Trustworthy in a Few Things
President and Professor of American Religion, Bill McKinney delivered this sermon at Hillcrest Congregational Church, Pleasant Hill on November 16, 2008. The lectionary for the day was Matthew 25:14-30.
Our text for this week is a familiar one. It comes from Matthew 25 and is one of a series of Jesus’ parables.
Parables are one of Jesus’ favorite pedagogical tools. They tell a simple story that’s about something else. One thing the parables have in common is the fact that they cannot be taken literally.
On the surface, today’s story is about hard work and money.
A wealthy man is about to embark on a trip and wants to transfer responsibility to his employees. He calls his workers together. To one of his workers he gives five talents. This is a lot of money. A single talent was the worth the equivalent of 15 years of salary for a day laborer. Five talents are the equivalent of 75 years of earning power. In today’s term that’s the equivalent of about $3.7 million.
To the second laborer he gives two talents, to a third one talent.
Now remember, we are talking about a lot of money.
The man goes off on his trip and, after a long time, he returns.
The first worker has doubled his money and now has ten talents. The second has also been successful and now has four talents.
The master is, of course, pleased with his workers. He praises their initiative and promises future rewards.
The third worker buried his talent in a hole in the ground and has only what his boss had entrusted to him, minus inflation.
He confesses that he is afraid of his master, whom he takes to be a harsh and cruel man. The wealthy man proves him correct by having the single talent taken away from him and given to the servant with ten talents.
He then delivers one of the most difficult lines in all of Holy Scripture: “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.”
Conventional interpretations of this story have understood it to be about one of two things. Some have thought it to be a lesson about money. Pick up any newspaper -- even in the middle of our current economic crisis – and Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard and others remind us that risk brings rewards. Life is all about asset allocation. “You’ve got to spend some to get some.” “You can’t hide your money under a mattress.” “Make money so you can give it away.”
It may be true that one needs to take risks to achieve rewards, but in this text Jesus is not really giving investment advice. The parable is not really about the money.
The second conventional interpretation focuses on the use of one’s talents or abilities. Andrew Young, a UCC minister and former mayor and UN ambassador titled his autobiography An Easy Burden, a reference to the version of today’s story that appears in Luke’s gospel. He explains that growing up in a middle class African American household he was taught by his parents that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” “A burden of responsibility,” he writes, “but an easy burden.”
There is something to be said for this argument. There is still less than a level playing field in our country and around the world. We ought to have higher expectations of those who have more than others – money, intelligence, access, education, race privilege. This is stewardship season in most churches and this argument ought to be taken seriously. We expect more from the two and five talent people.
Those may be the traditional ways of viewing the parable of the talents, but I don’t think Jesus is really talking about either money or talent.
At Pacific School of Religion we talk a lot about the importance of social context. We help our students understand that in the study of the Bible we need to pay close attention to the text, but also to the context from which it emerged and the context in which it is being heard.
Let’s look at where this parable fits in the ministry of Jesus. It comes just before that ministry is about to come to an end. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the new life they are about to begin: a life in which he will no longer be physically present in their midst.
The parable appears as part of Matthew’s “Judgment Discourse.” It is addressed to “insiders,” followers of Jesus and those who might follow. The various parables, in which we encounter Jesus as a thief and then as bridegroom, are warnings to Jesus’ followers. As Gene Boring and Fred Craddock put it, this is “a warning to insiders to live an authentic life devoted to deeds of justice and mercy, in the light of the eschatological victory of God and coming judgment on present unfaithfulness.”
The conventional readings of the parable focus us on the three servants. The context suggests otherwise. Look at it again with the context in mind. What if we focus not on the servants but on the master?
The first thing to notice is that the landowner is Jesus. What do we know about him from the story?
First, he is extraordinarily wealthy – and generous. Before departing on his trip, he gives each man a great gift. Remember, even the one-talent servant receives a lot of money – the equivalent of 15 years of earnings. Note that he doesn’t tell them what to do with the money. Two of them use the gift he has given them, the third does not.
What if we think of the gift not as money or ability but as faith? This, I think, is the real meaning of the parable. Jesus gives to the servants what God has given to him in abundance: sufficient faith to live his life in devotion and service to God and the world he lives in. Then, as now, some are more spiritually gifted. The gifted do what the landowner has done: they give it away freely. Nor is our one-talent friend left out; he too receives a sizeable gift, albeit a smaller portion than the others.
Jesus’ condemnation of the third servant is not for his failure to achieve an acceptable rate of return on the master’s investment. Jesus challenges him for squandering the faith Jesus has given to him. He is guilty of burying his faith in a hole.
This is, in microcosm, the whole of Jesus’ gospel. We have all been given the gift of faith. We haven’t earned it; it is given to us freely by God. We are called into community to exercise that faith with Jesus as our companion and guide. We are invited to deepen that faith, to test it, to stretch it, to act on it – and to give it away to others.
We are not equally gifted, nor are we ordered how to exercise our gifts, but both the expectations and the consequences are high. Will we choose to bury our faith in a hole in the ground? That’s the response people give when they are afraid.
Or will we use what God has given us to live an authentic life devoted to deeds of justice and mercy?
This is not a bad message for a church in an interim time. Don’t focus on money (there’s never enough) or on your strengths and abilities as a church (they are never sufficient). Ask, instead, how you will attest to your faith and live authentically as God’s people.
Your job, in Jesus’ words, is to be trustworthy in a few things.