One of the aspects I love about the Lectionary is that it often forces us to look at the same issue from multiple contexts. In this week’s pericope, we have a way of looking at the same issue that the Bridesmaids story talks of, just in a way I know many Presbyterians will understand more. This is one of our favorite stories of the talents.
When I was a kid this story was infinitely confusing. Mainly because the language always seemed to mess me up. I knew the word talent to mean “a special natural ability or aptitude” so it always messed me up to think of it as money, and in the case of this story, it is very important to start with understanding this as a monetary explanation. Yes, the symbolism of the allegory/parable is ultimately important, but understanding this in terms of its monetary example is imperative.
So I am going to get into just what a Talent is, biblically speaking. This is important, because the amount that is being given is quite massive. And thinking about it in terms of paper money, may cut out a bit of the perspective, and thinking about it in terms of numbers may be difficult too, since there would be weight within this story.
Before we talk about what a talent is, we need to first look at the shekel. This is the standard monetary unit. Like the early coin money in the United States, the metal, in this case silver, was a precious and necessary metal and comprised the value of the coin. The standard silver shekel would weigh roughly 8.25 grams. For perspective, a US Quarter weighs roughly 5.67 grams. 1 Talent would equal 3600 shekels or roughly 65.48 lbs or 5238 quarters. Just or fun I looked up online and found that this is just shy of $15,000, while it would not have been that much in those days, it would have been fairly equivalent. Granted I am not laying this out to make an economic argument, rather so that we can begin to think of the gravity of the situation and maybe understand the rationale better.
I know this made a big difference to me, because when I realized that it was such a large sum of money I began to read the characters differently. I mean when this was described as a couple hundred dollars, it’s a lot of money, but nowhere close to a year’s wage for many people, and probably much more than that for these three men.
For the first two, the Master knew them, and they knew the master and most importantly, trusted him. So when he gave them the large sum of money, they used their intellect to make that money work, investing wisely (most likely in some type of agricultural work; usury was prohibited) and reaping the rewards. But the one who received the 1 talent, still probably more than a year’s wages, did not do anything with it, even to use a proxy (i.e. a bank).
The sin this passage highlights is that the sheer amount of money became a fear for the one servant. Thinking that if he did not risk at all, at least he could give back the money; no harm, no foul. But he missed the ball completely staying safe. But the Master did not set him up to fail, and even though it was a lot, the Master trusted that he would be able to turn that money around, he did have that ability. Unfortunately, the man did not trust himself. So this is where the parable really takes off. God gives responsibility to us, each according to our ability, but always more than what we expect. We can take that and hide it away, or we can use it to see it grow. Our choice. Though choices have consequences, and when our choice is self-preservation, well, all we need to do is look at the third servant.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen