Playing it safe may be exactly the wrong way to live.
When I’m listening to a familiar passage of Scripture read out in church, I find it easy to gloss over details that I’ve heard many times before. Then one day one of those details jumps out at me and grabs my attention like a serpent who leaps out of nowhere and bites its victim.
That happened recently when the gospel reading in church was Matthew 25:14-30. This is the familiar parable of the talents. Jesus tells it as part of his instruction on how his disciples are to live as they await the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.
The parable tells of a rich man deciding to go on a long journey. Before he leaves, he summons three slaves and entrusts each of them with differing amounts of money to manage while he is gone. One receives 10 talents, one five talents, and the last one one talent.
The rich man must have been the equivalent of a billionaire today. In the ancient world, one talent represented 6,000 denarii. One denarius was typically a day’s wage. So one talent would equal a day laborer’s earnings for 16 years. The slave receiving five talents was receiving 80 years’ worth of normal wages. That would represent several million dollars today.
The rich man must have had great confidence in these three slaves to entrust such enormous sums to them. He gives them no instructions on what they are to do with the money.
Two of them invest the money in trading ventures, with spectacular results. When the master returns and demands an accounting of the money, the slave with five talents reports that he has earned five more. The one receiving two talents reports earning another two. In both cases that represents a 100% return. Spectacular investing by any standard!
The last slave, however, buries his talent. When his master returns, he digs it up and returns it. He must have thought he had done well. He was returning the money safe and sound, without loss.
The first two slaves receive lavish commendations from their master. But the third slave receives a ferocious denunciation. The slave is deprived of his money and cast out into the outer darkness. His strategy of keeping the money safe backfires badly.
A fatal misperception
What grabbed my attention when I heard this parable read in church was the motivation this poor slave gives for his action. He tells his master he knew that he was a demanding master. So he says he was afraid. That’s why he hid the money rather than using it.
“I was afraid.” That’s what drove the slave. He was so afraid of losing what he had that he would not take any risk to do anything with it. He would play it safe. So he hid his talent. But in the end this proves the riskiest strategy of all that he could have adopted.
What feeds his fear? It is a flawed understanding of his master’s character. He knows his master is exacting. From that awareness he draws the mistaken conclusion that his master hates losers. He will punish losers regardless of whether their loss came from well-intentioned efforts or from laziness and squander. He will make no distinctions. In drawing that conclusion about his master, the slave makes a fatal misperception of his master.
I have often wondered as I’ve read this parable what would in fact have been the master’s reaction if the slave had made a whole-hearted effort to invest his one talent and then through mistakes or through bad luck had lost the whole amount. The parable suggests that the master would not have cast the slave into outer darkness.
My speculation is that the master’s reaction might have resembled that of a business executive I once heard of who summoned a young employee to his office to account for an astounding loss the young man had sustained through a business transaction that went wrong.
The young man entered with fear and trepidation. He was prepared to submit his resignation. He was convinced that that was what the executive would demand. He so expressed himself to his boss. The executive, however, responded, “Why would we want to fire you? We have just spent thousands of dollars on your education. You’ve learned a hard lesson, so get back to work.”
Surprising guidance from Jesus
Jesus tells his parable to guide his disciples on how they are to live in the time of delay before the arrival of the Kingdom is its fullness. Jesus seems to be saying that we should not be afraid to take chances in investing our talents.
The traditional interpretation of those talents in the parable is that they stand for our abilities and skills that are given us by God. In fact, the modern English word for talent comes from this parable. We are to invest those skills and abilities in service to others,* taking appropriate risks as situations call for them.
But I recently heard an alternate interpretation of those talents. The talents represent the gift that is Jesus Christ himself. We are then called upon to bring Christ to a hurting world in creative ways, ways that may involve great risk of failure.
However, we understand the symbolism of the talents, Jesus seems to be suggesting that we not live and invest ourselves in life in constant fear of divine reprimand and punishment. It is not our mistakes that anger God. It is our efforts to play it safe at life, to live life complacently.**
I do not hear this parable as a call to live life imprudently. That would go against the whole wisdom tradition of the Bible. But as disciples of Christ, we are not to live life timidly. Imitate Christ. Live and serve our God boldly.
* I say “in service to others” because of the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) that follows immediately in context. There the issue at stake in the trial before Son of Man is whether individuals (or nations) have acted compassionately towards those in need.
** Interestingly, when Revelation 21:8 lists those who will be excluded from the heavenly city of New Jerusalem, the cowardly lead the parade of those marching into the lake of fire.