November 19, 2017
Today’s parable, the Parable of the Talents, is in many ways a preacher’s dream. It is so rich, and there are so many angles to take. The biggest challenge, really, is not finding something to say, but rather, which thing to say! Pardon the pun, but it is an embarrassment of riches!
Perhaps it is a parable about God’s providence. At the beginning, the Master gives the servants five, two, and one talent respectively. A talent is a currency equal to about 15-20 years of labor – no small amount! If we think of God as the Master, then we can read this to mean that our God is one who entrusts to us exorbitant riches, charging us to use what God provides for good and for gain. That seems a reasonable interpretation.
Or, perhaps it is a parable about what we understand as “talents” – our particular gifts and skills – and being good stewards of these talents. This is a common reading of this text because it makes a lot of sense: God gives us many gifts, and good, faithful people use those gifts to serve the world. Those who are willing to share their gifts with the world, especially for the purpose of serving God and neighbor, will find great return for their efforts. On the other hand, those who “bury” their gifts and never share them will be diminished, perhaps in the form of losing that skill they once had. Moral of the story: use it or lose it, and if you use it, God will be praised and pleased.
Or thinking more broadly, perhaps the talent currency in this parable is actually a metaphor for faith and love. If we exercise our faith by reading our Bibles, praying, going to church, and serving our neighbor, and if we spread God’s love throughout the world, telling others about God’s saving grace, then faith and love will increase. If we don’t tend to it, it will diminish, and eventually, we will lose it. It’s like that song my mom taught her kindergarteners: “Love is something if you give it away – you end up having more!” That’s a very nice interpretation. After all, who could argue with the idea that love and faith are something to be shared?
All three of these, though, get a little close for comfort to works righteousness – the idea that in the final judgment we will be judged based on what we do or don’t do with what God has given us. And Lutherans don’t believe that our actions determine our salvation – we believe God’s actions determine our salvation. God is a God of grace, and while I do think God cares about whether I get out there and live out my faith, or sit on my bum and do nothing, I don’t think that this, finally, will be what determines whether I am sent to heaven or to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So what if this isn’t a parable about retribution (do this, don’t do that, and you will receive your reward accordingly)? What if it is a parable about trust in God, and about expectations?
What makes me go there is the third servant’s explanation to the Master about why he buried the talent. He says, “I knew 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.” Traditionally Christians have read this parable allegorically, in which the Master is God… but this does not describe the God that I know! The God I know is gracious and merciful, full of compassion, and abounding in steadfast love – not harsh and greedy and overbearing. But you see, the third servant expected the Master to be harsh, greedy, and overbearing… and so that is what he was.
Have you ever experienced that? Like, you expect someone to be one way (liberal, conservative, smart, not smart, etc.), and so everything they say and do you fit into that mold and it becomes proof for your expectation? Or even with a situation – you expect a conflict to be awful and painful, and that is exactly what it is… or, you see conflict as an opportunity to grow, and that is what it becomes. Our expectations about a person or a situation are very powerful, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The problem is, this allows expectations to become a barrier to growth, a barrier to connection, and a barrier to relationship. And they can definitely become a barrier to trust. That is the real issue with this third servant. He does not trust. He assumes the Master is a certain way, and so he does not trust. Instead, he fears. “I was afraid,” he says.
Now, fear is a great motivator. It can even motivate us to do acts the on the surface seem faithful – like go to church, or pray, or tithe. But is this truly faith, if you are acting out of fear? In my experience, fear seldom (or never!) motivates us to act in true faith. Only trust can do that – trust in a God who will take care of us, and bring us into God’s abounding joy.
It’s quite telling that Jesus chooses a tale about money to make this point. I think he does so because he knows that money has the power to negatively affect our trust in God. That’s why he talks about money more than anything else in the Bible, apart from the kingdom of God itself. Money has a strong grip on us. Its wiles so often disguise themselves as honest and admirable – how good we are at justifying spending our money on selfish needs – and yet if you’re anything like me, my justifications and explanations mostly serve to mask the fact that I’m not certain my management of my money is entirely faithful
In our November newsletter, I wrote an essay about my personal stewardship journey. I wrote about what a cheerful giver I was when I was first starting out. But then I got a mortgage, and my student loan deferment ended, and medical bills accumulated, and we had a couple babies and the daycare costs that go with them… and suddenly I was justifying hanging onto a little more of the money God had entrusted to me to offset those costs. And then the wily ways of money made their move – the more I hung onto, the more I felt I needed to hang onto, and the more apt I became at justifying my tight grip. And not coincidentally, the less joyful I felt about returning to God what has always been rightfully God’s.
“I knew 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,” said the servant to the Master… and just now I said, and I hope you agreed, “But that’s not the God I believe in!” And yet, how quickly we slip into exactly that – believing that if we loosen our grip on our material gains, our God will no longer take care of us. How quickly we slip into not trusting the God who gave us our very lives. How quickly we slip into expecting that God will work the way that the world works.
The third servant did not trust. That is why he saw the Master as harsh, over-bearing, and greedy. A trusting servant sees the Master as gracious and merciful, full of compassion and abounding in steadfast love. A trusting servant knows that God will provide. A trusting servant is able, then, to joyfully give their talents – in both senses of the word – toward God’s work in the world, because that servant knows that a God who would give his only son so that we would not perish but have eternal life, would also provide for us our every need.
Let us pray… Gracious God, we know you to be a loving and merciful God, a God we can trust with all our heart. Help us, then, to trust, and to give our whole selves to you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.