Dear People of God,
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
The portion of Matthew’s telling of the gospel appointed for eucharistic celebrations today is the parable of the talents. (Matthew 25.14.30) This parable comes immediately after the wise and foolish bridesmaids and is wrapped up in Jesus speaking about the eschaton, or the end of time.
The parable describes an extraordinarily wealthy master who calls together three trustworthy, capable slaves and explains to them that he is leaving on a long journey. He is not sure how long he will be gone but trusts each of them with a portion of his wealth, appropriate to the slave’s ability, to manage while he is away. To one slave is given five talents, to another two talents, and to the third one talent. (A talent being a measure of money worth about twenty years’ wages for an average day labourer in this society.) The first two slaves each head off and trade with their talents. They conduct business and do well for themselves, each doubling the amount of money they had been left with. The third slave, however, instead of trading or otherwise working with the money, goes off and digs a hole in the ground and hides his master’s money.
When the master returns and calls the slaves together again, the first two slaves present their work to him. The one left with five talents now has ten and the one left with two now has four. The master is very pleased with both of them, saying “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.” The third slave, however, presents their work, explaining that they hid the master’s money and were returning only what they had been given. They further explain that they did this because they see the master as ruthless and aggressive in business and were fearful of how they might be treated if the master returned to find that they had lost any of the money. The master is furious, calling the slave wicked and lazy and worthless, saying that if the slave was so worried about a loss of money they could have at least invested it with bankers—a zero-risk proposition—and earned some minimal interest. But instead they did absolutely nothing and, as a result, the master took the talent from them and banished them into “the outer darkness”.
This is a frightening ending to a parable that is part of a larger discussion about the end of time and God’s final judgement of humanity. Matthew is never afraid, in his telling of the good news of Christ, to make reference to final judgements and often in dramatic fashion. This is uncomfortable to read at first, but it is also always placed beside a God—the Judge—who is always loving and gracious and merciful. How, then, does the third slave come to such an end?
The master is clearly a man of enormous wealth. One talent is an incredible sum of money and here he is distributing eight of them, inviting three of his slaves who he believes capable with money to manage them while he is away. The slaves are invited to participate in some of the richness of their master. They have been given a portion of his wealth, or of his kingdom, if he were a monarch, and invited to make use of it as best they can. All three slaves take this work on and we see, in the master’s commentary on his return, that the first two have not only caused the money to multiply, but have grown themselves. They have been trusted with a little, have probably learned much in the time of the master’s absence, and they are able to show to the master the fruits of their labour.
The quantity of money they have earned does not seem to be what the master is most concerned about. The one who earned five more talents is given word-for-word exactly the same praise as the one who earned two more talents. What the master seems most pleased with is their faithfulness in tending to the work which they promised to do for him. The master’s response here—a focus on quality of work over quantity of money—may explain why he is so upset with the third slave. The master even says that if the slave had given the money to the bankers and returned with the original talent plus a few more denarii, it would have been fine. But instead, the slave has done nothing. Rather than follow the master’s instructions and put the single talent to work, even if it may have been an overall loss in the end, the talent was hidden away and the slave did not do what was asked. A broken promise and a betrayal of trust.
The master left the talents with the slaves for a purpose. Surely a man this wealthy could have left the money in a vault or otherwise safely stored if he was only concerned with it being present when he returned. But the master knows that this money will do nothing if left sitting in the vault. The master also knows that he has three slaves who are capable managers of money. The master chooses to give the slaves an opportunity to put their aptitude to good use and, at the same time, to give the money an opportunity to work to its intended purpose. The money’s purpose, the reason he has acquired it, is so that it can work for him. Money, after all, is little use if it is just a pile of metal pieces sitting in a box or room somewhere. Money, in both his economic system and ours, is only able to work and to bear fruit when shared through investment and conducting business. (The inherent goodness or justice of these economic systems is an important topic worthy of much discussion, but well outside the scope of this letter.)
Money bears fruit when it is doing what it is intended for: facilitating trade and commerce. Skills, like the financial aptitude of the slaves, grow when they are put to use. Skills like playing a musical instrument fade if not employed regularly; legs that climb hills and run races grow stronger and faster. The master in this parable is wealthy enough that he is not concerned about how much money the slaves return. He may even have been content with an overall loss on their trading, so long as there was evidence of growth. Mistakes and losses can be exceptionally fertile ground for the fruit of learning and knowledge to grow. Here, in the cast of the first two slaves, the money has grown, their skills have grown, and the trust in their relationship with the master has grown. In the case of the third slave, the money has stagnated, the slave’s skills have not grown, and the trust between slave and master has been broken. All because the slave was fearful of how the master might react if they did as they were asked.
I am very hesitant to equate money and love, for obvious reasons. But, in the case of this parable, I think a comparison—not an equation—may have some use. Love, similar to money or skill or trust in a relationship, can grow and it grows best when it is put to work between people. God’s love is freely given to us and it is to our immense benefit. God’s love is always given to us in outrageous abundance, just as the talents were an outrageous abundance of money given to the servants. Love desires to grow, to push, and to produce good fruit which spreads it still further.
Sure, we can persuade ourselves that love ought to be hoarded up for fear of losing it. That if we give away all of the love we have, there might not be an opportunity to find more. Or that God might be upset with us if we spend the love we have been given poorly. I have heard these arguments made, if not in so many words, in all manner of meetings and discussions about the mission and activity of the Church. Questions about whether a particular person or group of people are worthy of outreach—deserving of demonstrations of God’s love already given to all of Creation—as though the love of God present in the Church was a finite resource. That it might run out or be applied in an inappropriate situation.
But, really, is it possible to spend love poorly? Is there any situation, any person, any relationship where a contribution of love, or grace, or mercy, will do anything other than good? Unlike money, love cannot be spent poorly. Though it may take a long time to see it—longer than our lifetime in some cases—careful sharing and tending of love in all of our relationships will bear good fruit. It cannot help but do otherwise, for the love we share is not of our own creation, like money, but is the love of God first given to us.
In our baptisms, in our prayers, our conversations, our learning, we are reminded of the call to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. We hear over and over in scripture, in the tradition of our Church, and in the stories we share with one another about the abundance of love which God has poured and continues to pour out on us. God’s love heals and strengthens and fills us for our benefit, to be sure, but it overflows out of us and begs to be shared with the world around.
Love which is shared faithfully grows and heals and strengthens and produces such incredible fruit as to bring great joy to its source. Love which is hidden out of fear is love which cannot grow, cannot do its intended work, and pains the one who gave it and, in the end, leaves the one who hid it with nothing at all.
Stay safe, healthy, and well. Be love and blessing in the world this week, beloved people of God.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Andrew Rampton +
This letter was written for the Parish of Holy Trinity, Winnipeg.