I Love to Tell the Story: The Talents

07 Sep

100_1204(a sermon for September 7, 2014. the 13th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on Matthew 25:14-30)

If you really want to get to the heart of this particular parable, all you really have to do is cut to the final verse, and it’s a doozy:  “And as for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Now, there’s a harsh bit of scripture for you!  Not exactly the most uplifting verse you’ll ever find in the gospels; one that, quite honestly, most of us would rather skip over in our Bible Study (!), but one, unfortunately, that’s pretty much part and parcel of God’s Word for us this day.  For unlike some of the other parables we’ve been revisiting; ones that have to do with things like love and grace and forgiveness, this “parable of the talents” ends up being a story about judgment: God’s judgment upon the world, its people… and us.

Actually, as parables go, this one is pretty straightforward: a man who is about to go on a journey entrusts his servants with his property, and gives to each one differing amounts of money to take care of things.  Now understand, though the English word we use is talent, in biblical terms, this amounts to cold hard cash, and a lot of it: a single talent was worth more than 15 years’ wages for an average laborer!  So whether it’s five talents, two, or one, we might as well be talking about a million dollars; that’s how significant a thing it is that the master would actually trust this kind of money to his servants.

Well, as it happens, two of the servants double the investment with which they’re entrusted, and they are richly rewarded for doing so.  But the third, the one who was given just a single talent, gains nothing for his master because he does nothing; that is, aside from keeping the money safely buried in the back yard.  And as a result, the one talent is taken from that third servant and given to the first with ten talents, while he himself is cast off into that aforementioned place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” forever to dwell in darkness and torment, which is where this particular parable of Jesus abruptly ends.

All in all, it’s pretty heavy stuff; not really the kind of thing we expect from Jesus, and more than a little bit unsettling; especially when one considers that given our own tendency to “save for a rainy day,” the truth is, we might well have done much the same thing as that third servant!

After all, wasn’t what he did the wise and prudent thing to do with somebody else’s money?  Isn’t it good to protect that which is valuable rather than taking action that most certainly would risk losing it all?  Rest assured, those who first heard Jesus tell this story had much the same reaction:  it was, in fact, a fairly common practice at that time to bury valuable treasures and money; not only for the sake of security, but also liability.  So for Jesus to suggest that the harsher judgment was to fall upon the one who, at least in their minds, had done the right thing was to say the least, disturbing!   So disturbing, in fact, that early church historians tell us that there was an apocryphal (that is, false) gospel that circulated some 100 years after the resurrection in which this parable was actually revised so that instead of burying the single talent, the third servant had “squandered his master’s money with harlots and flute players.” (Says a lot for musicians, doesn’t it?)  Presumably, the idea was to justify his harsh punishment; to make the behavior of this servant somehow worse than it was; but in the end, that’s not how the story goes.  What we’re left with here is the hard truth that judgment came not because he squandered his master’s money, but because he failed to do anything with it at all!

The question, of course, as it is for all these parables of Jesus, is what does this tell us about the kingdom of God?  In this case, it’s interesting to note that this story comes in the midst of several parables that have to do with keeping watch and being prepared for the kingdom’s coming, since we “know neither the day nor the hour” of its arrival. In other words, the day is coming soon when the Master will return to settle all accounts; so you’d best be ready.  But what we find out is being “ready” is never about being passive and safe; as Jesus tells the story, when the kingdom comes we need to be found having made good and bold use of all the resources with which God has entrusted us.

Certainly, the message here is one of stewardship; that undeniable truth that everything we have in life belongs to God, and that by grace and extravagant generosity we’re given everything for the sake of doing the work of God’s Kingdom; and in that regard it is true that each one of us has “talents on loan from God” that in time each of us will need to give back.  We can read this as money; certainly that applies here!  We can think of it in terms of our ideas and abilities – the “time and talent” that go along with the treasure – and we can even broaden the idea of “talents” to include how we care for one another and our world; the ways that we love as we have been loved; and the commitment we have to share our Christian faith.  The point is that that each one of us here has this gospel – this good news in Jesus Christ – with which we’ve been entrusted.  What, asks Jesus, will we do with it?

What this parable tells us is it’s only when we’re found “trustworthy in a few things” that can we ever expect to be put in charge of “many things [and] enter into the joy of [our] master.”  In the end, you see, we will be held accountable for what God gives us; but not as much about squandering what we’ve been given as much as failing to do something with it!  Friends, our Christian faith and everything that’s connected to it is never meant to be hoarded and buried in the backyard of our lives; it is meant to be used for the sake of God and his kingdom. Our faithfulness needs to be boldly proclaimed in both word and deed; with everything we have and everything we are.

I wonder how often you and I hold back from that.

What’s interesting is that the reason given by the third servant for hiding that one talent away was, in fact, fear: fear of the risk, fear of failure, fear of the Master’s retribution if he ended up losing the money.  The man was paralyzed with fear and it ultimately, fear became his undoing! It begs the question of how often we’ve let fear trump our faithfulness; how many times we’ve opted to let God’s gifts remain buried and hidden for fear of the risk of failure, or embarrassment or even persecution?   I wonder how much of ourselves could have been invested for the sake of God’s kingdom, but wasn’t; all because we were afraid we might somehow fall on our face?

That this happens to us, friends, is tragic, for as Victor Pentz has written, “one of the great truths which pervade the Bible is that only the life of risk and faith is worth living.  If you are not willing to risk, you will never make a new friends; you will never fall in love… you will never learn a new dance step [or] go into business… [likewise] you will never know the fullness of the Christian life unless you step out in faith and in trust.”

In this story of the three servants and the talents they’re given, Jesus is asking each one of us to come to grips with what it means to truly step out in faith and trust.  Because make no mistake, beloved, what we do with what God has given us does make all the difference; it carries great impact on our lives, our relationships with others, and yes, what we do in this church.  I’m here to tell you this morning that amongst the most important and the most effective pieces of Christian education and nature that we offer the wonderful children who are part of this church family comes in the God-given gifts that each one of you have within you and have been entrusted to share.  Even if you’re not a Sunday School teacher – and we’d love for you to be a Sunday School teacher, by the way (!) – you all have the stuff our kids need to grow in their Christian faith; you have your care and compassion; your laughter and your stories; your history; your strength and your hope; and above all else, your love.

Why would you ever think of holding that back?

God has given us an important responsibility: to honor the investment God has made in us and to make a commitment to him, to his people, to his work, and to his church; to take the many gifts God has given us and use them both wisely and boldly; investing and reinvesting spiritual capital for the sake of his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Understand, of course, that it might involve some risk; but more often than not it’s the risk that will bring a joy and a peace unlike anything else in the world can provide.

Years ago one summer during my college years, a group of us decided to go to a contra dance that was happening nearby. Admittedly, not a one of us had a clue as to what we were doing; we didn’t know a line dance from a square dance, but it seemed like it might be fun, so off we went.  And even when we got there, we stood on the sidelines wondering if we really should risk embarrassment by joining in with the others; but eventually, encouraged by the “regulars” who were there, with a great deal of trepidation we stepped out onto the dance floor.  And you know what?  We were… horrible!  I mean, we were really, really bad!  And try as we might, as the evening wore on, it got no better!  It finally got to the point where the caller leaned into his microphone and said, “Perhaps you young people should go get a glass of punch!”

But I’ll tell you something else: we had fun.  We’d risked something of our dignity, yes, and we’d exposed a bit of our foolishness, but we’d reaped some laughter.  We’d seized the moment, and in a very small way, that moment was a miracle.

That’s what happens when we’re bold about living our faith: yes, it can be risky, but the miracles we reap for the sake of our Lord far surpasses the risk.  Beloved, we must never let fear – from within or without – ever tear us away from the work that God would have us do in this place and everywhere.

Great things can happen when we trust God’s purposes enough to let our own lights shine;  so let us be bold enough to be faithful with what God has given us so abundantly, so that we truly can share in the joy of our Master.

Or to put it another way, Carpe Diem.  Seize this day!

And thanks be to God!


c, 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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