For years now, I’ve wondered if parable of the talents (Matt 25:13-30; Luke 19:11-27) was incomplete. A familiar story, a master goes away entrusting three servants with different sums of money. (Luke uses a different term for the money, and different amounts). The first two servants invest the master’s money and are praised when the master returns. The last servant buried his master’s money in the ground because he was afraid to lose the money (also he was afraid of his master, calling him a hard man).
What I want to know, what would the master have done if the servant’s investments hadn’t succeeded? I'd add another servant, between number two and number three. Like number two, he was given two talents. When the master comes back, he comes forward reluctantly. “Master, you entrusted me with two talents. One talent I used to buy goods for a caravan, but the caravan was taken by robbers and your money was lost. With the second talent I bought goods to trade by ship. This began well, your one talent of goods bought two talents worth of gold and spices. But when the ship was returning, a great storm came up, and the sailors had to throw out the gold or the ship would have sunk. Your spices survived and sold for one talent, so here is what is left of your money.”
What would the master say to this servant? Would he have been angry about the lost money? Or would the master have appreciated that the servant made an effort?
I’m coming more and more to the opinion that the master in Jesus’ parable would have honored the servants intention and not punished him for failure. The master might have asked a few more questions about why the servant had chosen those two investment options, but if the servant had good reasons for believing in them, I think the master would have approved. Surely it is not just in our time that investing is risky.
The Biblical passage that I think speaks most clearly to this is in Hebrews 11. The writer gives a list of the great heroes of the faith. Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and several other heroes of the Old Testament are named and their faithfulness praised. But the chapter ends with heroes who aren’t even named. “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-- the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” Their faithfulness in adversity is challenging for us to remember, but what was the great victory they gained? They courageously faced suffering and death for their faith, but to what good? Aren’t they like the servant I added to the parable, who tried to be faithful but didn’t succeed?
But the writer of Hebrews makes it clear. “These were all commended for their faith,” the ones whose faith didn’t succeed just like the ones whose faith did succeed. He goes on “none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” Even Moses and David, who won perhaps the greatest outward victories in the pages of the Old Testament, didn’t receive all they trusted God to do. Even their greatest victories were imperfect and incomplete. But all faith is seen and rewarded by God, if there is visible success or not.