Sunday, the Thirty-third

The Lord says: My plans for you are peace and not disaster; when you call to Me, I will listen to you, and I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you (Jeremiah 29:11, 12, 14).

Blessed are those who fear the Lord. (Psalm 128).

“Jesus told his disciples this parable: “A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted (παρέδωκεν, paredoken) his possessions (ὑπάρχοντα, huparchonta) to them. To one he gave (ἔδωκεν, edoken) five talents (τάλαντα, talanta); to another, two; to a third, one – to each according to his ability. Then he went away.” (Matthew 25:14-5).”

What exactly is a talent especially in the context of this Sunday’s Parable? It is a good question, along with a few other questions, to pose given the introduction to the Parable. Initially, we learn about “a man going on a journey” who later is known as the “master of those servants (Matthew 25:19).” The Greek for “master” is ὁ κύριος (ho kyrios, the Lord), which is the title of the Resurrected Jesus: triumphant Lord over sin and death. Then, prior to departure, “the man … handed-on (the translation of the Greek παρέδωκεν, paredoken) his possessions” yet “gave … talents … to each according to his ability.” Is there a difference between possessions and talents? If there is a difference between these two in the context of the Parable, is there a difference then between “entrusted [handed-on]” and “gave”? The reader might think that this is an over splitting of hairs, but I think it is part of a larger question dealing with why the two servants immediately invested the talanta while one buried the talanta. Unfortunately, many have been quick to reduce the difference to a matter of initiative versus laziness and thus appeal to the Parable to justify a Pelagian approach to the mystery and gift of Salvation. In other words, the Parable becomes the Christian way of saying, “Be all you can be” because “God helps those who help themselves.” (an often cited quip that is not found in the Scriptures nor does it have any standing in sound theology).

There certainly are elements of the Parable that reflect the sitz im Leben of Jesus’ Public Ministry as well as the Evangelist. Scholars note the custom of “entrusting” goods and lands to servants as a test for trustworthiness. But the practice also afforded a landowner the ability to travel from place to place to survey the holdings as well as the possibility for further acquisitions. In this case, servants acted as custodians or guards of the master’s goods while absent. Burying money or good, another action in the Parable, was a common form of protecting one’s (or another's) wealth and valuable possessions especially during a time of war.

On the other hand, there are elements of the Parable, particularly the talents, which do seem strange against the background of first-century life. Various scholars note that while we cannot know for certain the ‘exchange rate’ for a talent and contemporary currency, it was a surprisingly large amount of money and people of that era knew it. This would account for the element of “strangeness” or “vividness” that is characteristic of Jesus’ Parables. He uses many elements of ordinary day-to-day living in the Parables and invariably hyper-exaggerates one or two of the elements intending to ‘hook’ His listeners’ imagination and draw them into the mystery of Kingdom living that is at the heart of all the Parables.

Whether it is the case of 1, 2 or 5 talents (and the 5 talents also has a ring of “5” from last week’s Patristic insight on the 5 senses), talents do differ from possessions. In the Greco-Roman world, possessions (ὑπάρχοντα, huparchonta) were clearly ‘existing things.’ As such, depending on size, these ‘existing things’ had a connection to and from the hand. The image here is one having ‘a hand on the goods.’ Having a hand on the goods was seen as a type of control (in a good way), care-taking and safeguarding. In the case of “a man going on a journey,” he “handed on” or puts-into-the-hands of his servants the ‘existing things,’ the possessions presumably for their protection and safeguarding. But when it comes to the talanta, notice the action: gave (ἔδωκεν, edoken, from the Greek didomi, to give). “A man going on a journey … gave … talents.” In the Gospels, didomi (to give) often conveys an action of gift-giving. There is something magnanimous (in varying degrees of intensity) done on the part of one who gives. But it is clear that the initiative for the action lies with the giver, not the receiver. No matter what the receiver did, does, or will do the “hand” of the giver cannot be forced. It is even more interesting when one digs a bit deeper into the meaning of talanta. Talanta, in time, became a word synonymous with “coinage” or money. It was derived from a related Greek word meaning “to balance.” The balancing resulted from using weights to balance a purchase: an appropriate balance between an item’s worth and the willingness to purchase. The important aspect here is the balancing action.

In the Parable, 3 were given (in the context of gift) varying number of talents. A “talent” in its most root form is not necessarily a thing to be possessed in the hand, but an action (balancing) that requires continuous attentiveness and diligence. A talent, because it is an action and an action given as a gift, cannot be safeguarded by burying it because a talent technically is not an it, ‘it’ is an action that must be used. True, concerns of initiative, laziness, the return of the master (Jesus at the end of the ages) are all valid and worthy concerns. Yet even these concerns require the primal requisite recognition of what to do with a unique action given as gift.

Father in heaven,
ever-living source of all that is good,
from the beginning of time You promised man salvation
through the future coming of Your Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ.
Help us to drink of His truth
and expand our hearts with the joy of His promises,
so that we may serve You in faith and in love
and know for ever the joy of Your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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