Our text from 1 Thessalonians warns about the unpredictability of the time of judgment—anytime, like a thief in the night. But for what shall we be judged? Jesus’ parable of the Talents in Matthew gives a disturbing answer. For, it seems to rest upon an unjust premise.
The slaveholder is going on a journey and entrusts at least part of his estate to three slaves. To one slave he gives 5 talents. A talent was a unit of money that in those days equaled about 15 years of wages for an ordinary laborer. If you figure a minimum hourly wage of about $6, times 40 hours a week (of course they worked much more than 40 hours then), times 50 weeks (of course laborers didn’t get two-week vacations then), times 15 years, 5 talents was worth about $180,000. If you figure a 50 hour week and a 52 week year, the sum of 5 talents is about $234,000. Either way, that is a hefty sum of money for a responsible slave to invest. Two talents, which went to the second slave, was worth about $93,600, and one talent for the third slave amounted to about $46,800. Being a one-talent fellow myself, I would be glad for a $46,800 sum to invest and prove my worth.
The rub in the parable, however, is its allegorical meaning. The slaveholder is God, and the slaves are people like us. God gives some of us a five-talent endowment, some two talents, and some just one. Then God goes off and lets us lead our lives according to the resources of our talent endowment. At the end God returns for an accounting. Those of us who started off super talented—you see how I am playing with the happy ambiguity of that word—end up with the richest life. Those moderately rich in talents end up doubling their moderate riches. The one-talent people seem to be so fearful of losing what little they have that they hide it and in the end, when God comes, even that is taken away.
Isn’t it fundamentally unjust that some few of us are born really rich, with welcoming, supportive, and challenging families, with easy access to the best schools and universities, and all the connections to get good jobs and earn respect and worth for a life well-lived? Of course, some of the best endowed people are screw-ups, but that was not the point of Jesus’ parable. Compared with the really rich are those two-talent people, like most of us, who are moderately endowed and who need to work through somewhat ambivalent families, go to second-tier schools and universities, and work really hard to rise through careers the hard way. Although life is not a breeze for us, we can still make significant contributions and enjoy rewards twice that of our parents. Then there are those of us whom life has dealt a bum hand, with seriously broken and dysfunctional families, lousy schools and no home support for education, a future of marginal employment, ill health, and vicious neighborhood connections bound to drag us down. Of course, people from the worst of circumstances can rise heroically to great things, but that does require heroism compared with the super-rich who can pretty much coast to a decent and abundant life. Is it not unfair that anyone should be born with the one talent-burden? Is it not unfair that some people start off with all the advantages? How could Jesus have spoken so approvingly of the unfair distribution of the world’s resources? Then, to make matters utterly intolerable to fair people, he said that to those to whom much is given, even more will be given, and to those to whom little is given, even that little will be taken away. What happened to Jesus’ support for the little guy, the loser who is supposed to come out on top?
In Jesus’ defense, I have to point out his realism. He knew that life simply is not fair in terms of the originating conditions of our lives. Some people are born in prosperous and peaceful countries and others in wretchedly poor and war-torn nations. Some people are born in historical periods of peace and creativity and others in times of violence and social collapse. Some are born rich and others poor. Jesus acknowledged slavery as a condition of his society and did not complain about it. He pointed out that God sent the sun and the rain on the just and unjust alike. Nature and history are not fair. This does not mean we should not try to make them as fair as possible: we should. But that is because of our obligation always to do the best, not because our moral life aims to stay true to the originating conditions of our lives. Most often, we need to alter the originating conditions of our lives.
Some people like to think of God as a really big spiritual moral agent. The unfairness of life is a serious problem for these folks, because such a divine moral agent should be held responsible for creating an unfair world. Sometimes believers who treat God as a finite moral agent try to exonerate God by saying that the victims of life’s unfairnesses must deserve it somehow. When Israel was smashed by the Assyrians and Judah by the Babylonians, some of the prophets tried to argue that this was their punishment for being unfaithful to the covenant with Yahweh. But too many innocent people in Israel and Judah were devastated for that to be a fair punishment. No matter how sinful European Jews might have been, to say they deserved the Holocaust is outrageous. The fishermen and vacationers killed by the tsunami did not deserve that. The innocent people of New Orleans did not deserve Katrina. The fault of all this blaming-reasoning lies in the conception of God in the first place. God is the creator of the distinctions between good and evil, not an agent morally bound within the system of good and evil as we are. This theological point is important to bear in mind when attempting to understand Jesus’ parables.
Jesus was not at all concerned to judge the man who owned the slaves who loved investing. He didn’t even point out that investing for the sake of gain was condemned as usury by Jewish law. Rather Jesus was concerned with how the three slaves responded to the conditions and responsibilities placed upon them. That is, he was concerned with how we react to the conditions of life given us, however unfair they might be. It’s what we do with what we are given that counts in life, not what we are given in the first place.
This parable is about what counts in what we do with the hand we are dealt. The two slaves who were approved by their master used what they were given to create more. They risked what they had in the adventure to double the master’s money. Of course, they might have failed, and knowing their master’s reputation as a harsh man, they knew the risk they took. But apparently it did not occur to them to fall back on the third slave’s strategy. The strategy of the loser was to guard against losing. Fearing loss, the loser-slave buried the money and returned it safe but unused. The master was furious and took away what little the loser had. The point is, the loser was given a life. But he did not live it. He buried it. And when his life came to an end, it was as if he had not lived at all.
Now you have heard many sermons about the pitfalls of spiritual death, and the need for spiritual resurrection. Sin kills you spiritually, and Jesus’ atoning love revives the soul. Well, good enough! Jesus here points out something far more serious: the failure to take up spiritual life in the first place. It wasn’t that the loser was wicked. On the contrary, he was trying extra hard to be good and safeguard the property placed in his care. His problem was that he had never accepted the life given him in the first place as his to live. He did not see that he had a contribution to make, and that burying his talents was to avoid making that contribution. Perhaps this way of putting the point is too utilitarian. Instead let me say that he did not see that he had a life that needed living; he saw only a loss to avoid. So out of fear of loss he never came alive.
When we think of ourselves in this regard, we quickly come up with many excuses for the loser. The very poor have so little they cannot be expected to do anything but hunker down. The oppressed have so little hope they can’t be expected to leave their bunkers. The person beaten down by a long string of bad luck cannot be faulted for hiding from life. The clumsy person who is embarrassed in most social contexts must be excused for fleeing interactions. Those who have little should not be expected to risk what they have when unjust social structures are responsible for the meagerness of their life. The victims of injustice cannot be expected to stand up for themselves. The unfairness of life means that the losers are entitled to demand that the two-talent and five-talent people take care of them. You know what Jesus would say to all this: Sheepdip! The only way to live your life is to live it yourself.
Of course, the well-off do have a responsibility to care for the poor and to correct injustice. That is part of their lives. To evade that responsibility is a failure on their part—on our part--to take up life. To take up that responsibility is the vigorous living of our lives. The life of real responsibility is not the exclusive preserve of the rich and middle class, however. That is just another way of saying that the losers do not have to come to life. But if the losers do not come to life, Jesus said, they lose even what little they have.
The parable’s real point is not about poverty in the economic sense or injustice in the social sense. The real point is about spiritual loss. Even super rich people might never awaken to the need to live life in creative risk. The social benefits of five-talent people might in fact provide such a simulacrum of life that they never awaken to the need to double the talents they are given. As God creates the world, so we are all called to a life of creativity. But it is possible to go a long way in life without waking to that fact. St. Paul in our Thessalonians passage calls us to be awake, to emerge from the dark to live in the light of the great expectations put upon us. The spiritual message here is not a repair job for something broken. It is a call to waken to something defining life that has been there all along but that we had not noticed. If we are not wakefully creating our life as a finite version of the way God creates the world, then we are denying the divinity that lies within us and defines us.
So I invite you to invest your life and make it grow. Do not let yourself be defined by the originating conditions of your life and their inertial consequences. If you live in some unfair quadrant of life, do not accept failure as defined by that quadrant’s unfairness but go in a different direction. If you are a student in fear of failing, do not neglect to study but aim also learn more than is required. If you are a faculty member seeking professional recognition, do not accept the profession’s standards but redefine them by your own project. If you are in business seeking greater wealth, work hard but think outside the box about how to achieve wealth. If you think wealth is all that matters, invest your resources but re-evaluate what counts as wealth—it’s not just money. Being truly alive is about the risk and adventure attendant upon creativity. All creativity is God working within us. To seize the creative life is to embrace the divinity that gives us life in the first place. There is no losing in the life of creative risk. It is God all the way down and all the way up. That this might lead to failure in the ways the world measures success is an old story. The divine judgment on worldly measures is that the first will be last and the last first. The divine measure says that the only losers are those who refuse to live the life they are given. I beseech you to invest in life.