What’s Twenty Talents between Friends?

What's Twenty Talents between Friends?

What’s Twenty Talents between Friends?
A Sermon for Sardis Baptist Church
Bob Stillerman
Matthew 18:21-35
September 17, 2017

Jesus told a story: two debts, two debtors, two outcomes.

But it’s not so simple. We need some context.

What’s a denarius? No, it’s not a character on Game of Thrones. That’s a Daenerys! Arland Hultgren, a scholar of parables, tells us that one denarius was a silver coin that represented one day’s wage.

And what’s a talent? Hultgren says this was the largest unit of currency in ancient Palestine, worth approximately 6,000 days of wages, or twenty years of wages.

So back to the text. The first servant owes his king ten thousand talents. Or approximately sixty million days of wages. Or in today’s dollars, based on an hourly minimum wage of $58 per day: approximately $35 billion dollars.

In other words, the first sum is large, it’s beyond imagination, and it has little likelihood of ever being paid back.

The second servant owes his master 100 denarii, or 100 days of wages, or approximately 4 months of wages. Based on today’s minimum wage, somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,800.

The second sum is a large debt, particularly for a working class man, but it’s not unpayable. It’s the kind of debt that requires patience and understanding, but one whose settling is not beyond the realm of possibility.

And this parable makes me think of another story…Once, back around 2008 and 2009, there were a lot of financial institutions who shirked their responsibilities, and amassed massive, unpayable, unsustainable amounts of debt. Not to mention several large automakers. And when the king came calling, they couldn’t pay. So instead, they asked forgiveness, and they reminded everyone that they were too big to fail. And there was grace.

It’s funny though, those good servants, they sure did own the notes for a lot of debts on homes and cars that didn’t seem so unreasonable. But when the hour came, there was no grace to be found, nor were there measures to prevent the bursting of the bubble. And for millions of Americans, 100 denarii might as well have been 10,000 talents. And homes and cars were repossessed in record numbers.

You may read today’s parable straight down the middle. Hooray for the king who forgave the large debt, and jeers for the servant who wouldn’t even offer an extension. There’s a special place reserved for him! Just use your imagination!

And that’s fine. I won’t fault you for that.

But I think today’s story is deeper than a stereotyping of good guys and bad guys. I think Jesus is lamenting the tragic and divisive flaws of economic systems that prioritize commodities over people.

That first servant could live in any age. And before you go getting all judgmental about how a person can amass such unsustainable debts, just look around. Perhaps this first servant was the tax collector for the king. And 20 talents wouldn’t be an unreasonable sum to collect for an entire state or region. And it’s certainly not an unthinkable sum for our government, or for that matter even our President. But when the bill comes each year, I don’t see prosecution for non-payment. Because while the collector may not get the full share, and while much of it may be forgiven, the collector still has capacity to go out and extract more from the masses. And name me the politician, on BOTH sides of the aisle, who doesn’t on the one hand raise the debt ceiling, while on the other hand either raise taxes on or slash essential funding for the most vulnerable. Because whether it’s ancient Palestine or modern day America, the machine needs feeding.

Jesus is saying we expect, or we’ve grown use to a system where the powerful discard the weak. It’s painful for the powerful because they must continue to make life choices that go against their very being and purpose. And it’s painful for the weak, because they receive the full brunt of economic callousness. “It’s just business,” the bosses say, “Nothing personal.” And there’s no escaping the cycle.

But, but Jesus tells us about a different world, a different kingdom. And its currency is love. And in it, there is a Creator whose capacity to forgive is so great, 20 talents is no big deal. And even when those 20 talents are forgiven, they need not be extracted from the less fortunate. Because God’s is a kingdom where all persons have the resources they need, where enough-ness is not determined by a balance sheet – it’s a world where people’s love transcends and transforms their needs. If we are fed. If we are clothed. If we are loved. If we have value. If we are God’s children…what need have we of denarii and talents?

Jesus does not claim that such a world exists right now. But he does claim that if we live like it’s possible (which by the way it is!!!), then with every act of love and forgiveness, we deepen our dependency on compassion and empathy, and we lessen our dependency on commodity. And as Walter Rauschenbusch reminds us: “The Kingdom of God is always but coming.”

Of course, there is that tricky part of today’s lection, the last part where the first servant is tortured until his debts are paid. And we’re reminded the same will happen to us if don’t learn to forgive. It’s a fate similar to that one who did not do unto the least of these. Brother Matthew has a flare for the dramatic sometimes.

And you may wonder: “What do we do with this?”

Some of you might just assume rip that page from your Bibles, or blot it out with a Sharpie. But I suppose I read scripture like a golfer, and I’ll play the text where it lies. Somebody wrote it, which means we’ve got to interpret it, because if we don’t, someone else sure will.

So I’ll start by telling you I don’t like this phrase. I don’t believe in a punitive God. I believe in a loving God. And I think it’s unfortunate that such a phrase dilutes our parable. And I think it’s even more unfortunate that someone will eventually use the end of this lection to justify vigilante-style justice. Or even worse, they’ll seek to quantify forgiveness.
But this statement is clearly hyperbole. Just as the writer of Matthew uses a sum of twenty talents to capture the attention of the hearer (here’s a story we’ve got to hear), the writer also uses these last two lines to drive home the importance and urgency of the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness is essential to our being. And if you are one who chooses not to offer grace to others, you are not doomed to eternal damnation, but rather, you are trapped in a system that will never allow you to experience wholeness and peace. Because wholeness and peace don’t come from an economy of commodities, they come from God’s economy, the one whose currencies are love and grace and understanding.

Good friends, our God is so big and so vast and so wonderful, there’s no sum that can’t be forgiven, there’s no grace that can’t be found. That means that the King, or Creator, or Life Source (or whatever you want to call him or her), she offers grace and dignity and value, even to the evicted trailer park tenant in Milwaukee. And even more, she reminds the park’s owner – the one whose tenacity adds extras zeros to his bank account at the expense of vulnerable tenants – she reminds him that there is a better deal to be had, one with return that far outweigh the profits he covets. And she reminds him that there’s still plenty of room, and plenty of time, and plenty of love left to offer. You see God does not operate with the urgency and the inflexibility of lenders. In God’s economy, the first of the month is just another day.

And that’s the miracle of God’s economy. Its grace and its love are boundless.

And it occurs to me, that should we take Jesus’ advice to Peter, 77 times of forgiveness, we too might one day understand God’s economic miracle a little more. After all, what’s 20 talents between friends who live (AND LOVE!!!) in God’s economy?



Rev. Bob Stillerman has served as pastor of Sardis Baptist Church since 2015.

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