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We Reap What We Do Not Sow

November 20, 2011

Bible Reading

“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.’”(Matthew 25:14-30)

Sermon

Well, my friends, we have here a challenging tale.

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; and to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, each according to his ability.”

Who is this man? Who are these servants supposed to be? And what does any of this rather upsetting parable have to do with us?

Let us start by assuming that Jesus is talking here about the kingdom of heaven, and that this “man going on a journey” is the Lord. Now, hold on. You may be thinking, as I was at this juncture, “How can the Lord go on a journey? A journey to where? He’s supposed to be everywhere and within everything, isn’t he? He can’t just take a vacation!” I would like to share with you just what I think this image means, and what I believe this parable has to say about our place in the kingdom of heaven and the way in which our own souls can join in building that heavenly kingdom.

Frankly, at first reading, I was not sure that I really DID want this story to have anything to do with me, or God, or my relationship with him and his kingdom. Several aspects of this parable really bothered me—overall, this parable seemed to end on a remarkably unjust note. But let us start at the beginning, with this traveling man and his money.

This man, about to leave for a journey, gives a great deal to his servants: he entrusts them each with a different amount of money, “each according to his ability,” and then, without further ado, he leaves. Jesus gives us no record of any instructions the man might have given his slaves about how to use that money, or what kind of profit he expects upon his return home, or even how long he will be gone.

Meanwhile, the first two servants make an impressive display of financial savvy: they head off to trade with their nest eggs and manage to double their investments. Quite an impressive accomplishment, especially by today’s stock-market standards! The third servant, however, takes the conservative approach. He buries his single talent in the ground, the equivalent of hiding it in the mattress. Presumably he does this for safekeeping. But we have to wonder why he chooses not to invest along with the others.

Then the story takes a challenging turn. When the master returns after a long absence, he wants to know how his financial venture has fared. He is pleased to discover that the first two servants have taken their respective five and two talents and doubled their value. As a reward for their faithfulness in this financial exercise, in “a few things,” the master gives them both authority over “many things.” He probably improves their status and living standards considerably.

When the third servant, the one given a single talent, comes forward, he has an excuse prepared. “Master,” he says, “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow . . . So I was afraid, and hid your talent in the ground.” And, rather defensively it seems, he hands back to the master the single talent he had been given—no more, but certainly no less. Look, he seems to say, I have not stolen or lost it, I have done what was required of me—and indeed, he has safeguarded his treasure for his master’s return.

But this is apparently not what was required. It is certainly not enough for the master, who calls the last servant “wicked and lazy” and questions his excuse. “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, and on my return I would have received what was my own, with interest.” And with that, he takes the talent away from the servant and gives it to the servant who has the most money, who has made the greatest profit. And then he says something that really offends our sense of justice: “To all those who have, more will be given, but for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” And he commands that the servant be thrown out of the household.

All in all, this finale seems like an unjust and unmerciful resolution to the parable. The story becomes all the more upsetting if we think of the master as God and the servants as ourselves.

Several immediate questions arise. First: What kind of a man simply leaves for a journey without giving even the most trustworthy servants specific instructions about the welfare of his money and property? Well, a man who isn’t particularly concerned about his finances, that’s for sure. In Jesus’ day, a talent was worth fifteen years’ worth of wages to a laborer. To that first servant, this man hands out five talents—seventy-five years’ worth of income, far more than a lifetime’s worth of money to a laborer. Even the servant who receives only one talent receives almost a working lifetime’s worth of pay. So we can assume that this traveling man is wealthy. And since he leaves no investment instructions for the slaves, it seems clear that he isn’t expecting any particular profit from his loans. In short, this man isn’t in it for the money. What does he want, then?

My second question: Why are the servants not given equal amounts of money? Jesus says that they were gifted “each according to his ability.” For many of us, this unequal distribution will offend our sense of democracy. The servants do not begin on even economic ground. Notice, though, that the master judges them with this fact in mind. The first two do what they can with their endowments. They both double their investment, and the master is equally pleased with their profits. Clearly, it is not the actual amount of money that concerns the master.

And my third question: how can the master take what he has given from the third servant, and why does he banish him from the household? How is it right that the man with the least should have nothing and the man with the most have yet more? An urgent question, and one for which I have no simple response. But by considering the answer to this question, we begin to unpack the message held in this parable about our place in the kingdom of heaven.

Let us begin by considering what exactly the heavenly kingdom is. Swedenborg points out that heaven is not only a state that we choose or reject after this mortal life. “Every regenerated person,” he says, “is a kind of tiny heaven” (Arcana Coelestia 911). Heaven is here, now, both within us and around us. The kingdom of heaven is something we create or work against, depending on how we employ the abilities that lie within us.

It follows, then, that our free will plays an important part in creating or destroying the heavenly kingdom. If God is the master in this parable, what does it mean for the Lord to be “going on a journey?” If God is, as Swedenborg tells us, Divine Love and Wisdom, and if his essence is the basis for our very existence, how can he be understood to “leave”? Well, according to the way we understand the Lord, he doesn’t leave. He is, according to Psalm 139, present at even the farthest and darkest limits of existence. But, like the master who leaves his own property to the discretion of his servants, the Lord gives us free will—or at least the appearance of it—to use the gift of his property as we see fit. And what is the Lord’s “property”? What is the gift he gives us to invest and make profit with?

Existence. Life itself. And, by extension, the gifts and abilities we are born with.

The talents in this parable represent our innate gifts—our talents, as it were. The talents represent the “distinguishably one” qualities of charity and faith, goodness and truth, love and wisdom. One cannot operate without the other—goodness gives warmth to truth, love gives meaning to wisdom, and charity gives the spark of action to faith. In the same way, our lives are static, stagnant, totally self-absorbed and meaningless, unless we apply our gifts to the good, happiness, and well-being of the world around us.

So the master—God—is not in this for his own profit. He is more concerned with the attitude of his servants. This becomes quite clear in his exchange with the third servant. “I was afraid,” the slave says. Afraid of what? Afraid that his master would reap where he did not sow—that the servant would be expected to produce a profit he had not been given the means to create. There is a fundamental problem with the third servant’s perspective here. He cannot free himself from the belief that the master is in it for the profit—that his master is interested in how much money the servant can make. Since he has been given a single talent, the least amount of money, it makes sense that, with this perspective, he feels unable to meet his master’s expectations. We can see why he buried the talent rather than bother to invest. Why risk losing everything when he could at least guarantee his ability to give what he was given?

But we know that the master has no interest in profit. Rather, he wants to see that the servant has bothered to invest—that he has tried to make something more out of the gift he has been given. After all, he is equally pleased with the first and second servants—and the first ends up with ten talents, while the second ends up with only four.

We can think of our own abilities in the same way. We are all born with varying degrees of ability in a broad variety of areas, and we are not better or worse, more or less worthy beings, for the kinds of gifts God gives us. We are given what we are able to use and develop for the greatest benefit of our own souls and others’. The third servant’s fear is unfounded. His one talent is worth a great deal, and his master did not ask for more profit than the servant could create from that single piece of silver. The “joy of the master”—heaven—is within the grasp of every person who recognizes and uses his or her gifts to good ends.

But what of the end of this parable? What meaning do we make of the servant’s loss of the single talent, of his banishment to outer darkness? And how do we reconcile these apparent cruelties with our understanding of a loving and light-filled God? This is strong stuff.

This part of the parable is a wake-up call. Jesus is telling us that if the possibility of heaven lies within and around us, so then does the potential for hell.

Our responsive reading for this morning was taken from Psalm 139. In another section of that passage, the psalmist asks the Lord, “Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in hell, you are there.”

If I make my bed in hell.

Not “if I am sent to hell,” or “if hell takes me,” but “if I make my bed,” my resting place, my safest sanctuary, in hell. Sometimes we “make our bed in hell” less by conscious choice than because we feel driven there by desperate circumstances, depression, or despair—and I am willing to bet that all of us have felt this way at some point in our lives. Jesus, in fact, in his journey from human to divine, could be said to have made his bed in hell during his darkest moments before the crucifixion. But hell is, according to Swedenborg, a choice.

There are a couple of ways that we can choose hell, or cast ourselves into the “outer darkness” of the parable. The first is to turn our gifts and abilities toward evil or self-serving ends. We can see this happen on a large scale. Consider Hitler, a charismatic man who turned his abilities toward acts of incredible darkness. We also see it occur on a smaller, more insidious scale. This happens when we use our own best qualities to manipulate others or to accomplish something at the expense of another.

The second way that we can “make our bed in hell,” and perhaps the more damaging way (because it can go completely unnoticed), is through what we do not do—we can fail to use the gifts God gives us, or see them as worthless. This is what happens when the third servant buries his talent in the earth instead of investing it in the more fertile ground of the bank. This happens to us when we let our gifts lie dormant inside us or think of them—and ourselves—as useless or inferior or unworthy. But although God never demands more than he gives us potential for, never gathers where he has not scattered seed, we reap what we do not sow. The loss to heaven is ours and everyone’s if we hide or reject our gifts as unworthy or impractical.

But Jesus, in this parable, never says that this “outer darkness” is forever. He never says that hell is inescapable. If the heavenly kingdom can be created here and now, during every moment of every day, then so can we escape our hells, here and now, during every moment of every day. George Dole points out that “we are all designed for heaven, and if we could see deeply enough, we would discover that heavenly design. True, it is covered over with much that is not heavenly, but that is just the covering. The simple fact that we are alive means that the Lord is flowing into us, and the Lord is perfect love and wisdom united” (Sorting Things Out). We have only to recognize and reach toward the deeper, brighter possibility of heaven in order to be redeemed from the depths of hell.

God does not reap what he has not sown. We, however, do reap in spiritual hunger what we do not sow—the gifts we fail to acknowledge. I do not believe that the Lord asks any more of us than he gives us the ability to create. No person can singlehandedly save the environment, or end world hunger, or even repaint a house in a reasonable amount of time—no one can do it all, and in the same vein, no one can create heaven by him- or herself. The Lord does not demand that we contribute more to the world than he has made us capable of giving—but we are responsible for trying our very best to make this world a heavenly place with the blessings we do have, whatever those gifts may be. Likewise, we are responsible for putting our faith to work—the work of love. Listen again to Swedenborg’s words: “Every regenerated person is a kind of tiny heaven, or a likeness or image of the whole heaven; so, in the word, the inner person is called ‘heaven’ . . . When someone is governed by the design of the Lord, then he or she is likewise a tiny heaven, or [which is the same thing], a kingdom of the Lord, because the kingdom of the Lord is within him or her” (Arcana Coelestia 911). We have the precious gift of free will to invest our talents, however much they may amount to, and make profit on them. We also have freedom to be afraid, and bury those gifts in the earth. But, by uniting our faith in the Lord with acts of love, by combining what our heads know with what our hands and hearts can do—even if our contributions seem tiny—we can build the kingdom of heaven within ourselves, within our community, and throughout the world.

Prayer

Dear Lord, we thank you for the unique blessings and abilities you have given to each one of us. Help us to realize that every one of us truly is a unique light to the rest of the world, and help us to let that light so shine that we glorify you in creating a heavenly kingdom, both within ourselves and throughout this whole earth. Amen.

Leah G. Goodwin