14 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, '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.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, '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.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
This marks the second week in a row that we encounter Jesus through one of his most challenging parables. Last week it was the parable of the dishonest or clever manager, this week it's the parable of the talents.
The parable of the talents is the third of four parables Jesus tells that focus on what people of his day considered the "end times." The fancy church word for that is the "eschaton," the unknown but inevitable day when Jesus would return after his death and resurrection. Those early Jesus followers thought that day would occur within their lifetimes. Jesus told this parable just days before his death, so those impending events were clearly on his mind.
It's important to note the eschatological significance of the parable, because to our modern Western ears, this parable sounds like a lesson in Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) that was first articulated by Harry Markowitz in a 1952 journal article that led to his receiving the Nobel prize in economics. (One of the authors of today's blog has spent his career in finance, 15 years in the options trading business, so please forgive the aside.)
MPT basically says that if you want to earn above average return on a given portfolio, you must take above average risk. Pretty obvious, wouldn't you agree? So Jesus in the telling of this parable is about two millennia ahead of his time in describing the risk/return paradigm.
It's also important to consider the word "talent." To our ears it describes the God-given abilities we all have been given, in varying types and degrees. But in 1st century Rome, it was a unit of monetary measure, amounting to the equivalent of fifteen years wages for an ordinary laborer. Fast forward to 2017, and making a few assumptions about the minimum wage and the number of hours worked per year, we arrive at an equivalence of roughly 1 talent = $400,000, more or less. So that means the first servant was given around $2 million to invest, the second around $800,000, the third around $400,000. Any modern investment manager would love to receive any of those assignments.
It's also noteworthy that all three got something to work with. No one was shut out of the opportunity to multiply the master's personal investment in each of them.
The three servants had very different risk/return preferences: the first two were aggressive investors and traders and they prospered, the third fellow was so risk-averse that he buried the gold in the ground, roughly equivalent to putting it in the proverbial mattress or a bank savings account earning less than 0.5%. The master, a proxy for Jesus himself, praises the first two and condemns the third to the outer darkness for his risk aversion, his fear of failure. (We have wondered what Jesus would have said had in the story one of the risk-loving servants had lost all or part of the money. Alas, we'll never know.)
But getting back to the eschaton, Mark Douglas, writing in "Feasting on the Word," says, "Matthew is telling stories about the end of time - a point likely to be subverted or perverted when we focus too closely on stewardship, which has stronger theological ties to what God has already done for us that what God will do with us." (emphasis added) Douglas continues, "This eschatological passage... is about a willingness to resist fear and, like the first two slaves, to behave in risky and trusting ways, for in so doing we enter into the joy upon the master's return."
Risk. It's a constant presence in our lives. That's the only way to explain the existence of insurance. And it's clearly not just about money, it's about our very lives. The greatest risk of all is not to risk anything, and instead step out in faith for something we feel deeply passionate about. If we cower in a dark place, play it safe, take no risk at all, afraid to step into the light, we forgo the joy of the full, complete life of faith.
Jesus was a risk taker. We should be too, because remember we have the ultimate safety net, the assurance that God is with us, no matter what, if we boldly embark on the adventure of faith, the high-risk life of a disciple of Jesus Christ.
See you in church,