I'm thrilled to launch a new feature at Students of Jesus. Each Saturday you'll meet a guest-posting genius holding forth on one of the 46 parables found in the gospels. Despite popular opinion, parables were not simple stories told to make things easy to understand. Jesus used parables to shake our world view, and perhaps occasionally to destroy the wisdom of the wise. Come wrestle with us.
Sarah Cunningham is a disarming person. She describes herself as a "skinny white girl," but behind the self-deprecation are observant eyes and a sharp mind. She's the internationally-known author of two books and one child, who apparently rules the household. You can find her work at Amazon or at her website, SarahCunningham.org.
When Ray asked a group of us to talk about parables, my mind immediately raced to the familiar parable of the talents found in Matthew 25.
This came to mind first for less than noble reasons. Not because I’m particularly inspired by the message, but because I’m particularly un-inspired by the way Sunday School tends to deliver the message up.
You know the story, as it starts in verse 14.
The master has to go to a far off place, so he leaves his servants with “talents”—talents being not “skills”, as we read the word, but an ancient unit of money.
The master then returns and—good news—two of the servants have invested wisely and doubled their money. But the third guy buried his in an apparent fit of paranoia, and didn’t do squat with what he was given.
The traditional telling I’ve heard umpteen times, and maybe you’ve heard too, is don’t bury your talent. Let it shine. If it’s told in Sunday School, it wraps neatly into a segué to This Little Light of Mine.
But this telling short-changes the actual passage, in my only-sometimes-humble opinion, and is a good example of how we sometimes accidentally flatten the Scriptures by pulling verses out of context and wielding them like individual fairy tales.
Panning out to the bigger picture gives us an expanded reading that is way more compelling and impressive than the two-bit morality tale.
Consider the following clues:
- Matthew is writing this book to a Jewish audience to try to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. That’s why, in Chapter 1, he starts the genealogy with Abraham and builds forward through King David to Jesus. Hint, hint, Jews. Follow the family tree.
- Right before this parable, organized in the same chapter, is the parable of the ten virgins. Just like the servants were awaiting their master, this story too is about people awaiting a man, the Bridegroom. And just like in the talent story, some of the people are prepared for the Bridegroom to come (they have oil), but some are caught unprepared
- Right after this parable is another story about people who were or were not prepared to recognize what was important. The king praises some for caring for the disadvantaged, saying that when they did this, it was as if they were caring for the king himself. Once again, though, there are some who looked at the disadvantaged and never took the opportunity to care for the king.
- The parable of the talents ends with the Master separating the servants. Two are praised and told to enter into the joy of the Lord. The other one is sent out to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This seems like a subtle clue that something more than talent, something eternally big, is at stake in the story.
When we put all this together, I begin to doubt that the parable is about using your talent for God at all.
I think Matthew—who wanted to convince the Jews Jesus was the long awaited Messiah—told three stories in a row about people who missed the King for an entirely different reason.
The Jews were missing Jesus right in front of them.
And that’s why in verse 29, he says that some of the people who “have” (the carriers of the faith, “chosen” Israel?) will lose.
Even though I think the “don’t bury your talent” in the ground version is cute, and metaphorically a wise principle, it frustrates me because it ends with the wrong question.
I don’t think we’re supposed to read Matthew 25 and ask ourselves if we’re using our talent for God.
Or at least I don’t think that’s the main thing.
I think we should ask ourselves if we—the carriers of the faith, the modern day church—and our religious practices are so empty that we wouldn’t see Jesus if he was starving right in front of us.