Ability and Twenty years of Income…

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I’m revisiting a series entitled “Seeing Beyond the Parables” which I began in 2018 and I’m including parables that were omitted. Today, we examine the parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. There is a similar parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27, but or focus will mostly be in Matthew. A mina is equivalent to about three years wages, and a talent is equivalent to about twenty years of income. This parable isn’t about how to get to heaven, but about how most people don’t want it anyway.

The Master goes away and leaves substantial resources to his servants. The story focuses on three servants: one who receives five talents (100 years of income), one who gets two talents (40 years), and one who gets one talent (20 years), each according to their ability (dúnamis -power)(v.15). Those with more skill double the Master’s investment and are invited into the Master’s joy. The one with little ability buries the money, does nothing, and is later rejected from the Kingdom into outer darkness.

Keep in mind this is parable about the Kingdom of Heaven (25:1, 14). It’s also reflecting this Kingdom’s economy, which is clearly a meritocracy because the Master gives more to his servants with more ability. While a meritocracy, we learn the Kingdom of Heaven is at the same time perfectly equitable for those who work, both enter the complete joy of the Master. The world struggles with bringing both merit and equity together anymore because we want an inclusive society. Like most parables, this one also reveals that the Kingdom of Heaven is exclusive…and is in part based on performance. Too many theologies of heaven get this wrong by camping in either works righteousness, or grace alone. Jesus is teaching what his brother would later reveal…“faith without works is dead” (James 2:14).

In this parable, everyone is entrusted with an income or a “life” that is not theirs. The teaching is that we are not owners, we are all entrusted stewards. Each is tasked with “èrgázomai” which means to bring about, to do business, to invest, or to trade. The parable compares those with ability to those with little ability. The non-investor has a misconception about his Master. He begins with negative assumptions “I knew you to be a hard man” (Matt 25:24) about the Masters economic requirement to “do business” and dismisses it. This “not wanting the Master to rule over him” (Luke 19:14) sets the stage for his apathy and aversion to wealth building. It comes back on him later.

Our world has mistakenly adopted the ethos of the third servant, in its rejection of work and meritocracy.

Another piece to this is that the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t out there beyond the world, but is “at hand”, “is near“, “is here.” This means that earth and Heaven are not two distinct places, but two dimensions within the same location. Rather than evacuate the world in a hope of mystical heaven, Jesus teaches that Heaven is to be brought down to Earth and that Kingdom work is what all people do. If we miss this point, we follow Plato in his dualism creating sacred and secular work. The settling of the accounts with the final servant reveals him to be the religious minded “evacuator” who despises this world, by refusing to invest here and now. He lives in fear of his Master (v.25) and diminishes the value of work believing it will work out in the end…it doesn’t.

The third servant did not know his Master. “I knew you to be a hard man” (v.24). What’s interesting, is that his misconception is not corrected but is judged by the measure of his understanding. Since he thought his Master was severe, then severity he receives. This misconception of his master is what limits his ability in the first place and limits what the Master entrusts to him. We can see the feedback loop bubbling out of this…wrong assumption about Master…entrusted with little…little production…severity of outcome.

The servant takes the twenty years of income and buries it, not even getting interest on it from a bank (v.27). His misconception of his Master becomes the measure of his judgment. The little he had is taken away and given to the servant with the most skill (v.28). Our world condemns it when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. How many today will call this Master “corrupt” for this “unequal distribution of wealth?” Remember, Heaven and its rules are here now. Do you think its coincidence that the wealthy keep gaining more and more while the poor grow gradually poorer. It isn’t luck, it’s the skill to invest. Those with no skill and a lot of money are always poor again. The Kingdom’s economy and social justice is for everyone to work and to invest what they have.

When justice is delivered to the servant who doesn’t work, few recognize it the judgment of a loving God. The servant is taken and cast out of the city walls where there is no light and no protection. Outer darkness, was a local idiom for the “Valley of Hinnom” which was the city dump outside Jerusalem. This is where refuge was burned, where the lepers, bandits, and rejects scavenged for scraps along with all the wild dogs. This is the “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This valley or Gahenna is how the original audience would have interpreted this idea of Hell. It wasn’t teaching Dante’s Inferno version of Hell that the modern church likes to teach. The servant who wasted twenty years is essentially given the inheritance of being a waste himself.

What if the Church regained this ethos to the poor? How many in our modern “tent cities” are capable, but unwilling? How many addicts play the victim? How many homeless lacked skill with what they had? There is a sobering reason why homelessness and poverty cannot be cured with a house and money. No one is an owner…we are all stewards of what we have. If we squander the time or resources given to us, because we do not know our Master, we will never know ourselves, and we will never join the Kingdom which is here, now, on display. We either invest what we have for the sake of others, or we forfeit it all.

In Luke’s version of the parable, this servant is brought before the Master and slaughtered. The severity of the teaching has a purpose. Not to scare us about going to a future hell but the sobriety of waking up to our living hell. The severity is to bring a sobriety to our assumptions and theologies about God. Our assumptions about our Master and his Kingdom either turn investors into inheritors or squanderers into hopeless dependents.

If we would enter the joy of our Master, we must start with what we’ve been given, and in faith, put it to work. Heaven is here now more than ever, and the sobriety of this parable reveals that fewer people want anything to do with it.