February 05, 2012
“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.’
Someone once said that every sermon is a little bit heretical. I think I’ve told you all that before, but it bears repeating because it is so very true. Every sermon is a little bit heretical because no matter how biblical or scholarly or carefully crafted a sermon may be, there is always more that could be said. There are always questions left unanswered, contradictions left unexamined, and truths left unexpressed.
And, as if that admission weren’t shocking enough, I’m going to go one step further and suggest that the same could also be said for Jesus’ parables. No one parable is going to give us all the answers. No one parable can possibly tell us all we need to know. Some will give us more than others, but no story can possibly say it all.
Take the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, for instance. Those young ladies teach us a great deal about the importance of being ready, but they don’t teach us a thing about how to share. The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search for one lost sheep teaches us a whole lot about God’s love but very little about responsible herding practices.
And all those parables we read about kings, landowners, slaves, and servants—well, they say a heck of a lot about actions and consequences, but not a one challenges the social order enough to suggest that, say, slavery be abolished. That took some reading between the lines. That required people to take a step back and look at the biblical picture as a whole.
So you see, no one sermon and no one story says it all. Even Jesus’ parables are a little bit heretical.
And I think this is good news. In fact, it may be the only good news we’ll be hearing this morning, because today we’re taking a closer look at the parable of the talents, and this story has a little something to offend everyone. Am I right? This story is harsh, nasty, and totally unfair.
To begin with, did you notice that the game is stacked against the little guy from the very beginning? Not only are the slaves given different sums, but notice that the Bible says they are given different sums in accordance with their level of ability.
So right away we know that the master knows that the third slave isn’t the sharpest crayon in the box. The master gives him less to start out with because he knows this guy has less to work with, and yet this same master still holds him up to the same level of expectation as the others when he returns. That isn’t just unfair; it’s kind of cruel.
Not only that, the master chastises the third slave for not at least putting his money in the bank and gaining interest, which is odd when you think about it because lending money at interest—yes, that same practice that allows people like you and me to use credit cards, obtain mortgages, and send our kids to college—was actually considered a sin in both the Old and New Testaments.
Yes, that’s right, a sin. Making money by lending money was a big no-no. God does not believe that anyone should have to mortgage away their future in order to get what they need for today—be it shelter, health care, education, or food—and God abhors the idea that others would profit from another’s desperation, which may explain why the third slave didn’t give his money to the bankers.
Instead, he ran off and hid his money in the ground. And yet here he is getting punished for making the courageous and countercultural decision to obey the law of God.
And then there is the supposed moral of this sorry little tale.
“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance,” says the Master, “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.”
All those who have are going to get more? All those who don’t are going to get even less? Since when? What is going on here? This is Jesus talking, right? I mean, it’s his mouth that’s moving, but he’s not making any sense.
Whatever happened to the meek inheriting the earth? What about the poor? Didn’t Jesus say that theirs is the kingdom of heaven? What about grace, forgiveness, mercy? What about the first being last and the last being first? Something is amiss here. In fact, a whole lot is missing here.
This can’t be the whole story, and indeed it isn’t. You are going to need to consult the rest of your Bible to understand how to live as a Christian. Likewise, you’re going to have to read this parable in the context of that same Bible if you really want to understand what it means. And we’re going to get to that, but first I want you to understand fully how upsetting this story has been for people throughout the ages.
According to the Rev. Peter Gomes, “This tale so affected Karl Marx that he . . . reversed its implications and came up with his classical theory of socialism: ‘From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs’” (Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p. 200).
Likewise, this parable was so upsetting to people in the early church that they just went ahead and rewrote it. In later apocryphal versions of the story the first slave invests and increases the money, the second hides and preserves it, and the third goes out and gambles it away. The first two are rewarded by the master when he returns, and the third is justly punished for misusing the master’s money (Pulpit Resource vol. 33, no. 4, p. 30, William H. Willimon).
People liked that version of the story. Not only did it make sense, it also taught a little something about money and responsibility. Only problem is, that it’s not the story Jesus told. If you take it out of context and mess with it, you can make the Parable of the Talents mean just about anything you want.
But here’s the thing. When you look at it in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry, you come to realize something quite striking and not a little disturbing. You come to realize that this isn’t actually a parable about money at all. Jesus is not taking this moment to teach us a little something about sound fiscal management, the rewards of industriousness, or even the virtues of capitalism.
And just for the record, while we are on the subject of what this parable is not about, it is not an exhortation about using your talents to play the guitar, the harp, or the kazoo to glorify God. We’ve all heard that sermon, no doubt because the word play was just too tempting, and it puts a positive spin on a difficult parable, but it too misses the mark.
Folks, Jesus isn’t the first-century equivalent of Suze Orman, here to teach us a lesson or two about investing. And he’s not Barney, by which I mean he’s not a big lovable purple dinosaur come down from heaven to remind us to practice the piano. He’s the Messiah, and there is something else that he’s trying to say.
The Parable of the Talents is actually about the end of time, the end of Jesus’ time on earth and hence the time between His ascension and His return. It is a parable about the Kingdom of God in the meantime. Jesus is telling us what we are to do while the master is away.
I realize that this makes Jesus the master in the tale, and I don’t like that anymore than I would imagine you do, but here’s the thing: Jesus is not asking us to like it. Jesus is asking us to pay attention, because like the master, he’s about to go.
We are reading from chapter twenty-five this morning. Jesus will be arrested in chapter twentysix. His earthly ministry is about to come to a close. He knows that he is about to be taken away and crucified, so he tells his followers that the kingdom of God will be like a man who summoned his slaves and entrusted them with his property before he went off on a very long journey.
When you look at this story in its rightful context, all of a sudden it becomes clear. The talents in this parable aren’t money, nor do they represent our special God-given abilities. The talents represent the gospel—everything Jesus has lived for and everything for which he is about to die.
This is a story about the truth: the radical, life-changing,
mind-altering, captive-freeing, blind-seeing, lame-dancing, mute-singing, temple-crumbling, establishment-challenging truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus is ready to pass this truth on to his disciples—a great blessing, to be sure, but also a tremendous responsibility and a serious liability. The truth is, the third slave was right to be afraid, because these ideas, well, they’re about to get Jesus killed. But Jesus is telling us that if this is going to work, then there can be no room for fear. (Thanks to Anthony B. Robinson for this idea: “The Wages of Fear,” Christian Century, Oct. 27, 1993).
He’s saying, “Look, if you take all I have said and you run with it, if you are willing to risk everything to bring this new way of thinking and living and loving out into the world, then the kingdom of God has a shot, and when I return we can rejoice together in what has been accomplished. But if you take this truth about how we ought to think and live and love and run off to hide somewhere with your head in a hole until I come back, then none of this is going to fly. You can’t wait till I come back and make it all better. You can’t wait till I come back and make it all safe, because if you wait, I won’t have anything to come back to. I won’t know you on that day, and you won’t know me.”
Jesus is desperate here, desperate for them to understand. He’s about to be tried and crucified before their very eyes, and he knows how very hard this will be for them to endure.
He knows that, even among those closest to him, one will betray him; that his bravest friend will deny him; that the very people he has come to save, the very people listening to him right now, will denounce him in just a few days’ time.
And yet they are all he has, and so he gives to each one according to their ability.
Each slave was handed a sum of vast potential. The third slave was afraid of what he received, and rightly so. The miracle of this parable is that the first two were not, at least not so afraid that they let their fear stop them from trying to multiply that which they had just been given.
Jesus knows that the world is a fearsome place, but he asks those who would serve him to step up anyway. He asks that we step up and risk everything we have been given for the sake of the kingdom.
It’s not easy. It’s not fair. It doesn’t make sense.
It goes against our most basic instincts for selfpreservation, but this is what he asks of all those who would follow him.
This is, as far as I can tell, the meaning of the Parable of the Talents. It is an interesting message for us to contemplate in our day and age, in this country where our religion is not only protected but stands in some shape or form as the dominant ethos. With all the dangers before them, the disciples who walked with Jesus needed to hear this message. So too did the martyrs of the early church, but what of you and me living in this time and in this place?
There is no risk associated with being a Christian in our culture. All the crosses and lions and vats of boiling oil were put away long ago. But that is not all that got put away. I think part of the reason we find it as easy to be Christians as we do is that, like that third slave, we have taken a large sum of Jesus’ truth and buried it deep away. Just like that third slave, we have taken the aspects of Jesus’ teachings like turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us, not repaying evil with harm, forgiving debts, relieving the suffering of the poor, living for today and not worrying about tomorrow, and hidden them away until such time as it is safe to bring them out.
If we take a good, hard look at how we live in this country, I believe we will find that we maintain our prosperity and our security, not just as individuals but as a nation, by burying or hiding away much of the truth that Christ entrusted to us.
Yes, we all want peace, but we won’t risk disarming until we know that all our enemies have done so first. Jesus’ teachings about not repaying evil with harm will just have to stay buried a little longer.
Sure, we’ll put an end to poverty, once we know that our jobs and our supply of cheap goods and cheap labor are secure. We’ll risk loving our enemies someday, when we are sure and certain they pose us no threat. We’ll stop worrying about tomorrow as soon as we have no real reason to worry.
Like the third slave, we keep the truth we know we ought to be living by buried deep because we know it’s not safe yet to bring it out into the light. The risk of multiplying some of the talents we have been given by putting them to work in the world is just too high. We have too much to lose. We’re afraid to act, and for good reason, so we sit on the truth until such time as things change, until such time as it is safe. We’re waiting—not acting, just waiting. Waiting around for the master to return.
Fred Craddock tells a story. It’s a story about a village where the school bell would ring every morning at 8:30 to call the children to class. In this village, the boys and girls left their homes and their toys reluctantly, creeping like snails into the school, not late, but not a second early.
Thankfully, the bell rang again at 3:30, releasing the children so they could rush back to their homes and their games. This is how it was every day with every child, except one.
She came early to help the teacher prepare the room and the materials for the day. She stayed late to help the teacher clean the board, dust the erasers, and put away the supplies. And during the day she sat close to the teacher, all eyes and ears for the lessons being taught.
One day, when the noise and inattention were worse than usual, the teacher called the class to order. Pointing to the little girl in the front row, she asked, “Why can you not be as she is? She comes early to help. She stays late to help. All day long she is attentive and courteous.”
“It isn’t fair to ask us to be as she is,” said one little boy.
“Why ever not?” asked the teacher.
“Because she has an advantage,” he replied.
“I don’t understand. What is her advantage?” asked the puzzled teacher.
“She’s an orphan,” he almost whispered as he sat down. (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 16).
Here in America we have much in common with that little boy. If you have nothing to risk you have nothing to lose, but God knows we have so much. It isn’t fair for Jesus to ask this of us; it isn’t fair for him to ask us to risk our own well-being, our sense of security, or our quality of life. But he does anyway.
I wish to God this parable were about money. I wish to God this parable were about putting our talents to good use. But it’s not.
It’s about being willing to risk our very lives for the King.
It’s about taking his truth out into the world and daring to try and change this place, no matter what the cost, no matter what the risk. This is the meaning of the parable. May God grant us the courage to bring the truth of Christ’s gospel back out into the light and become the good and faithful servants God is calling us to be.
O Lord, this is a hard parable for hard times. This is a difficult truth for difficult times. But Lord, use us anyway. Don’t give up on us. Light a fire deep within our hearts. Help us to remember, Lord. Help us to remember just where we have buried some of these truths that you gave to us so long ago, and grant us the courage, grant us the will, grant us the resolve to take that which we have been given and dare to multiply it for your glory, that this world might be changed, that this world might be healed, that this world might become the kingdom you created it to be. Amen.
Stir us up to offer you, O Lord, our bodies, our
souls, our spirits,
In all we love and all we learn, in all we plan and
all we do,
To offer our labors, our pleasures, our sorrows to
To work through them for your kingdom, to live as
those who are not their own, but bought with your
blood, fed with your body;
Yours from our birth-hour, yours now, and yours
forever and ever.
- Charles Kingsley (1819-1875)
Rev. Sarah Buteux