Ready or not, part 5

Forget about American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, The Voice, and all the others.  Here’s the talent show we should be focusing on.

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells another parable of readiness, similar to one Matthew gave us earlier at the end of chapter 24.  Again, we have a wealthy householder who goes on a journey, doling out responsibilities to his servants as he departs.  Three of them are given substantial sums of money in different amounts, according to his assessment of their ability to invest the money profitably.

As soon as the master leaves, the first servant gets right to work.  The master is gone for a good long while, and over that time, the servant is able to take the five “bags of gold”–the new NIV’s rendering of “talents”– he was given and doubles the investment.  The second servant has similar success, turning two bags into four.

When their master returns, these servants are understandably enthusiastic, and show the master what they’ve done.  And significantly, despite the fact that they began with different amounts in proportion to their abilities, the master responds with the exact same praise for both: “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!” (25:21, NIV).  (Wait: “a few things”?  Bags of gold?  This guy must be rich.)  He commends them for both their character and their actions, rewarding their faithfulness with more responsibility instead of vacation time.  The invitation, literally, is to “enter into their master’s joy”–pointing to the continuation and fulfillment of the joy they’ve already known of faithfully pleasing the master.

Then there’s servant number three.  He buried the single bag of gold he was given.  When the master calls him to account, this man sticks his foot firmly in his mouth.  Imagine your boss asking you for a progress report on a project you were responsible for, and the first thing out of your mouth is, “You know what?  You’re a really hard person to work for.”  Excuse me?

The servant’s interview goes downhill from there.  He sounds resentful of the fact that the master expects to turn a profit where he hasn’t done the work, and he attempts to duck responsibility by suggesting that he feared not being able to meet the master’s (unreasonably?) high standards.  He ends with a lame, “Here’s your money back.”  One wonders if he might have muttered “And good riddance!” under his breath.

It might be true that the servant was fearful of failure.  But there’s more to it than that, and the master’s response uncovers the hypocritical charade.  “So you know that I expect a profit, do you?  Fine.  Then why didn’t you at least put the money in the bank to earn interest?  Or were you too lazy to do even that one little thing?”

Busted.

His one bag of gold is taken away, and given to the servant who doubled his five into ten.  That’s not a reward, just a good business decision.  Then Jesus says: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (25:29, NIV).

Because money is central to the parable, it might sound like Jesus is saying that the rich get richer.  But we’ve heard this language from Jesus before, in the parable of the sower (or the “parable of the soils”) in Matthew 13:1-23.  There, the lesson seemed to be the gap between the faithless and those with the gift of faith.  The latter respond to the gospel by producing a crop far exceeding what was sown (13:23).  Likewise, in Matthew 25, fruitfulness is still in view, using the metaphor of money wisely invested.  What matters is the expansion of the kingdom, and the faithful servant knows this.

When people today think of the word “talent,” they think of a person’s abilities.  Few may realize that the word originally referred to a balance scale, then to a unit of weight, and then by extension to an amount (by weight) of money, in coins–hence the NIV’s “bags of gold.”  It’s only because of this parable that we link the word “talent” to ability.

In the parable itself, Jesus doesn’t specifically use the word to refer directly to the servants’ abilities; it’s more appropriate to say that the talents represent responsibilities.  But it’s clear that the servants’ faithful use of their abilities is what’s at stake.

Each of us has different responsibilities, spheres of influence–and abilities.  We are all called to the faithful use of those abilities for the sake of the kingdom.

So what are we looking forward to when it comes to showing Jesus what we’ve done with our talents?