Debunking the Myth of the One Talent Christian

“I am only a one talent Christian.” I hear this complaint a lot, usually from down and out disciples of Jesus who feel badly about their level of Christian service.  I even hear it as a negative driver within my own head.  It seems part of being a Christian is beating yourself up over all your non Christian moments. It’s hard to practice a religion where you never ‘arrive.’  Don’t those pesky prophets always demand more–more allegiance, more fidelity, more devotion, more time, more money.  Nobody can be ‘Christian-perfect.’  Even if you obey all the commands, and work hard to achieve success, and build a sterling reputation you still have to sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.  Otherwise you’ll be South Beach dieting until you can push your midsection through the eye of a needle.

When we do feel some measure of success, when we have a moment of clarity, when a spiritual truth feels firmly within our grasp, it is then that we change and begin the whole ordeal anew.  Life is experienced in seasons, and each season is accompanied by its own spiritual crisis.  By the time you feel comfortable and accomplished in one season (if you ever do) you are moving on to another.  There is always another ladder, always another summit, always another ruler by which to measure yourself and come up short.

Like ‘others’ for instance.  The reason we are so miffed about being one talent church-folk is that it is rumored there exists two and five talent church-folk.  We are all ‘Cains’ upset about our ‘Abels.’  Here is why: we believe that God plays favorites.  We believe that our heavenly parent has children he loves more than others.  For a long while it was boys.  Daddy loves his boys, we would say, so you woman mind your place and be good helpmates and all, and the family will function just fine.  There was a time some thought God favored white Europeans.  There are still many who think God favors successful, well manicured, suburbanites.  Or that he favors political systems and parties, or denominations, or Christians, or Muslims, or Jews.  Why give five talents to some and only one to others if this wasn’t the case?  This parable scandalizes us.  It’s the same old story.  God is just like us, with our uneven playing fields, and our ‘good ol’ boys clubs.’  This is what we do.  We favor some over others.  That is why we ask questions like “Who’s my neighbor?”  She is?!  You’re kidding right?

There is a danger in parables that is similar to the brilliance of parables.  The brilliance of parables is the ability to give creative meaning to the allegory–to find yourself, to further define God, and to receive a sense of judgment and grace.  The danger of parables is the ability to give rigid meaning to the allegory–to overly find yourself, to narrowly define God, and to receive a warped sense of judgment and grace.  Take the master for instance who is described as a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow, and gathering where he does not scatter seed.  Is this the best description for Jesus, or for the God of the universe?  Is God one who aggressively seeks to inflate his holdings, and increase his estate, and grabs whatever he can wherever he can to make a profit?  This is a dangerous assumption.  A few brilliant clues suggest otherwise.  First, we note that the description comes to us from the least of the slaves (the one talent slave) who is dead afraid of his master’s disapproval.  Second, the master himself nowhere affirms this description.  Instead he mockingly asks, “You knew, did you, that I reap where I do 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.”  Third, it is in shock that we hear the master suggest lending with usury, a practice forbidden by the Law, a good use for his money.   Is God a Law breaker?  Or is this tongue-in-cheek critique of the servant’s actions a rhetorical response highlighting the servant’s misconceptions?  Isn’t the master simply pointing out that even if he was the monster the servant made him out to be, the servant’s actions were still inconsistent and insufficient.  Perhaps the parable tells us less about a harsh God, and more about the servant whose thoughts about God (whose ‘theology’) is screwing up his work for the kingdom.

Bad theology–you know, like a ‘God who plays favorites!’  I’m pretty sure that will screw up your work for the kingdom as well.

The talent Jesus speaks of is not an ability.  Jesus is talking about the Greek talanta which was originally a measure of weight used in commercial activity.  As cities moved away from systems of bartering and sharing the talent evolved into a fixed weight of gold or silver.  Only in medieval times did it come to denote a natural ability or gift.  The New English Bible is helpful here, it translates “talents” in this passage as “bags of gold.”

The talent is not an ability, but it is given, says Matthew, according to ability.  That hurts doesn’t it.  The stunted one gets less.  The one without the charisma, without the know-how, without the intelligence, without the strength gets less.  Is this the meager prize waiting those formed by the dregs of the gene pool, or those whose life circumstance provided few opportunities?  It sounds so Darwinian.

In a way it’s good that Jesus uses money.  Money we understand, it’s one of the ways God plays favorites–or so we think.  It is the cause of so much of our dissatisfaction.  It gives much of the mainline protestant world, who receive this handy parable during the fall stewardship months, a great opportunity to champion investing in the kingdom (i.e. increasing the pledge).  We don’t come right out and threaten stingy people with the “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  But you never know, and you do want to be safe about these things.  So don’t you dare bury it in your pocket.  If you got five, give five.  If you got two, give two.  If you got one, well, it’s a little embarrassing, but better than nothing I suppose.

Come to find out it is better than nothing.  A lot better.  Jesus is being absurd.  Remember that the itinerant rabbi standing in urban Jerusalem delivering his famous eschatalogical discourse, including the parable of the talents, is a country boy at heart.  The economies of the small villages and hamlets of Jesus’ upbringing and young adult life did not function day to day on the basis of currency.  Only when it came time to pay tax to Rome did you have to sell a few laying hens, or a couple blocks of your best cheddar, and get hard coinage.  The rest of life was giving and receiving in community.  A village had all it needed by virtue of the shared bounty of all.  Jesus had little experience with currency.  He had no money to buy food for his followers.  He had no cash when the Pharisees and Herodians asked him about paying taxes to Caesar.  When it came time to pay his own tax he found the necessary lucre in the mouth of a fish.  Perhaps this is why when Jesus does speak of currency the imagery is surreal.  You’d have to have bulging biceps and a strong back just to carry around a talanta, which was roughly 75 pounds and the largest currency known in Jesus’ day. Each talent was worth 6000 denarii, a denarii being equivalent to the daily wage of a worker.  One talent was 20 years worth of wages–or twenty of those flasks of pure nard that Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus!  Five talents was more than a person earned in a life time.  Historical sources tell us that the annual revenue Herod Antipas collected from both Galilee and Peraea together was only 200 talents.  Can you imagine having one two hundredth of the tax revenue produced by those living on Long Island? It would buy you a nice house on the water–actually it would buy you a whole canal street!  “I am only a one talent Christian.”  Good, can I have a loan then?

Nobody in this parable is short changed.  Everybody is wealthy.  God has given us a piece of his kingdom.  The stack of greenbacks is so thick we can’t even sit on our wallet.  In our purses there is no room for the mascara, or the tiny box of tissues.  If anything us one talent Christians are a little lighter on our feet.  Can you imagine carrying around 375 pounds of gold, silver, and copper?  The five talent man may have more, but at least we’ve avoided a herniated disk!

And if one talent was not enough, our generous master (hardly the aforementioned ‘harsh man’) is ready to give us more.  That is what he does with the five talent and the two talent slaves.  For to all those who have, more will be given.  The two talent man ends up with the original two talents and the two talents he made in addition.  The five talent man ends up with the five original talents, the five talents he made in addition, and the one talent that is taken from the slave who buried his talent.  The five talent man ends up with eleven talents–that is a silly sum of money.  It is so much I can’t even explain it.  It is like saying this slave had nine hundred thousand ka-zillion dollars.  It took a team of five horses just to pull it around.  Do you know how infinite are the gifts of the father?   Are you starting to see?

Stop hiding behind your lack of talents.  If you have one you have more than enough.  Here’s the real issue: You don’t know your father, and you’re scared to take risks.  You’re acting in a particular way, because you think God will approve.  It was a perfectly acceptable practice to bury money.  You remember in one kingdom parable, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field.  It didn’t get there by mistake.  Someone buried it there, and then forgot where it was buried, or perhaps was detained, or died, before it could be retrieved.  There were even laws in place that governed the burying of money.  If someone gave you money for safe keeping, and you buried it immediately, then you could not be held liable if it ended up stolen.  You had done your due diligence.  I imagine the slave went straight way and buried his master’s wealth.  An unburied talent made the slave liable.  He clapped the dirt off his hands and thought he was safe.  I have done all the master wants.  No need for risks.

I’m not much of a risk taker.  I can offer you a few examples.  I never learned to swim when I was a kid because I was afraid to go over my head.  Other kids were afraid too, but they all took the plunge and then resurfaced.  Subsequently at church camp I could not pass the swim test and I was relegated to the kiddy swimming area, until I was too old and too embarrassed and then I refused to get in the water at all.  When I was a counselor and no longer had to take the swim test the pain of that humiliation was so strong that I took the test anyway, just to say that I could do it.  At school dances I never danced.  I didn’t trust I could keep the beat.  I was too self-conscious.  Shannon and I went to high school together and were in the same grade.  I could have danced with my future wife and had that lasting memory forever.  But I never did.  She might have said no.  If I couldn’t keep the beat she might have laughed at me.  Our dances were held during the school day, so I had to be there.  I ducked down and clutched the seat behind the punch bowl with all my might.  If I could travel back in time I would b-line it over to her before the DJ spun the first LP.

Stop playing it safe.  You’ve got one life to give God.  Put down the shovel.  Otherwise you’re going to be relegated to the kiddy swimming area, and you’re going to miss the slow dance with the love of your life.  God gave you that talent not to hold you liable for it, but so you could be co-creators of the kingdom.  So that you could reign along with all the saints in a kingdom of justice and equality.  So that you could experience unbridled love that refuses to have favorites, and feeds the hungry, and clothes the naked, and cares for the sick, and visits those in prison.  Right after the parable of the talents Matthew’s Jesus separates out the sheep and the goats.  The sheep take risks–they invest recklessly, they jump in over their head, they get out on the dance floor.  The goats play it safe.  It’s your call.  But don’t complain about your one talent.  You have a ka-zillion dollars.  And God would rather you went bankrupt, then be buried while you’re still alive.

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