In this time of celebration, when we herald in the birth of the one who declares the gospel, I am reflecting on the parable of the talents.
In this parable, a master entrusts his property to three servants, giving one five bags of money, or talents, another two bags and another one bag.
The first two multiply the money, while the third buries it out of fear of loss and punishment. The first two servants are rewarded. The third is punished by being cast out into the darkness.
In my childhood, the meaning of this parable was explained to me: Good stewardship means investing money wisely, so that it will grow. Faithful servants invest their money wisely.
This interpretation fits with wisdom in the dominant culture: Good deeds equate with growing wealth. A master rewards those who grow financial resources.
I am not sure this interpretation makes sense if Jesus is the master.
Growing wealth was not the message Jesus typically taught. In Matthew 19:21, Jesus instructs the rich man: “Go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Jesus is describing a different kind of wealth, unrelated to money. The rich man is called to a different kind of logic, a calculus beyond individual wealth and well-being. Giving away all his wealth would free him to follow Jesus, unencumbered.
In Luke 13, when Jesus calls Peter, James and John, he asks them to leave their livelihood immediately, including a boat full of fish he has just instructed them to catch, to follow him. This does not make sense if the goal is to grow material wealth.
Jesus did not spend the years of his ministry seeking financial security. He lived in the open, unhoused. He taught about the kingdom of God, which he said is like a mustard seed: the tiniest seed, which grows into a great tree.
What can the parable of the talents mean, given Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God? Is it possible Jesus was not talking about money in the parable of the talents?
As a child, I identified with the servant who buried his money to keep it safe. I understood the drive to do what is safe to avoid disaster. I could not understand why a servant trying to do a good thing by avoiding disaster would be cast out.
Maybe the parable of the mustard seed from Matthew 13 can help here. The mustard seed is tiny and nonthreatening. Yet when planted, it grows into a mighty tree.
Can this mean that spreading the good news, or liberation for the oppressed, can grow into something large and life-giving, a tree where birds can find shelter?
What would burying one’s wealth equate to, if non-monetary wealth is what Jesus instructs the rich man to invest in?
I wonder if burying a talent might mean hiding the gospel — avoiding Jesus’ radical message of good news for the poor, release for the captive, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and the announcement of the year of our Lord’s favor (jubilee, or the reordering of human systems).
At times it feels safter to keep this message buried in the ground — especially when the captives, the oppressed, call out for justice. It can feel safer to avoid disaster by getting along.
Maybe if we equate wisdom with growing financial wealth, we are drawing further away from the kingdom of God. When our wealth insulates us from the oppressed, we can choose to look away.
But if we spread the message of the gospel, if we live it and share it, we have the opportunity to grow a mighty tree.
Maybe when we focus on growing our wealth by following the wisdom that is conventional in a capitalist -society, we are burying our true wealth.
Maybe the richer and safer we make ourselves, the further we draw away from the freedom to follow Jesus and his radical gospel.