Some years ago, Robert Pirsig wrote a book with the intriguing title, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In the book, Pirseg tells about how they capture monkeys in India. They take a coconut and hollow it out, and then chain it to a stake. Next they fill the coconut with rice and then carve out a small hole in the side – just large enough for a monkey to get his hand through. But once the monkey puts his hand in the coconut filled with rice and grabs a handful, he can’t pull his hand back out through the little opening. And so, the monkey is caught. And the monkey would rather hang onto the rice and be captured, than to have his hand empty and be free.
Sometimes I have felt like that monkey. As I look at my own life, there have been times and circumstances in my life that I have hung onto something too long. Afraid to let go. Hanging on to the security of the way it was seemed better than the insecurity and uncertainty of letting go. Has it ever been the same for you?
Perhaps that’s why this Parable of Talents that Jesus told his disciples strikes some of us as unsettling. It has such a sharp edge. And if you’re like me, you can’t help but feel sorry for the third servant.
The point of the parable seems obvious enough, if a bit too simplistic: there will be an accounting some day, and you better darn well have made the most with what you have been given, or you’ll find yourself tossed out into the darkness with nothing. It all seems rather arbitrary and cruel.
But parables are not always as obvious as they seem. Often these stories that Jesus told have a deeper meaning, if we will only look again and consider our own lives.
Jesus told this story toward the end of his life, just before he was to share his last supper with the disciples. It’s a familiar story about a wealthy man who is planning to go away on a long journey. Before he leaves, the man summons his servants and entrusts them with the management of his resources in the form of talents.
Let us digress here a moment. The word talent in this story is wonderfully ambiguous. To us it means ability, skills, and capabilities. But in the original Greek it meant money. A whole lot of money. One talent equaled 15 years of average wage at the time – so in current terms the third servant who got just one talent received close to $750,000, the second received $1,500,000, and the first received the grand sum of $3,750,000.
So this parable appears to be about money management. Well it is, and it isn’t.
When the man returns he gathers his three servants for a reporting. The first servant who received five talents invested, traded and doubled his money. He obviously took some risks! The second servant also doubled his holding. And the master is delighted with their creative, bold management.
But this was not the case for the third servant. Fearful of taking any risk, he protected the original sum he was given by burying the talent in the ground. He tells the man, “Here it is sir, exactly what you gave me.” You might expect the man to say something like, “Well, O.K. At least you didn’t squander the money foolishly.” But instead the man’s response is astonishingly harsh. He says, “As for this worthless servant —take the money from him and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
How fair is that? The poor guy had not done anything wrong. We can understand his dilemna, he did not want to risk losing any of the money he was given. That caused me to think about what might have happened if there had been a fourth servant in the story — one who went out like the first two and invested everything he had and then utterly bombed out. So that when the master returns and demands an accounting, all he could say is, “Well, sir, it’s like this. My on-line trader research showed great potential for this new e-commerce company. When the IPO came out, I jumped on it. But things didn’t work out. Competition was so intense that the business became over extended and collapsed. All I have to give you now is my apology.”
What do you suppose Jesus would have the man say to this servant? Do you know the Jesus I know? The Jesus who is always lifting up the failures of this world, having compassion on the losers and those who are downtrodden?
He tells the woman accused of adultery, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” He calls little Zaccheus, who cheated people on their taxes to come down from the tree and goes home with him for dinner. He shows compassion to the man by the Sheep’s Gate pool who offered all sorts of excuses for his situation. Jesus was always taking failures, lifting them up, forgiving them, giving them a second chance and setting them on their way.
Then what’s the problem in this story?
The problem is not that the third servant is cautious and prudent. The problem is that he is afraid to fail. So afraid he chooses not to take any risk, and even refuses to take responsibility for his own actions by turning around and blaming the master…who had trusted him with so much to begin with.
We all know that making money is full of risks. Life as well is full of risks. In this parable, Jesus is using hyperbole to make a strong statement about life. It is a story about the value of our life, and how we use what God has given us. The stark contrast that is drawn between the first and second servants and the third one represents two ways of living — boldly or in fear.
This story tells us how fear can induce a false notion of self-protection. There are certainly times self-protection is necessary; but when fear becomes our guiding master, it can also close us off from living our lives fully. When fear causes us to hold on too tightly to what we have, it traps us into diminishing who we are. And when that happens, we will despair and we fall into darkness.
It can be so tempting to play it safe, to bury our talent. In the long run though, the compromises we make may will come back to haunt and frustrate us. Because deep down inside we know our gifts are there. And unless we use them, we are unfulfilled; we are not whole.
The birth of every child is a tremendous gift. In each one is placed the seeds of possibility. With each passing year, a parent sees aspects of the child’s potential: the growth of innate abilities, the development of particular talents. The life of a child is filled with promise. If the child grows to make the most of his or her talents and abilities, a strong sense of worth and purpose results.
Yet we’ve all known persons who haven’t used their God-given gifts and settled for less in their lives. They have evident qualities that hold promise — if only they would invest themselves. But they shield themselves from possible failure by not attempting anything too great or stretching themselves too far. They lower their expectations and whittle down their dreams and end up living small lives.
God does not want us to play it safe in life by burying our gifts and talents. God wants us to live boldly so that we become all that we are capable of being. That takes courage and imagination. And the truth is, the likelihood for failure is greater anytime you take a chance or do something out of the ordinary.
But failing is not all bad. Failure is not always what it seems. Maybe it is never what it seems. Playing safe is the great imposter. Failure can be a good teacher.
The great playwright, Eugene O Neill, wisely said, “Any life which merits living lies in the effort to realize some dream, and the higher the dream is, the harder it is to realize…Any [person] who has a big enough dream must be willing to fail and must accept this as one of the conditions of being alive.”
You would be surprised by the number of people I know who have told me that the best thing that ever happened to them was getting fired or pushed out of a job. The best thing that ever happened to them was when they struck out. Because it was then they made a change in their lives. They look back and say, “You know, had that not happened to me, I might still be doing the same thing, and hating to get up and go to work every morning. Getting fired was hard going for a while, but it got me started on a new path. And I needed that.”
Jesus calls us to live our lives boldly. And Jesus blesses both our successes and our failures.
You’ve seen the bumper sticker that says, “Jesus saves.” Jesus saves all-right, in more ways than one. As John Douglas Hall has written, “He saves us from the awful habit we have of saving ourselves, of sparing our energies, of protecting our minds and souls and bodies from life’s struggle.”
You and I have been given unique gifts: our skills, our talents, our dreams. We are encouraged to use these gifts that God has so freely given to us by fully investing ourselves. This is not a call to careless risk-taking. We are not invited to throw our lives to the wind. We are being called to venture out to discover what God had in mind when God made us. That means we are not to hold on too tightly to what we have been given.
This is what the third servant didn’t understand. He short-changed himself in holding back. Once he buried the talent in the backyard, it was over. No opportunity for growth. No exhilarating risk. No possibility of joy. There was nothing there but a hole, and a whole lot of money that wasn’t doing him or anybody else any good. That dark hole held his life captive and he missed out.
Remember the late, very funny newspaper columnist, Erma Bombeck? She was asked once if she had a stash of ideas that she had saved over the years so that she could be guaranteed to have something to write about every week for her column. In response, she replied with a column she entitled, “What is Saved is Often Lost.” Here is what she said.
“I don’t save anything. My pockets are empty at the end of the week. So is my gas tank. So is my file of ideas. I trot out the best I’ve got, and come the next week, I bargain, whimper, make promises…throw myself on the mercy of the Almighty for just three more columns in exchange for cleaning my oven.
“I did not get to this point overnight. I came from a family of savers who were sired by poverty and [who] worshiped at the altar of self-denial.
“Throughout the years, I’ve seen a fair number of my family who have died leaving candles that have never been lit, appliances that never got out of the box…It gets to be a habit, this holding back. I have discovered that silverware tarnishes when it isn’t used, perfume turns to alcohol, candles melt in the attic over the summer, and ideas that are saved for a dry week often become dated.
“I always had a dream that when I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a higher court, it will be like this: ‘So empty your pockets. What is left of your life? Any dreams that were unfilled? Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?’ “And I will answer, I’ve nothing to return. I spent everything you gave me. I’m as naked as the day I was born.”
“I’ve spent everything you gave me.” That’s a concept to live by.
Have you ever played the card game, Hearts? If you have, then you know there comes a time when you open your hand and you’re faced with a choice. You can either play to minimize taking too many points, or you can try to “shoot the moon.” Which means you are willing to risk it all in order to gain everything.
I wonder if there is some area in your life in which it might be time to “shoot the moon.” Maybe you yearn to do something more in your life. Maybe there is a dream still waiting to be lived. Is there some beloved person, some cause, some important purpose for which you are willing to give everything you have got?
Jesus’ message for us today is this: Don’t let fear bury the opportunity that is before you. Live your life boldly. Invest your gifts and talents and your life will grow.
May it be so. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. .