November 19 2017 Sermon
‘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.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Recently, I heard the Parable of the Talents, called the most abused parable in all of the gospels. This parable has been explained in a hundred different ways, and not many of them are very clear, convincing, or sensible.
One incredibly common way to read the text or a similar story in Luke in which 10 servants are given amounts of money to work with is to focus on stewardship. How do you faithfully and fruitfully use your tangible assets and abilities to advance the reign of God in the world? It’s a good question and it’s one that your church leaders here regularly entertain
For any church celebrating Stewardship Sunday today or on another Sunday while choosing this as a preaching text, you can expect to hear the preacher encouraging folks to be like one of the two servants who go out and double their master’s earnings. Take what God has given you and use it for the kingdom. Don’t squander away your time, money, or energy under a bushel basket when it could be used for good in God’s kingdom. And whatever you do, don’t be like the third servant who is so scared of his master that he doesn’t do anything worthwhile with what was entrusted to his care. He might as well have hid the cash assets in the mattress so as to minimize the risk of a market downturn or robbery. He digs a hole, buries the money, and waits for his master to return.
Two servants are praiseworthy for their entrepreneurial spirit and financial acumen. They’re rewarded with the master’s praise and promised to manage an even larger portfolio for their initially good track record. Another servant is cast into the outer darkness whatever that means for his paralyzing fear and unwillingness to turn a profit on the master’s money. Is this what we believe about the logic of God’s reign? If you’re faithful and fruitful, God will bestow further blessings upon your life. If you fail to please the master, then you’re cast out of favor and all you have is taken from you and given to another.
I’m not entirely sure this is a glimpse of God’s economics or even an allegorical reading of how God’s grace works. It’s a common practice in working with Jesus’ parables to assume that a king, a landowner, or some other official in high esteem is God or a God-like figure. But if we do that in today’s reading we end up with a God who is absent for quite some time letting his servants do as they wish or a God whose favor is only doled out based on portfolio performance. And that we call works righteousness-meaning we would earn God’s grace. That’s simply not our collective understanding and experience that God’s grace is freely given to anyone and everyone. So let’s walk down another trail together and see where it takes us as we look into the actions of the servants and the property owner.
Years ago, there was a trend in churches in which a predetermined amount of money was given to church members in order that they could embody the parable of the talents. I have a vague recollection that the church I grew up in gave out small bills and some of the ladies bought bake sale ingredients, made pies, sold them for profit, and then turned around bought more ingredients, and make a second and third round of pies to sell until it was time to turn the money back in. The backstory of the idea comes from a book called The Kingdom Assignment.
The Kingdom Assignment, [is] the story of pastor Denny Bellesi, who doled out $10,000 in $100 increments to church members one Sunday, with three requirements: The $100 belongs to God. You must invest it in God’s work. Report your results in 90 days. The reports were startling: people made money hand over fist to contribute to the church, creative ministries were hatched, lives were transformed, people wept for joy—and it was all covered by NBC’s Dateline.
In recounting his church’s fascination with the possibility of conducting The Kingdom Assignment, Reverend James Howell offers up this piercing question.
Why should I give somebody $100 and say, “This belongs to God,” implying that the other half million in his investment portfolio is his? (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-11/trojan-horse)
It is this piercing question that might give us a better sense of what is really being addressed in the parable. A talent as Jesus uses it in the parable is the largest denomination of currency in the first century world. It is an absurd amount of money. Each talent would be the equivalent of 6,000 days worth of wages-about 16.5 years. So the first servant gets 80 years worth of wages, the second servant about 33 years worth of wages, and the last servant gets 16 years worth of wages. These are absurd amounts of money that first century farm hands would have never seen before and surely would have no functional idea on how to manage such wealth. It’s difficult to read the parable and believe that any of the three had the ability and expertise to handle such a substantial sum.
It’s a hyperbolic miracle that a farm servant is able to take more than a lifetime of wages, go into the marketplace, and double the value of the assets given to him. This doesn’t happen at least it doesn’t outside of Jesus’ parables. A Mediterranean laborer wouldn’t have the know how to deal with this amount of money-and most of us wouldn’t either. This is why professional athletes, celebrities, and lottery winners go broke within years of coming into great amounts of wealth. The burden is too great to handle.
I’m starting to have more sympathy for the third servant who recognized the immense amount of risk handling more money than he probably had ever seen. He knew he was in uncharted territory, about to drown in the deep end of the pool, so it was best not to do anything drastic and stupid to lose the master’s money. Sounds reasonable. He does what many first century folks would have done-bury the money. Burying money was a prudent behavior so the tongue lashing rather than commendation from the master is a shock to the third servant. The story concludes in most dramatic fashion as the master declares how worthless the slave is and casts him out to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. That’s not a good place to be.
So do you think the third servant is deserving of the berating tongue lashing for recognizing his own limited ability and fear of losing something of hyperbolic worth?
Well, assuming that Jesus isn’t speaking about generosity and capital gains or about first century economic justice, we’re left with this consideration. What is it that the church is gifted with that is of exaggerated, even absurd value? The pearl of great price-more precious than gold. It’s the story of God’s grace reigning universally in Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, strip away the liturgy, the buildings, the weekly activities, the history of worshiping here on Main Street, and one thing remains: the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
A gift with more inherent value than anything we have ever put our hands on is entrusted to our care-perhaps we would be wise to confess that we don’t exactly don’t what to do with it. We don’t know what to do with it even when we’ve been given instructions on what to do with it. Maybe Jesus’ parable as told to Matthew’s community was a heads up that the gospel entering into their midst was of such value that some might not be ready for its demands and beckoning. I mean who is really ready to risk away something worth a lifetime of wages? I’m the first to admit that we tone down, reign in, put a cap on, and risk assess what we imagine could be the fruit of God’s transformative grace.
In far too many places and houses of worship, dreamers have stopped dreaming. Prophets have stopped speaking. Bureaucrats and administrators have taken the reigns and drawn up the boundary lines of what faithful and fruitful ministry can be. Pastors have kept a monopoly on creative imagination so that the whole gospel operation didn’t get out of hand. Churches have pulled out the garden shovel, gone out back, and dug until the soil was dark and cool, buried its immensely valuable talent, and now wait for a day of reconciling and reporting when the master returns.
Every once in awhile through the cracks in the sidewalk, you’ll hear or see something that reminds you of the first servant. A young adult will dream in bigger ways than you ever thought possible. It’s the dream that sustains the day in and day out slog of ministry and non profit development. She’s got her entire life to lose on the dream and the reign of God to gain. The dream has been blessed five fold. Well done good and faithful servant.
For me, I’ve wondered why is it electrifying to walk through neighborhoods in Historic South Atlanta or Binghampton in Memphis where churches have risked endeavors envisioning community revitalization and reconciliation? Folks have risked life, work, privilege, and homes all because they know the grace of God in their life is valuable beyond measure. They risked life changing ministry in unlikely places and they’re being blessed five fold.
To be gifted with something of such immense value is daunting. But perhaps after a bit of communal confession of not quite being sure what to do with it, then it is always time to risk something life changing for the sake of God’s reign.
Maybe then, and only then, we can dare something for God. God gives the gospel not to me so my ability can be put to good use, but to us so our inability might be exposed and God thereby glorified.
The gospel isn’t being unleashed if some percentage of church members start to think of an extra $100 or so as belonging to God, or even if the most clever stewardship campaign in history magically seduced a majority of mainline Protestants into tithing. The gospel is too big for such trifles. Surely it is only to the dumbfounded, to the clueless, to the overwhelmed, to those who are under no illusion that they have ever known quite what to do because of Jesus and don’t pretend it could ever be otherwise—to those alone that this [Jesus says well done good and faithful servants]. (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-11/trojan-horse)