enjoy things being predictable as much as anyone. However, we do ourselves and ultimately our faith a disservice when we let lowered expectations dictate the range of options. Ever how you perceive Jesus and his teachings, there’s unmistakable value in using your money and abilities wisely. Spread the word and multiply the wealth of promise and possibility.
–Reverend Larry Hoxey