[Jesus said to the disciples:] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. (NRSV)
This week our gospel text is the parable of the talents. This will be familiar to anyone who went to Sunday School or has spent any time at church. It may be the second most recognized parable after the Prodigal Son story. We are going to take a couple of days to look at this parable, but I just want to deal with one point today, then some others tomorrow.
Today, we are looking at what the master did. He is planning to be away for awhile, so he divided up his property for his servants to take care of while he is gone.
First of all, we have to answer: What is a talent? In this case, it is a unit of value. More properly, it is a weight of about 75 pounds but in the case of this story, used as money, a talent is worth 6,000 denarii. If you remember from a few parables back, a denarius is one day’s wage. Six thousand of them would be over 16 years worth of wages if you are working 7 days a week! I’m not going to take the time to figure out what it would be for the average worker in Jesus’ day resting on the Sabbath day, but you get the idea. One talent is a HUGE amount of money. These three servants have been given a tremendous opportunity and responsibility.
Secondly: The property owner in our story divided up his property unevenly, as his servants were not equally capable.
We have to be careful here. One of the difficult things about parables is they are intentionally open ended. The hearer is responsible to find the meaning that is there. This parable has been misused to teach that people are given what they deserve. People who have much got it because they are capable of handling much and people who are given little in life aren’t capable of handling more, so they should just be happy with what they have. Hogwash. Many who have been given much think they should have more, so they use what they have to take advantage of others. Many who have little end up with less all the time because they are at the mercy of those who have a lot and would game the system to maximize their advantage.
Payday loans are the perfect example. Just this morning I was reading about the “Protecting Consumers’ Access to Credit Act of 2017” that was introduced into the Senate in July. It has a nice sounding name. Protecting consumer access is alluring. Access is something we Americans hold dear. But read the bill. It isn’t really about protecting access to credit. It is about allowing lenders to remove the interest rate cap for borrowers with poor credit ratings. This will not protect the consumer by any means. The poor, who are the ones most likely to have struggled to repay a loan resulting in a low credit rating, are the LAST people who should have to pay outrageous interest. This law would undo the recommendations the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau put into place in October of this year that allows and encourages states to set regulations to make it possible for banks and credit unions to allow small short-term loans at low interest rates, potentially saving the 12 million consumers who use payday loans each year…generally the poorest consumers who would really benefit from the savings… billions of dollars annually.
Say a family is living paycheck to paycheck. Most of the time they can squeak by. Let’s say they get a flat tire and cannot get it fixed because it is nearly bald, as all three of the other tires are as well. They need a new set of tires to be able to get to their job that they cannot do without. They go to their “friendly” neighborhood payday loan establishment. In 2013 the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the average payday loan was about $375 with a $55 fee, to be paid back at their next payday, usually in two weeks. That’s about 14%, not terrible, but certainly not cheap. If the person can pay back the loan on its due date, all is well. It is expensive, but they dodged a bullet. If they CANNOT pay it back because something else unforeseen happened, it is rolled over and the interest accrues FAST at that rate. They pay another $55 so it is now $110 for that $375. The average payday loan does not get paid back in two, or even four, weeks. The reality is that most payday loan customers end up in debt for about 5 months. That’s about 20 weeks. At $55 every two weeks they end up paying $550 in fees for a $375 loan. There is NO JUSTICE in that. This is the Biblical definition of usury. This is plain and simple someone getting rich at the expense of the most vulnerable; not something Jesus would do.
OK, now back to our passage for today. The property owner in this passage gives specific instructions to his three servants to care for his property while he is gone. He puts everything he has in their hands. This is God. God has given us everything—all of creation—to care for and use. Everything we have is because God has given it to us in our time, our talents and abilities, our creativity and ingenuity. We have been given so very much to be responsible for. What an opportunity to make the most of God’s gifts and use them for good.
Many people will catch themselves feeling sorry for the last servant who only got one talent to care for. Remember, it is a fabulous amount of money he got. There is no need to feel sorry for any of these characters. Nor is there any need to feel sorry for ourselves if we have less than someone else. When you stop to think about it, we have so very much. It is rather jaw-dropping, actually, how very well provided for we are.
It is certainly not God’s intention that we use these good gifts to make life worse for someone else. It is also certainly not God’s intention that we waste what we have been given responsibility for. But maybe I am getting ahead of myself a little. For now, pause to give thanks for everything you have been entrusted with. It is more than you think. And tomorrow we’ll get on with the rest of the story.
blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.