For the large majority of my life, I read the parables of Jesus with a fairly specific filter. That is, I assumed phrases like “the kingdom of God,” “kingdom of heaven, “outer darkness, and “eternal life” all referred to some sort of life after death, or more specifically life after death in a other-worldly location (i.e. heaven and hell). Understanding phrases like this in that specific way reflects more on our modern, Western mindset than it does on the cultural realities of 1st century Judaism and the real, embodied location and people to whom Jesus ministered. And while there is plenty in the biblical text with which to wrestle when it comes to a theological understanding of an “afterlife,” I think we largely miss the purpose of Jesus’ parables if we read them with that specific filter.
We also tend to miss the point when we try to painstakingly identify every character and make one-to-one comparisons, or when we take language meant to be figurative and metaphorical and hyperbolic and use it to construct or defend sweeping theological points of view. Parables, after all, are stories that teach. So when I look at the parable of the talents, I have to take off my western-modern glasses which search the pages of the Bible for certainty and guidelines. I can approach this text knowing a couple of important things about first-century Jewish culture: Jesus is primarily focused on the “here and now,” in his teaching. The kingdom of God/kingdom of Heaven/eternal life motifs are always, first, concerned with the ways God is working in the world in the present, with a hope for what God will accomplish in the future when God sets all things to rights. Even in this section of Matthew (which seems a little doom and gloom!), the primary questions we should be asking are related to how the kingdom of God is breaking into the world now.
So when I read the parable of the talents, I hear a word about boldness and responsibility. Boldness to be and do what God is calling us to be and do right now in our own spaces and places (for a hint about that, see Matthew 5-7), and ownership of our role in partnering with God in work that might be hard and risky. May we be courageous. May we be open to the Spirit. May we follow Jesus all the way to the cross.