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Can’t Bury Love
November 16, 2014
A reading from Matthew:
“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.’”
Seeing as how this is Stewardship Dedication Sunday, it’s hard not to think that the lectionary has providentially dropped the ideal stewardship scripture right into the preacher’s lap. This scripture has all the raw ingredients for a nifty stewardship sermon. In fact, you’ve probably heard it. It goes something like this: God has given talents of varying levels to each of us, and we are to give back to God according to our ability. One day we will be asked to give an accounting of how we used God’s resources, and we will be rewarded or punished accordingly. Now, having been warned, please take out your pledge cards and respond as you see fit.
Well, tempting though it is, this ready-made stewardship sermon doesn’t begin to uncover the more deeply nuanced meaning embedded in this parable. Today’s parable actually contains exceedingly good news, and it offers a compelling invitation.
But you may be thinking: Hey, that parable doesn’t sound like good news to me. In fact, it may have left the sound of judgment, fear, and punishment ringing in our ears. It’s easy to become so mired in the parable’s ending that we don’t hear what the parable is actually saying.
The so-called Parable of the Talents begins and moves along in an agreeable enough manner. A rich master entrusts his property to his servants, distributing various amounts of money among them, and then he leaves. The servants do the best they can with it, each according to his ability. The five-talent man makes five more talents. The two-talent servant also doubles what he has been given. When the master returns, each is commended and invited into the joy of the master. But when the one-talent servant gives his accounting, the master goes berserk, berates the poor guy, and sends him into outer darkness. Now what in this familiar story typically grabs and holds our attention? I suspect that it is the plight of this third servant—his actions, and the harsh judgment he received.
For one thing, most of us probably identify with the one-talent servant. I occasionally meet a person who is puffed up in the confidence that he or she has been endowed with many wonderful talents. But much more often, I find that people feel rather insecure about their abilities. Once, after receiving our church’s time and talent sheet, I heard a church member say, only half kidding, “I’m still trying to find my talent.”
I’ve heard about multi-talented preachers—the ones who write their sermons a year in advance, read the Sunday morning scripture directly from the original Greek, preach at seven services without a note, sing solos from the pulpit, and lead tours to the Holy Land, but I’ve never identified with them. My guess is that most of us feel closer to the one-talent servant. Thus we’re dismayed that it’s the fellow of limited abilities who incurs the anger of the master.
And there’s yet another reason that we tend to fixate on the ending of the parable. The behavior of the one-talent servant doesn’t seem all that reprehensible. Granted, he was not a risk-taker, but at least he was responsible. Jewish law of that day read, “Whoever immediately buries property entrusted to him is no longer liable if it is lost, because he has taken the safest course conceivable.” So the one-talent man followed the letter of the law. No, he didn’t go out wheeling and dealing, but then he didn’t have a lot to lose, so he did what most of us would do. He played it safe.
So no wonder we tend to focus on the actions of the third servant, and question the harsh punishment he was given. Sure, he may have been risk averse, but that’s true of many people, especially those of limited talent. The harsh sentence handed to this little guy seems extreme.
But if we’re seeking new understanding, maybe we’re approaching this parable from the wrong end. Let’s set our questions about the ending of the parable aside for a moment, and look again at how the parable begins. “For the Kingdom of God is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them.” Now what Master would do that? It’s as though he calls in all the hired hands and says, “Everything I’ve got is now yours. I’m turning everything over to you. Here are the keys to the Cadillac, my credit cards, my entire stock portfolio, the deed to the ranch in Wyoming, the key to the wine cellar—it’s all yours to manage.”
And in addition to entrusting the servants with all his property, the master hands over to each servant an enormous about of money. A talent is actually a monetary sum, and a large sum at that. One talent was the equivalent of twenty years of income for an ordinary worker. Thus, five talents represents an unheard of amount of money. Two talents would set a person up for a lifetime. Even receiving one talent would be a windfall.
But of course this parable isn’t about money. It’s certainly not intended to be a lesson on financial investment. Rather, it’s intended to give us a picture of God’s unfettered generosity. It’s as though God is saying in this parable: Look, I created the world and everything in it belongs to me. But I didn’t create it for myself. I created it so that you, my human creatures, can share in my joy of abundance. Like the master in the parable who hands over his property, God has handed over God’s good creation and entrusted us to care for our neighbors, feed the hungry, visit the sick, and help the suffering. Some of us have the ability to make a big difference in the lives of others. Others of us have a more limited role, but we can all invest whatever measure of God’s love and mercy we possess. Not because we are afraid of God, but because we have been invited to share in the life of God.
So now maybe we can go back and take another look at our one-talent friend. His fundamental problem was that he completely misjudged the character of the Master. He saw the Master as a harsh man who took even what didn’t belong to him. He was so afraid of the Master that he buried what had been given. He imagined a very different kind of God from the one revealed to us in Jesus. In Jesus we see one who claims nothing for himself, but gives all that he has for the benefit of others.
Here’s something to ponder as we think about this parable: Did God condemn the third servant to hell, or did the fearful servant consign himself to hell because he thought of God as a power to be feared, rather than as a love to be shared. I hope our question about this parable has evolved from “How could the master be so hard on the little one-talent servant,” to “In light of God’s abundance so generously shared with us, how could we possibly hold back, or bury, what we’ve been given?”
Friends, the judgment lodged in the parable’s conclusion has to be interpreted in the context of that exorbitant grace described at the beginning of the story. God has created each of us in God’s image, given us his Spirit, and poured out his love for us in Jesus Christ. True, we vary according the reach of our influence and the amount we have to give. But each of us has the opportunity to take the love God has given us and invest it in the lives of those around us. Then we, too, will hear the happiest words imaginable: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Master.”