“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.” (Matthew 25: 14-15)
The great detectives of literature and television all share a necessary trait – whether it is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple, or more contemporary ones like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, or Tony Shalhoub’s obsessive-compulsive Monk – they all walk into a crime scene and see things that are less than obvious to others. While everyone else takes note of the broken lock or window, the position of the dead body, the telephone numbers on the call log, these detectives have a knack to see other things by looking harder for those clues that are not so obvious. And because of this, they eventually uncover and reveal a much more telling story of what has happened.
I sometimes think that to understand Jesus’ parables, it is helpful to have a bit of that detective mentality in interpreting these little stories. Most parables seem to be pretty straight forward, clear about who, what, when, and where upon first reading. But if we take them at face value, we may well miss something. There is always more to the parables than the obvious. We need to look between the lines and at the subtle indications that are in the background to find the depth of meaning contained in most parables.
All of which brings me to today’s reading, often referred to as the “Parable of the Talents.” It is about a wealthy man who goes away on a long journey. Before he departs he gives his three slaves money in the form of talents, a talent being a large amount of money. How much money? I’ll tell you how much money. In silver, one talent weighed between 57 and 74 pounds. In current terms, even one talent would represent hundreds of thousands of dollars! So obviously this parable is about money then, right? It seems so, but we need to look more closely at the rest of the story before reaching that conclusion.
The three slaves are given differing amounts according to their abilities. Now this is not about favoritism, simply an acknowledgment of the fact abilities are not equally distributed to all. (I am reminded of this every time I play golf with my youngest brother.)
Well while the master is off on his journey, the first slave takes the five talents he was given and invests it with some kind of wealth management firm. They put his five talents into equities that promise a high yield – acknowledging the attendant risks of course. The second slave is more the entrepreneur. He takes the two talents he was given and invests in an olive business. He buys wholesale and sells retail with great success. Both of these slaves realize significant appreciation on their investments over the extended time their master is away.
Now we come to the third slave. He decides to take a much more cautious approach. He doesn’t invest the money or put it into a business venture. As a matter of fact, to ensure the safekeeping of the funds he received, he digs a hole in the ground and buries his one talent there. He’s not about to take any chances. The status quo is all he wants to maintain. He may not gain anything, but then again he stands no risk of losing anything either.
When Jesus told this story he knew the sympathy of his listeners would be with the one talent fellow. Because given the culture of that day, the man did nothing wrong. What’s more, he did what would be considered good, because in that time hiding money in the ground was a common way of securing it. That’s why some of Jesus’ other parables talk about “buried treasure.” So let’s color this third slave as a conservative fellow, a guy just trying to play it safe.
But if socking away the money in a safe place is a legitimate way to protect his funds, just what then is the problem? The problem, according to the master is that he did nothing with what he was given. He tells the guy, “At least you should have invested the money in the Fifth Third bank down the street and gotten a few points of interest.”
Let’s pause here a minute because that’s a clue we shouldn’t pass over too quickly. The master is saying it is more important to invest, even minimally, than let the money molder in the ground.
Life is full of risks, just as making money has its risks. We may sympathize with this slave I suppose, but the master’s anger is directed at him for doing absolutely nothing. Keep in mind that this master had taken a considerable risk in giving each of the slaves an extraordinarily generous gift which this third guy just hid away. It would even have been preferable for the third slave to have done something with his talent that had not turned out favorably.
Now, I realize it’s only natural for us to hear this story and think about the current market situation. But the illustration of money is just a metaphor here. Jesus tells this story to his followers to get them to understand that in life, our unused abilities or our unused opportunities become a waste. What is really being said is that in the long run, an unused talent is worse than no talent at all.
Deep inside we know there are things we have the ability to do, things we would even like to do, things we would be happy doing. But if we are too afraid to use the gifts we have been given and let them languish, it’s lose, lose…for ourselves and for what our gifts can mean to others.
Too often in life, we play it safe because we fear being different or not good enough. Such fear reduces the scope of our lives; it diminishes our ability to live fully. The point of Jesus’ parable is not about whether we have a gift, but what we do with the gifts we have.
At our new member classes, as a way to introduce our church community, we have persons in our congregation active in the life of our church talk about how they first became involved. I particularly liked the story one woman told about how she got into teaching Sunday school. She volunteered to serve on the Children’s Ministries committee. Then one year she was invited to co-teach a Sunday school class. “I turned it down initially because I was a heathen,” she said with a smile. “I didn’t know much about the Bible at all.” But she loved kids and she felt it important that children learn the Bible stories. The stories she didn’t know. So she took a risk and reluctantly agreed to co-teach – albeit with some trepidation. “Well,” she said, “it was one of the more rewarding things I have ever done. Plus there was a bonus. I learned more about the Bible, along with the kids.”
Fear has the negative power to limit us and prevent us from stretching ourselves and growing. Michelangelo once said, “The danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it. But that it is too low, and we reach it.”
Reading the Parable of the Talents with a detective’s eye, the story has a lot to say about how fear limits our lives. It’s hard to love when you are afraid. It’s hard to care passionately when you are afraid. It’s hard to contribute when you are afraid. Fear constrains life.
The late Henri Nouwen begins his book, With Open Hands, by telling the story of a woman in mental distress brought into the emergency ward of a hospital for treatment. During the intake process, the attendant noticed one of the woman’s hands was balled up into a tight fist as though she was hiding something. The attendant asked her to open her hand but the woman refused. Then the attendant tried to pry her fingers open, but she resisted with every ounce of her strength. Finally, with the help of an orderly, the two men managed to force her hand open. In her palm was a single, thin dime. Nouwen goes on to note that this small incident was the key to her recovery. Once her hand was opened and she was able to let go of the fear that dime represented, she opened herself to recovery.
The fearful, risk-averse slave’s problem was not that he made a bad investment decision, but that he made no investment at all. In frustration, the master said, “Take his unused talent from him and give it to the one who will do something with it.” You see, doubling his investment like the other two wasn’t mandatory. The only thing that was mandatory was making some use of what he had been given.
So what does this story mean for you and me? I believe it means we are supposed to use whatever we have. Put in a more pithy way by borrowing the words of that folk wisdom we know…we are encouraged to “use it or lose it.”
All of us are gifted. Surprisingly so. But where our gifts are concerned, we can’t afford to bury them or put them on the shelf to use at some other time. Neither can we cop a plea that we are too young for this or too old for that.
Jesus’ story isn’t about an investment strategy. It is about a life strategy. Jesus came to show us what human life – authentic, genuine human life – looks like. “Follow me,” he said. “Take the risk to give your life away and you will save it.”
John Buchanan sums it up well: “The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, is not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away…The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe…” (Fourth Presbyterian Church, “High Risk Venture,” November 17, 2002)
Finally, there is one more clue in this little story that we need to take note of. It is easily overlooked because it is not what we expect. It’s like Columbo turning around after he has started to walk away, and coming back to say in his halting way: “I think maybe this story has the definite hint of ambition behind it.”
Ambition? Hidden within this parable you can find Jesus giving us a picture of the importance of a strong and healthy ambition. Now you very rarely, if ever, hear much positive about ambition in the church, because ambition is traditionally thought of as a drive for power, for fame, for wealth. This parable, however, asks: Are we ambitious enough to risk investing ourselves?
At one of the colleges my kids visited, I noticed an old bronze plaque outside an admissions office that was in honor of a woman. Her likeness was in relief and under the woman’s name and a line that showed the years she served the college, there was a singular statement: “She hath done what she could.” It didn’t say anything about what she had done or how important it was. Just, she did what she could. There’s something challenging in that. Are you and I doing all we can? There’s also something wonderfully freeing there: All we have to do is what we can do.
Are you ambitious enough? Are you willing to say today, “God, here I am. I am willing to be responsible for the gifts you gave me, and the talents you gave me, and for the abilities you gave me. And I’m going to use them to make my life count.”
The Parable of the Talents says that when our time on this earth comes to its end, the important thing will not be whether we succeeded or not, but did we use the gifts we were given. Did we do what we could?
Ask yourself today: Am I doing what I can?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
0�cfXQ” �x” aised for us and who will also be our judge on the final day according to Matthew’s account of the end of time. “We are not confronted with a gracious and forgiving God now only to be confronted by a vengeful, vindictive judge then. Our hopes lies in the truth that we will not be judged by what we have said or whether we have subscribed fully to certain orthodox doctrines. “The question we will have to answer,” continues Migliore, “will be something like this: In response to God’s super-abundant mercy to us, have we shown mercy, or only loved ourselves? Orthodox belief and petty legalism are not the criteria by which human lives are finally measured. The criteria are simple trust in God’s grace and joyful participation in Christ’s [loving] way of life that manifests itself in often quite ordinary service of others, especially of the poor, the sick and the outcast.
Two weeks ago Ben preached on a text from Joshua, “choose this day whom you will serve?” “The heart needs to be single-minded,” Ben said, “if it is to be true in answering “yes” in serving God. The single-minded heart makes a commitment. The single-minded heart serves God in making daily and routine choices: choices about how you spend your money, choices about how you use your time, choices about the priorities you set, choices that come with the dilemma of ethical decisions. Again and again, we have to choose.” The choices we make and the actions we take are extremely important in God’s eyes. God wants to lead us out of lives that are only self-serving but God’s love will not coerce us. God lets us choose.
The big question we are left with, the most argued about and feared question many people have about God’s judgment is, “Will hell be empty?” (Migliore) It is not a question that anyone can answer, no matter what someone might believe. The Bible says that there will be a judgment that has a dual outcome and it also states that there will be redemption for all. Karl Barth suggested that we not to try and resolve the question but to put our hope and faith in a loving God who desires the redemption of the world far beyond what we can desire or even imagine. What a wonderful circle – God’s love and mercy to us moving us to act with love and mercy for others moving God’s love and mercy to extend back to us. Around and around it goes into eternity. God invites you to jump into the circle at any time. Amen.