"Enter the joy of your master."
This phrase, I believe, more than any other verse serves as a leitmotiv for interpreting the parable of the talents. Other motifs are possible, of course, and have been amply used in the history of interpretation, especially for a rather simplistic justification of small venture capitalism! This parable has also been a favorite text for stewardship campaigns. However, when we use the parable of the talents in this one-sided way, we miss the profounder implications that it proposes for both grace and judgment.
Yes, as in the parable the lectionary presented last week (the ten young women), we again have a story that provides insights into the dynamics of grace and judgment in Christian life. And, as we saw last week with the parable of the ten young women, some are invited to a festival and others are apparently not. The great hymn writer, Philipp Nicholai, called this feast the "Abendmahl" or Lord's Supper or Eucharist. The feast -- the awaited parousia -- is not some far-off event but the sharing of bread and wine at the Sunday table. Here, around the table, we enter the joy of our master.
Preachers are confronted by some serious questions when it comes to this parable. Many are disturbed by the harshness of the judgment against the third slave. Is this the type of God we worship -- a God who rewards the rich and makes then richer and condemns the poor, only making them poorer?
In order to move beyond initial fears concerning the characterization of the master, it will be important to highlight certain unusual elements in the parable. What is initially striking in this parable is the superabundance of gifts. The table, so to speak, is overflowing. A talent is a vast sum of money and generously distributed to the servants though in different amounts. The master entrusts his wealth to his servants. Not only is he trusting them with his wealth, he does so over a long period of time. Our culture, which places so much value on things happening immediately, even instantaneously, has become unaccustomed to waiting. Yet here another gift is the gift of time, a "long time," allowing the servants to live faithfully in this superabundance. The servants already participate, in a yet incomplete fashion, in the life of their master. If we, as preachers, place all the emphasis on the last scene and the judgment of the third servant, the parable becomes merely a story about judgment. If, however, we put more emphasis on the superabundant gifts as described at the beginning of the parable, we invite listeners into understanding a deeper reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This reality becomes even clearer when we focus on the character of the master. In many parables, an allegorical temptation is to equate the master with God. Here, an allegorical twist happens in that Matthew equated the master with Jesus. The master is the one who is present with the servants and then the one who departs only to come back again. When the community interprets the master as representing Jesus Christ, the dynamics of the parable change. Jesus Christ cannot be interpreted as a hard slave-master who demands unjust practices for profit from his servants. We are forced to think of the master as inviting his servants into a fullness, a superabundance of grace that is continually offered. Saint Isaac the Syrian put it this way: God can only give faithful love. There is a paradoxical restraint in this assertion that is grammatically limiting but obviously not existentially confining.
The master, already possessing the gift of the talents, is inviting his servants to share in his joy. When the first two are finally invited to "enter the joy of their master," they are perhaps not entering a greater fullness than before but rather now are able to recognize the dynamics of joy that undergird the gift of faith. The joy of the master is the joy of the feast that is self-giving, sharing, being distributed into the world. In this sense the interest gained on the talents is like the hundred-fold that the disciple receives when he or she gives everything away to follow Jesus. "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29). The obedience of trust is not a burden or a fearful endeavor but is precisely the joy of discipleship in which everything is given (the gift and the interest!).
Hopefully it is now clear why this parable cannot or should not be used simply as an admonition for good financial practices or as a justification for a capitalist mentality. This would be seriously misusing a profound Gospel invitation into a realm where calculation is abolished. In fact, we discover in this realm the very opposite of a materialist's approach to life: the interest happens in giving away. Rewritten sacramentally, we could say: we are invited to a meal where there is simple but good food and most importantly enough for everyone. Here, we participate in the joy of our master.
What then can be said about the third servant? The judgment still appears to be very harsh. However, if we consider the parable as a parable of invitation, perhaps his plight takes on a different perspective. If, as I have argued, the master is inviting, continually inviting into superabundance, grace, and joy (which is nothing other than inviting into discipleship) then the only conclusion that can be drawn is the third servant is not able to hear or accept the invitation. The third servant has not only hidden the talent, he has buried himself. The third servant is not so much condemned as he condemns himself to a place -- a life -- that knows not joy, that knows only darkness and wailing and grinding of teeth. This place, as such a life, is self-created.