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Buried treasure: The parable of the talents

This post was originally the script of an episode of my short-lived podcast called 
Not Your Ordinary Joe.

Some of the Bible stories just seem to filter into the culture. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that they’re Bible stories to begin with. One of the parables of Jesus came into the culture in a very powerful way somewhere around the 1200s, and is still widely known in our culture today.

Here is the Common English Bible’s translation of Matthew 25:14-30:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

“Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

“His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.”

Before we go too far into this parable, let’s just start with a little nerding out. The Greek word translated but the CEB as “valuable coin” is talentas—often transliterated in other English Bibles as talent, and this little story is sometimes called the parable of the talents.

A talent was a coin denomination of the Roman world in Jesus’ day. We can fairly conservatively estimate the value of each coin in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s US money. For years preachers gave sermons on this story about how those valuable coins represented the gifts and abilities God has given to each one of us, and pretty soon—probably sometime in the 1200s—biblically literate societies started using the word for an ancient Roman denomination of money, to talk about their God-given abilities.

The poor third servant

The gist of the story is that the master gives one servant 5 of these coins, another 2, and a third just one. Then he goes away.

At some point, the master returns, calls the servant in and asks them what they’ve done with her money.  The one that was given five, shows up with ten. The one given two shows up with four. Both have doubled the money given them. The third however, returns with just the one he was given. He kept it in a safe place—he’d buried it in his yard.

The master says to the first two, “Well done.” But when he comes to the third, rather than offering a mild correction, “You know you could have done more with what I gave you,” he drops the hammer. He calls him evil and lazy. Strips him of the coin he was given, and throws him out of his sight, out into the farthest darkness where there is weeping and the grinding of teeth. Brutal.

Whenever I read this story, I kinda feel bad for servant number 3. I’m not typically one to quibble with God, but it seems to me that this guy gets a raw deal from the master. Probably because I can relate to him. I understand what he was thinking.

You’re given something valuable, hold onto it. Do whatever it takes to protect from losing it. Can you imagine if he would have invested it and the market were to have crashed? What then. It’s not like he has the money to replace it. So he plays it safe, and he’s honest.

He tells the master that he was afraid of the consequences of not having it when the master returned. And he did everything to protect it. I get that.

So what gets the master so worked up?

Like nothing changed

Lately, I have approached this story different—trying to see it from the perspective of the master rather than the servant.

He had equipped these servants with everything they needed. He had set them up for success, and rather than using what he had been given, this one just goes about his everyday living as if nothing has changed. He takes this valuable thing he has been given, buries it and gets on with his life as if nothing had happened.

I’m sure you’ve heard a sermon or two about the talents being our talents. Don’t hide your light. Use the abilities you have been given for the glory of God, and all of that. That’s a valid point. I’m working on what I hope will someday be a book, about this very thought. We should be using and developing our talents—putting in our 10-thousand hours, as Malcolm Gladwell tells us—so that they can be everything they can be and put into use for the glory of God.

But there’s something else going on in this story.

Jesus opens this by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip.” The kingdom of heaven… that’s Matthew’s version of the kingdom of God—as a Jewish person forbidden from taking the Lord’s name in vain, he uses heaven as a euphemism for God, just in case.

I think in order to recover another level to this story, we need to remember that a talent was originally and literally to Jesus’ first hearers of this story, an extremely valuable coin, comparable to hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money. This is life altering stuff. And yet, the third servant does everything he can to bury it, to hide it, to not allow it to affect his day-to-day living.

Passive-aggressive blame

Servant three also plays this weird game with the master is his confession. He passive-aggressively blames the master for his lack of effort. “I knew that you are a hard man,” he says. “You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed.” There are very few I statements there, and a bunch of you statements.

The whole thing kind of reminds me of Adam in the garden when he refers to Eve as, “the woman you gave me.” Not my fault. Ultimately, God, you may have to look in the mirror.

I didn’t want to do the wrong thing, he seems to say. So I buried it.

Waiting for the day

I see a parallel here in the way so many of us think about our faith. We keep it like an investment, buried in the ground, not wanting it to change anything about us, about our lives. We want everything to remain the same and then when we die, cash it in for our heavenly reward.

And the master says, “No. That’s not what I gave this to you for. The treasure of the kingdom of God is not supposed to be buried waiting for your death or my return. Instead, you are supposed to change the way you live, right here, right now.”

As I have said elsewhere, that’s a big deal for me and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger deal in the world today. There is a cultural Christianity in the United States that runs counter to what many of us understand as Christianity. It’s a religion that preaches exceptionalism, exclusion, political power, physical and military might, and a purity that keeps the impure at arms’ length. All things many of us see Jesus working against in the gospels.

By the way, if you want to read an amazing book on how we got to this place, I recommend Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. I’ll put a link to it on the notes page of this episode and will post my review of it at soon, if it is not there already.

Like that third servant, we have this treasure buried in the backyard. We talk about our faith that we believe will one day “save us,” by which we mean “get into heaven,” yet continue to live resistant to the change that is possible if we would allow ourselves to let this valuable gift enter our hearts and change our lives. We’ve buried God’s investment in us, and the world around us is paying a price.

What if we were to trust Jesus, to live the kingdom, to let the talents work in us and through us? Maybe instead of exceptionalism, we would approach the world with humility. Rather than working to exclude, we would reach out to the least and the lost to lift them up. Rather than manipulating things around us for power in our church, our workplace, our local and national politics, we would instead lead with love by walking alongside those who disagree with us. Rather than keeping the impure at arms’ length, we would welcome others with open arms.

I want to do more of this. I want to go dig up the treasure I have buried and let it change my today, and not just my tomorrow. May we be people of life before death, as much as we are people of life after death. As Jesus shares in John 10:10, “I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest” (CEB).

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