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Custodian or trustee?

What have you done with your Christian faith recently?  I am not pointing any fingers.  I am asking the same question of myself too, but what have you done with your faith?  When was the last time you shared the joy of your faith with someone else? When was the last time you did something big or little for God? My dad who died some years back used to say, “One is a Christian, but one doesn’t talk about it.” I am indebted to my father for a great deal of my Christian formation, but this privatised approach toward the Christian faith is not the message of today’s gospel reading.

We tend to think of a ‘Talent’ as being a natural ability or skill and certainly the Latin origins of the word can be traced to the 15th century, but many scholars agree that the word ‘Talent’ was shaped and influenced by the gospel reading that we have today.  An online etymological dictionary traces its origins thus: “talent (n.) late 13c., “inclination, disposition, will, desire,” from Old French talent (12c.), from Medieval Latin talenta, plural of talentum “inclination, leaning, will, desire” (11c.), in classical Latin “balance, weight; sum of money,” from Greek talanton “a balance, pair of scales,” hence “weight, definite weight, anything weighed.” 

When Jesus was telling this story, a ‘Talent’ was the highest unit of weight in Jewish society.  It was the equivalent of approximately 34 kg, regarded as being the maximum weight amount a man could carry with comfort.  It was used to weigh gold, silver and even bronze, but from the Greek in verses 18 and 27 of the parable we see that it is likely that it was silver. The word used is ἀργύριον (argyrion) which means silver although it is often just translated as money. “So you ought to have deposited my ἀργύριον (silver) with the bankers” (v 27)

If indeed it was silver, then with the current market value for 34 kg of silver is valued at around £22,000.  A Talent was 6000 Denarii, 20 years worth of an average worker’s daily wage.  If you consider that one of the servants was entrusted with five times that amount and the other twice that amount, that is a colossal sum of money even by today’s standards.

Okay so some people are good with money and some people aren’t.  It doesn’t mean they should be chucked out onto the streets so what’s the point of the story?  The lazy servant justified his actions by holding to the belief that his master’s reputation for being harsh and ruthless was true. Not only did his belief invoke fear it invoked resentment. The lazy servant had no love for his master, where as the other two did.

This parable is not an encouragement by Jesus to invest in stocks and shares, but it is a further indictment of the Scribes and Pharisees for refusing to believe and invest in Him. Investment houses or banks as we know them were nonexistent in ancient Jewish society. For safe-keeping a private person would either bury valuables or entrust them to a neighbour. 

Jewish people were not allowed to charge interest to other Jews, but they could engage in mutually agreed business deals whereby they received a return for their investment by a share in the profits.  This was more like stocks and shares than earning interest on a credit balance in a bank. For the first two servants to have doubled their master’s profits they must have used the money entrusted to them in such a venture.  Their enterprising, risk taking faith and love for their master paid off.  The third servant, however, resented his master. ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.’

Motivated by fear, he chose the more traditional risk averse method of digging a hole and burying the money. When he returned his master’s silver he is rebuked for his attitude.  The word translated as ‘bankers’ τραπεζίτης, trapezitēs, from the Greek word for ‘table’ means ‘money changers.’ It is ironic that shortly after having ejected such people from the temple, Jesus should tell a story in which the use of money changers is recommended. 

Money changers charged a fee for their services as they do today.  In Roman occupied Palestine, pilgrims from foreign lands needed to exchange money for the temple shekel or change their money into Roman currency.  Money changers provided a valuable service, but they would not have been a huge source of financial gain for investment.  In the story the lazy servant is reprimanded for not even bothering to invest his money with money changers which would have at least given a small return rather than zilch!

The message of the parable is simple. A true Christian is not just a custodian of the gospel, but a trustee. Amongst the many roles and responsibilities of trustees of Age concern UK is included “To protect and manage the property of the charity and to ensure the proper investment of the charity’s funds.”  No mention of digging holes here!

We have been given the gospel not to keep it to ourselves as my father suggested, but to share it, invest in it and live it. We can still think of a Talent as being a God-given gift to be used for His glory, but the message is deeper than than.  The success of the the first two servants came out of their risk taking faith and love for the master.  We invest in the Kingdom not because we have to, but because we love the King.

Amen.

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