For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’ But his master replied, ‘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. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)
Believe me - I get it. This passage is troublesome for so many reasons. It is a hard one to read from the outset. By the end it leaves me wanting a kind of charming resolution, but then it doesn’t give that to me at all. I want the Marvel-movie predictable ending. I want everyone to come out on top. But… they just don’t. And it really hurts.
Let us start with the obvious, shall we? The language is hard for many of us to read. I admit - I was tempted to cut and snip this parable to exclude all of the times the word ‘slave’ is used. I thought about finding a different translation altogether. Confession - I even considered just Ctrl+F-and-replacing all of them with a word of my own choosing (please don’t harass me, Biblical Scholars! I resisted this temptation). In the end, I decided to put the full text with the New Revised Standard Version language.
Why? Because it is important to look this one in the face. It is important to hear what exactly Jesus is offering up in this story. It’s important to know why.
But let’s be real here - there is a bigger problem with this text. Beyond the master-slave complex that plagues human history, this story feels downright harsh. The Master in the story (which can safely be assumed to be fulfilling the role of our God trope) throws the third slave into our Biblical understanding of The Pit. Not just any ol’ pit - but the one which often gets confused with the idea of Hell. Ugh. I hate that word! I hate the idea of it. I hate how it gets used to harm people. But - here we are, so we should talk about it.
To recap: Three slaves. One master. The Big Dude is about to go on a trip somewhere and he has to entrust the property to these three amigos. For some reason, the master divides it up into talents - the largest weight of currency in the Bible. We can try to pin a number to it, if we want. I have heard it made equivalent to sixteen years of labor. A Google search will equate it to a modern $1.4 million. Regardless, know that it was a hefty chunk of coin.
The Master Commander gives one slave five talents, another two talents, and the third a single talent. There is a fun bit of language here - the master does this according to their ability. More on that later. The first two slaves invest their talents by trade and double them. The final slave buries the talent in the ground, preserving the original amount for the master upon the return.
Some time passes and the master returns, deciding to settle up. Like clockwork, the first two present their earnings. The master gives them a joyful pat on the back and all is well in the world. The third slave meekly steps up to the plate and offers the single talent back to the master. Here is where things go to The Pit.
The third slave doesn’t start off very well. He explains that he did not invest the talents because the master is a harsh man who takes money that he does not deserve or earn by his own hands. The slave was afraid to not produce this mafia-like result and thus didn’t do anything. Obviously, this sets the Head Honcho off and he rips the one measly million dollars from the third slave and gives it to the dude with ten talents, making him even richer. Kicking the third slave while he is down, the master orders him into H-E-double-hockey-sticks.
Again: yikes. What was Jesus doing with this message? Why tell this story? The rich get richer? Trading stocks? Wall Street should be proud? Where does this align with everything else that we understand? Using our three-rule-structure from Checkpoint, how does this have anything to do with 1) Doing Good, 2) Doing No Harm, or 3) Striving to Grow?
How about we take a breather and tell another story?
There is this kid. He is a scruffy young blond that works for his dad’s half-brother on a farm. It blows. The kid really wants to make something of himself, but thinks that farming is no way of living. He wants to be a soldier and save lives. Turns out that there is a retired vet living not too far from him. Even better, he is willing to teach the kid how to use a weapon.
After training for a while, he gets caught up in a big plot and learns a ton about himself. Get this - the kid is actually the child of a famous high-ranking soldier and a politician. Not only that, he has a twin sister who was adopted by literal ROYALTY. It’s a rough spot. He had been scrounging around on a moisture farm on Tatooine, while his twin had been living up the good life on Alderaan.
By now, I am sure that you have figured out to whom I am referring - especially given that you are reading The Advent of the Nerd. In the epic space-opera Star Wars from 1977, we witness the story of Luke Skywalker and his journey of family, sacrifice, and purpose. As the film gathered traction and spawned sequels, comic books, novels, video games, Lego figurines, conventions and so much more, this original hit film was given an alternate title: Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.
Well, how about that? Finally - we get the word out there: Hope.
Why? Why was Star Wars changed to that title? This has been a point of some debate for a while in the nerd community. Is Luke the new hope? Or is it a new hope for Obi-Wan? Or the Jedi Order? Or the Rebellion? Who is/are the hope? And who or whom is the hope for in the long run? And most importantly - is it really a new hope?
Hope is an incredibly important word for us during this season of Advent. Wherever you may be with God, this season represents a time of waiting. The words we attribute (normally represented by colored candles) are symbols of our human response to that period of waiting. As Christians, we are anticipating the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
As people, though, we are anticipating something else. We are anticipating change. We are anticipating something amazing. We are anticipating that new job, new city, new relationship. We are anticipating the evolution of that thing in our lives. We are anticipating a return to a warm memory of our childhood. We are anticipating a chance for that cherished unconditional love. What are you anticipating? Is it Christ alone? Or is it something that Christ brings?
Our first word that we present to this time of waiting is hope. We are called to be a hopeful people. We are called to approach times of uncertainty with hope. We are called to enter into hurt, pain, and confusion with absolute hope for the resulting circumstance. Are you hopeful?
I find myself far from hope too often. This is one of the reasons that I cherish Advent so greatly. I get to sit and contemplate where my hope lies. I get to find the spots of my life that I don’t have so much hope. This year, my daughter had trouble with walking and had to be admitted into physical therapy. Well, she was admitted to physical therapy while I was admitted into stress, anxiety, and - if we are being honest - hopelessness. There were days where I was certain something was wrong and this would not ever end. I had a voice in my head telling me that she would never walk - and that it was all my fault.
That’s hopelessness. That’s The Pit.
God has given me a talent in the shape of a sassy, beautiful baby girl. The darkness in my brain wants me to bury that talent and think that God is just a cruel God who would give my daughter the burden of immobility - because God is just a harsh master, right? That’s the temptation. When times get tough, my hopelessness comes out in droves. It convinces me of the worst case scenario. Worse yet - it pushes my own feelings onto the supposed actions of God. I blame. I chastise. I pray.
Why have you forsaken me, God?
In the end, I somehow persevered. With the help of a loving family and ridiculously strong wife, we sent our baby girl to months of physical therapy. Now, we can’t seem to keep her from running to our master bathroom to pretend the plunger is a lightsaber.
God is good, right?
Of course God is good.. It is tempting to just let this be a cute anecdote. To brush this off as a miracle and declare God as the powerful Creator that God is - but let us not take away the power of the Holy Spirit and the hope that was provided here. Let us not miss the forest for the trees. Let us not bury our talent away. Let us not set the future up as an act of ‘everything happens for a reason’ apologetics and rob ourselves of the hope in this scenario.
God is good. Yes. But so was the perseverance of my wife and I. Because of it, we have been rewarded with a toilet Jedi running around like a coked-up jackrabbit. I am not talking about some prosperity gospel here - we did not just pray the pain away. We cried and we bore the burden and we kept moving forward. We put our full hope into God - but we also put our full hope into the physical therapist, the pediatrician, our family, our daughter, and each other.
The source of hope is God. But the conduit of that hope has to be you.
Don’t be overwhelmed or get a big head over this - this is a huge responsibility. We have each been given the role of being hope for someone. Sometimes we have to be that hope each and every day. Sometimes we might only have to be that hope once in a blue moon. Whenever you start to get cocky, remember that God is the actual source. But whenever you start to get overwhelmed, remember this:
God gives to each of us according to our ability.
I promised that we would come back to this earlier. I find it so interesting that Jesus includes this tidbit in this parable. Some slaves could handle five talents; others, two; and some, only one. But according to the Great Narrator, all three of them had it within them to handle what they were given.
After some time with this story, I have only found one thing that really hurts the message: the first two slaves story. I wish we could get a deeper look into what kind of ‘trades’ they each made. Were they easy trades? Did they happen quickly? Were they dangerous? How did their families handle it? Did they have good support?
The only difference between them that we get from the parable is that the third slave was scared. Was that really the only factor? Is it possible that the first slave might have had to keep going to physical therapy week after week to drop off his daughter only to be told that we would have to extend the care for another month? Is it possible that the first slave might have held his wife and cried thinking about whether or not the trade would actually go through as anticipated?
Jesus tells us that each of the slaves had the ability, but ability does not connote ease. I so badly wish that Jesus might have said, “The first slave took the five talents and worked himself to the bone for years. The slave lost three talents and then worked like a dog to make them back. He didn’t sleep some nights. His back would ache all the time. He never had any time to play video games - and sometimes that really bummed him out. He had some bad days.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, we only hear that it is within their ability and they just do it.
Where might those realistic stories come from instead? Where we can hear of the [successful] stories of hardship from the faithful slaves? If this pastor had to argue, then he might say that we get these stories from one another. Storytellers will always offer up the best stories - fact or fiction.
For example, what if we consider the fictional story of a scruffy nerf-herder? One who loses his hand after learning that his father is actually an evil space tyrant who has murdered untold amounts of people? One who loses friends and family? One who trains under the guidance of a loopy green alien? One who watches his father figure Old Ben Wan Kenobi get ended right before his eyes?
The story of Luke Skywalker is certainly one of talents spent wisely. What if Luke just hadn’t? What if Tatooine moisture farming was just enough? Or what if, upon learning the true identity of Darth Vader, Luke just called it quits, let go, and fell into the cold abyss of space? These are all options. But Luke chooses hope. Again. And again. And again. Luke chooses hope.
Perhaps that is the truth behind the title A New Hope. It’s not just Luke or Obi-Wan. Each and every time that there is a choice between hope and despair - these are all talents. These are all chances for us to say ‘yes’ to a newly offered hope. A new hope for right now.
So, let us go back once more before we close. Let us set aside the problematic language. Let us set aside the casting into The Pit. Let us set our sights on the third slave. Faced with the decision: does he put that talent to work and risk the presumed rage of the Master? Does he bury the talent and at least end up without losing anything in the end? Does he choose fear or boldness? Does he choose despair or hope?
The slave chooses fear. The slave chooses despair. The slave chooses themself.
This line of decision-making leads to a life in the metaphorical Pit. The place where there is gnashing of teeth and weeping. The place where the parent feels hopelessly inadequate and the child remains immobile under the crippling weight of a guilt-ridden life. The place where an inexperienced Jedi mopes for the loss of those he loves under the thumb of a revenge-filled patriarch. You see, the Pit is the antithesis of hope. The Master has no choice but to cast the slave there - because, in all reality, it is the path that was chosen when hope was abandoned.
Where are you right now? Are you in the Pit? Are you right at the start of a hard time? Are you standing in front of the tough decision between hope and despair?
Hear the good news: You have not been given more than within your ability.
No sugarcoating - it may be tough. It may feel impossible. It may be impossible on your own. But look to the light of the hopeful. Look to the examples of those who kept on moving.
God doesn’t need you at your best.
Checkpoint Church doesn’t need you to have it all figured out.
I don’t expect you to be all smiles and give me vague truisms about how ‘God’s got you.’
I know that God’s got you. I want to know that you’ve got you. And if you don’t, then I want to stand there and bear your tears. I want you to try to drag me down with you so that I can hold you up. And anyone else who is reading this - I want you to do that, too. I want you to be the hope you were called to be. I don’t you to freeze up, panic and bury what God had placed before you.
I want you to be the hope that moves.