I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a couple of parables - the parable of the talents and the parable of the coins and particularly about how they are both very similar, but yet also very different. Now I’ve no intention of doing any sort of in-depth analysis here but I did want to make a handful of observations for our thought.
Firstly, I want to think a little bit about how both parables concern the idea of growth. Secondly, I want to think a little bit about the framing and context of each of the parables and how one seems to have more of an inward focus and the other more of an outward focus. Finally, I want to think about the “return on investment” (apologies, I’m an accountant!).
The “traditional” interpretation of the parable, or at least of the talents, centres around the idea that as Christians we are expected to use our time, energy, resources – indeed “talents”! – in our day-to-day service to God. As a general concept this is a good one, but I’m not so convinced that is quite what is going on here – in particular, the idea of being “rewarded” for our own efforts, so to speak, doesn’t really sit right.
So, taking the three observations I mentioned, do they help us in any way?
Both the parables are obviously about growth in that the servants are given some sort of investment to work with, which they do or do not do to varying degrees of success; and whilst growth pleases the master, lack of growth disappoints him. For ourselves I think we can take a general lesson from this that whatever it is God has given us we should try and use it in a productive way – don’t hide it away, don’t bury it in the ground, do something useful with it. However how do we know what it is we’ve been given and what we should be trying to do with it?
Think of the framing and context of the parables - in Matthew 25, the parable is simpler than in Luke 19. There are fewer actors, there is no background story and it is seemingly told just to Jesus’s closest followers. As such it has a certain intimacy to it – Jesus telling his closest followers about a relationship between a master and three servants. The impression is that the parable is concerned with the relationship between master and servant. For ourselves, I think it emphasises the importance of our own personal relationship with Jesus and with God.
Luke’s parable, by contrast, has more servants, other citizens, a more fleshed out back story and, seemingly is told to a wider crowd, perhaps at the house of Zacchaeus. As such the focus seems to be about being a servant in a complicated, chaotic and potentially intimidating wider environment.
Finally, if we think about the “return on investment” – in Matthew the investment in all of the servants, even the unprofitable one, is very large (a talent = perhaps 20 years’ wages) and so any sort of return is also huge. Also, the amount of return is directly related to the initial investment (5+5, 2+2, 1+0). I think of a “talent” as a “transformative treasure” – something of great value and weight producing yet greater riches. Again, I’m not sure this is how I would describe using my own time and skills but maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong perspective.
A better fit would seem to be the “knowledge of the glory of God”. Basically, God’s presence in our lives can be a powerful, transformative thing and the extent of our own personal transformation is directly related to the extent we experience God in our own lives. Things like reading, prayer, fellowship and also “doing what Jesus would do” can help in this but, also, I think there is an element of perception - being open to seeing God at work in our lives and embracing what he brings into it.
In Luke, the return on investment is not connected to the initial investment (1+10, 1+5, 1+0) and that initial investment is modest (although for reasons I won’t go into here I don’t think the value of the pounds is relevant). It seems to me that the one thing we all get that is the same is that we get our life back, we get found, we get to start a new life in Christ and the parable seems to be suggesting that we have the ability to go out and influence others, help to “find” others but that we will each have different opportunities and levels of success in this work.
How do we go out and find others – well it is the coins that bear “someone’s” image that do the work and generate other coins that bear “someone’s” image and so I think it is being Christ to others that can help others to become conformed to that same image.
So, in summary, both of the parables seem to be about growth. In Matthew, the parable of the talents encourages us to put God at the centre of our lives and to look for him at work in our lives and so work towards an inner transformation. In Luke, the parable of the pounds encourages us to share what has been done for us and help use that inner transformation that has been worked in us (and that continues to work) and turn it outward into what can be a complex and intimidating world and to the benefit of others.
One day your Grandad gives you a book. How to Be the Best Person You Can Be. You hold it reverentially, and admire its clean-cut pages, rich binding, reassuring heft. You thank him politely, and put it carefully on your shelf, well away from sticky fingers or animal licks or coffee cups. When people admire the exquisite appearance, you say proudly, ‘My Grandad gave it to me for my birthday. I love it.’
A couple of years later, Grandad asks casually, ‘How are you getting on with the book I gave you?’
‘Love it,’ you say. ‘I look at it every day and think of you. And all my friends comment on what a special book it is.’
Grandad gives you a strange look, smiles, and returns to overhauling the scale model of the planets he’s been balancing.
Six years pass by. You’re now setting up house independently. You start to sort out all your possessions. By and by you reach the books, and Grandad’s gift comes off the shelf for the first time in ages. You run your hand gently over the beautiful cover. Just as you go to put it into the box, simultaneously the phone rings and someone hammers on the door. You startle and the book slips from your hand, falling open face-down on the floor. You instantly rescue it, hoping against hope it’s unmarked, undamaged.
Drat! There’s a crumpled fold in the top corner of the page. Annoyed with yourself, you smooth it out, but the crease remains. After all these years of keeping it in pristine condition, your own carelessness has created its first blemish. You sigh. C’est la vie.
But … hang on a minute. Where did that twenty-pound note come from, there on the floor? It certainly wasn’t there before. Did you put it inside Grandad’s book for safe-keeping at some point and forget all about it? No recollection of doing so.
You take the book out of the box again and open it carefully. You turn the pages with infinite care. And there, at the beginning of each new chapter, is a pristine twenty-pound note. Ten chapters. Ten twenty-pound notes. No wonder Grandad gave you a strange look. He knew you hadn’t read about becoming the best person you could be.
God has wrapped immeasurable wealth into the pages of his book. Does he too smile wryly when we pay lip service to his gift, but don’t really look into it, or see it, or appreciate it, I wonder?