Headlines can be deceiving. Typically, a headline is designed to briefly and accurately summarize the central point of the information that follows. A good headline should entice you to continue reading, encouraging you to explore the background and details of its claim. A well-crafted headline is just the beginning.
Unfortunately, today our sound bite culture has transformed the headline into the entire story, beginning to end. Headlines begin to act like a Twitter post. We assume that the 20 to 30 characters that comprise a typical headline contain all the information we need to know. So, we stop reading before reaching the smaller typeface, trusting that the author has faithfully supported the claims of the headline.
Sadly, too many authors and news agencies have decided to leverage our trusting laziness to their advantage. Instead of calling us to read further before forming our conclusion, headlines are presented as the conclusion, even if it is woefully unsupported by the article itself. Such headlines present themselves as factual, while hoping that we fail to read further.
Of course, this is not a problem unique to the age of smart phones and the internet. Wisdom literature, written when characters were counted by the space they occupied on sheets of papyrus or the time spent chiseling them into stone, often warned readers of the dangers of not reading past the headlines.
If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame.
An intelligent mind acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.
The search for wisdom takes time and effort. Understanding cannot be gleaned from sound bites. We have to be willing to actually engage an argument before we can begin to draw well-formed conclusions. Many times, I feel that the greatest hindrance to the search for wisdom is a negligent assumption that wisdom will somehow find its way to us, or that wisdom must simply agree with our opinions in the moment.
So, what do you think about my title for this article? I have heard or read that phrase several times over the last few months, but do we know what we are saying when we use it?
Toward the end of Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus, we find a story about three men who are given a great deal of responsibility. This story is traditionally called “The Parable of the Talents.” But, before we start picturing an ancient version of Galilee’s Got Talent, I should tell you that a “talent” was actually a monetary unit. And, it was not a small sum. Without getting too bogged down in two-millennia worth of currency conversions and adjustments for inflation, a “talent” could be estimated by taking your pre-pandemic, annual salary and multiplying it by sixteen. So, to make this story a bit more personal, go ahead and complete the following equation:
Your Annual Salary * 16 = Your Single Talent
For the remainder of this story, you can substitute the figure you calculated above for each talent mentioned.
In this story, Jesus tells us that a wealthy man is going on an extended trip, and he entrusts his property to three of his servants. In the ancient world this was remarkable, not only because he allows his servants access to his personal property, but he also gives them significant responsibility and authority. They are entrusted to proactively act on behalf of their master. This was simply unheard of. But, this master, for some unknown reason, invites them into his affairs in a meaningful and trusting way.
Each of the servants is given a different amount of money to manage. The first is given five talents. The second is “only” entrusted with two talents and the final servant is handed one talent.
If we stopped reading here, how would the headline read? Would you focus on the inequality of the owner? After all, does this seem fair? Why did the owner not take eight talents, divide the total by three and give each servant 2.666666667 talents? Why not treat his servants equally? Why is he being so seemingly inconsistent and unfair?
Perhaps, the master knows that strict equality is not always fair. People are not carbon copies of each other. At the risk of stating the obvious, we are all different… remarkably, magnificently and beautifully different. We all have a variety of contrasting “talents.” Therefore, if the master wants to truly be fair to each of his servants, he will not treat them equally.
In fact, Jesus tells us that the master distributed the talents, “each according to his ability.” (Matthew 25:15) Instead of parcelling out equal shares, the master will only give them responsibility over what they can be successful managing. He does not overwhelm them or set them up for failure. This means he knows them well enough, and cares about them deeply enough, to arrange the situation to give each of them the best opportunity to prosper. The master is absolutely consistent in his desire to seek the success of his servants.
Perhaps that would be a better headline…
After an extended period of time, the master returns and calls his servants together to see what they had accomplished while he was away. The first servant, who was entrusted with five talents, sets ten talents before his master. He has successfully doubled his master’s investment. Both the master and the servant succeeded. The master judged his servant well, and the servant confirmed his master’s trust. So, how does the master reward his faithful servant? An extra weekend off? A share of the profits? An “Employee of the Year” coffee mug? Nope.
He gives the servants something much more meaningful. He entrusts the faithful servant with more responsibility. He looks at his faithful servant and says, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21)
If five talents is a “few” things, I can’t imagine what “many” things looks like!
Many believe that in this parable Jesus is giving us a glimpse of eternal life. If you have ever thought that Heaven would have puffy clouds, a dark chocolate river, golden harps and comfy lounge chairs scattered along a white sand beach, you might want to take a closer look at this faithful servant’s reward. How is he rewarded? He is entrusted with additional responsibility over “many” things. Work is not a curse, it is an earned reward. “Entering the joy of the Master” means deeper participation in the mission of the Master and a closer relationship with the Master. I believe this indicates that there will be meaningful work to do in Heaven. The reward for earthly faithfulness is Heavenly participation. This is one participation trophy that I actually hope to receive!
The servant who was given two talents, also doubled his master’s investment. And although he only contributed two additional talents to his master’s treasury, he received the same reward as his five talent-earning colleague.
Then, the final servant approached, holding one talent. Returning the talent to its original owner, he says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matthew 25:24-25)
I have to admire this servant’s willingness to be so honest. He had to know what the other two servants were bringing. He must have felt like the kid in class who didn’t finish his homework or didn’t practice for the recital. He knows he is woefully unprepared. So, why would he open by insulting his master? Why tell your boss that you didn’t get your assigned work done, because you think that he is unfair and overbearing? Instead of accepting responsibility for his inaction, he tries to blame the one person who initially tried to help him succeed!
Technically, by first century standards, he was not being irresponsible. Early rabbinic law taught that whoever buries entrusted property will not be liable if the property is stolen. Therefore, Jesus’ audience may have viewed this servant as simply having fulfilled his obligation. Unfortunately for the one-talent servant, the master doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he looks at his servant and says, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” (Matthew 25:26-27)
The master didn’t actually lose anything. He received his money back. No harm, no foul, right?
That would be true if the talent is what really mattered to the master. The talent was only the vehicle. What mattered most was the faithfulness of the servant. The master wanted to know how the servant would respond to the master’s trust. He wanted to understand if the servant would do what was in the best interest of his master or simply protect himself?
The master had remarkably invited this servant into his affairs, into his life, and the servant rejects that invitation. The point is not the property, but the person.
If the two servants who participated in their master’s project received additional responsibility and a deeper relationship with their master, what happens to the servant who decided to stay neutral? Will he be allowed return to his home, no worse for wear? Is neutrality, life in no man’s land, an option? I think a lot of folks hope so.
But the servant carrying the one talent is not sent home. Instead, the master strips him of the singular talent that he had selfishly protected, and gives it to the servant who is now holding ten talents. By the way, don’t overlook the fact that the servants who were given five and two talents were allowed to keep both the investment and the return. Again, this was never about the property invested, but the people involved.
Stripped of his single talent and responsibility, the servant is sent straight into exile. And, what does that exile look like? We are told that he is thrown into, "the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:28-30) If the previous servants are shown an image of what Heaven might involve, then we may now be seeing a version of what being exiled straight to Hell might look like. If exile means a place defined by outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, then I am not sure we need to leave the planet. There are far too many of our neighbors living in this kind of hell today, encircled by their own anger, outrage and frustration. In their attempt to live their days in neutral, deeply concerned for themselves and paralyzed by fear, they have found the long shadows of hatred and negligence closing in around their soul.
In the end, I don’t really believe that anyone will be sent “Straight to Hell.” They will decide to make the journey all by themselves by simply burying their opportunities, their responsibilities, their integrity in the ground and hoping no one will notice.
We have been entrusted with talents. Yes, they are different, unique and varied. But, the talents themselves are not the point. We have the freedom to be creative with what we have been given. We are encouraged and trusted to be involved and innovative. And, more importantly, we have a Master who is not only heavily invested in us, but who is also tenaciously cheering for us.