Well done

As the days grow shorter, the Sunday texts get darker. No more lilies of the field and birds of the air for us; no, we hear of weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness. Some of us hear the words and fear creeps in, fear of falling short, fear of rejection and exclusion. We long for acceptance and belonging, and this just sounds like more of what we already know: 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. The words make me shiver. We struggle to build economies where it’s not just the rich who get richer, and Jesus sounds as though there is some kind of cosmic principle at work that is also the basis for divine judgment. What is going on here? Did we just see compassion and mercy fly out the window?

The story involves enormous amounts of money. A talent here is not your God-given talent for music or multiplication, a talent is a ton of money. I did the math. One talent equals 60 pounds, and a pound equals 100 denarii, and a denarius is the minimum wage for a farm worker in Jesus’ day. So based on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 a talent would be $348,000. This man, going on a journey, entrusted his entire property, everything he owned to his servants, to each according to his abilities. This means the first slave was handed $1.74 million and he went off and started trading, along with the second slave; and in the years of their master’s absence they each doubled what they had been given. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Now the spot light is on the third. We know he dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money, and in the first century that was a common, good and faithful way to protect a safety deposit. Nothing indicates that the slaves were given specific instructions what to do with the money, but clearly the master was not happy with the third slave’s performance. The story has a strong allegorical flavor; it’s hard to look at the master and not see him as a representative of Jesus and the slaves as Jesus’ disciples. Two of them are praised and invited to enter into a place of joy, while the third is not only left empty-handed, but thrown out. The line seems to be drawn very clearly. But let’s complicate the simple plot a little.

Let’s pretend there was a fourth slave, one who was given three talents, according to her abilities. And she also went off at once and traded with them, and upon the master’s return she said, “Master, you handed over to me three talents and I traded with merchants from east and west, north and south – and it’s all gone.” What do you imagine the master said to her? Did he invite her to enter into his joy or did he call her wicked and reckless? Your answer will depend on what kind of master you think he is and what to make, in an allegorical reading of the story, of those fat bags of cash.

In Matthew, Jesus did not tell his disciples this story after giving each of them a denarius and saying, “Now go and do some good.” This story follows his teachings about discipleship, and at the time Jesus was only days away from being crucified. The story is about us and what we do with all we have been entrusted by our master before he went away. Between us, we have been given all that is his. We have his teachings and his spirit, we have the authority to proclaim the good news and the power to forgive each other – he has entrusted all that he has to us. None of us, of course, will claim to be five-talent servants, we’re much too meek to be so bold. Let’s say, in the spirit of humility, we’re all half-talent servants. That’s perfectly fine as long as we don’t hide our half-talent in a hole. Together we have been given all that is needed to participate in God’s mission in the world. Half-talent discipleship is just fine as long as we don’t defer to what we might consider better-endowed disciples when it’s time for compassionate action or truth telling.

It’s not about the numbers or about calculating the estimated return on investment. It’s about digging up the buried treasure of all our master has entrusted to us and trading with it. “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher,” says Jesus, “and the slave like the master.”[1] It is enough for us to imitate him, to invest ourselves the way he did for the sake of God’s reign: with generosity and kindness, with prayer and mercy, lovingly and fearlessly. It is enough for us to discover how much we have been given and to make it our daily joy and work to invest it.

The third slave in the story did not know his master. “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” The master we know has scattered the seed of new life with lavish extravagance. The teacher we follow in no way resembles this servant’s description. If there is one thing we know, it is that he is not harsh. He only reaps what has sprung up from the seeds he scattered throughout his life: seeds of grace, seeds of hope, seeds of joy. He himself is the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, and he only gathers the abundance of fruit that gift has born.[2] The third slave in the story did not know the master.

Jesus has entrusted the good news of the kingdom to all of us half-talent disciples and encourages us not to hold back when it comes to trading with what we have been given. In the kingdom economy a tiny mustard seed grows into a tree, and the birds come and make nests in its branches.[3] The generous gift of five loaves and two fish more than doubles and thousands feast on it.[4]

So what about that fourth slave I asked you to imagine as part of the plot? “Master, you handed over to me three talents and I traded with merchants from east and west, north and south – and it’s all gone.”

“All gone? Well done. Nothing you do in my name is ever lost. Your faithfulness has born fruit in places you never saw and in moments long after you moved on. Come, enter into the joy of your master.”

Jesus teaches us, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[5] I believe he is not just talking about the rare circumstances where his followers will have to face violent persecution. The way I hear him, he’s addressing the daily challenge of investing ourselves in God’s mission without fear: think about that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off for months, and now imagine that moment of courage when you simply begin it, although silence has felt so much safer for so long; or imagine that moment of profound faith when you start moving toward forgiving someone, when for years burying that impulse seemed so natural; or imagine yourself in that large group listening to a speaker and everybody around you seems to be nodding in agreement and you know it’s not right, and then the moment when you stand up, your knees shaking and your heart beating up in your throat, and you say, because love demands it, “I disagree.”

It seems to always begin with that moment when you discover that you have been given all that is needed to participate in moving life, your life, somebody else’s life, a little closer to the kingdom. Sometimes that discovery feels like somebody just turned the light on, and sometimes it’s like digging through layers of dirt and unearthing a gift, a hidden treasure that’s been buried longer than you can remember.

Jesus reminds us that “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the landstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” [6]

As the days grow shorter, the nights get colder. We let the light of Christ shine in the dark by participating in Room in the Inn, by opening our doors and welcoming strangers as our guests, offering them a safe and warm place to spend the night. Those gestures of hospitality, those casseroles and sausage biscuits, those moments sitting at table with three or four homeless men and listening to their stories may seem so little, pennies of kindness really – but we are trading with what we have been given and entering the joy of our master. Eventually all of us half-talent disciples will realize that we have indeed been given the entire kingdom treasury.


[1] Matthew 10:25

[2] John 12:24

[3] Matthew 13:31

[4] Matthew 14:17

[5] Matthew 16:25

[6] Matthew 5:15-16