Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, November 16, 2014.
Matthew 25:14-30 The Parable of the Talents (The Voice Bible)
The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 has always left me a little uneasy. For one thing, parables, by intent, are meant to end with a question mark: leaving their audience with an anxious and counterintuitive decision that they would rather not face and can’t quite pin down. And yet, in this parable, the answer seems pretty clear – “Put our God-given talents to use.” In fact, this is so widely accepted that the word “Talent” itself came to be used in the English language as a reference to our God-given gifts because of this parable; transformed from its ancient use as a word for a standard measure of great wealth.
So, from that point alone, I am curious as to whether the traditional interpretation that we’ve probably all heard in many sermons is actually in line with the intent of Matthew’s Gospel, or Jesus’ intent, for that matter.
Increasing my unease is this: Jesus is the Social Revolutionary, constantly campaigning against the evils of privilege and position and power. And yet, in this story, the person who already holds position and power seems to be eager to acquire even more through the efforts of others, and engages with his servants in ways that would have been perceived by the original audience as unfair and dishonest.
But first, let’s look at the setting for this parable… It is part of a very clear and intentional sequence of events and teachings in Matthew’s narrative, all of which focus on the issue of the return of Christ.
In chapter 23, Jesus preaches to the crowds for the last time, strongly condemning the hypocrisy of the “Scribes and Pharisees.” Then, in chapter 24, as he leaves the Temple, he prophesies that it will be destroyed and begins talking with his disciples about what will happen when the end times come; ending with a warning for them to be ever-vigilant for the return of the Son of Man.
And now, in chapter 25, Matthew presents three stories to illustrate what “being vigilant” means in this context.
The first story, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, tells us that we must always be prepared for Christ’s coming.
The second is this morning’s reading, the Parable of the Talents.
The third story is about the separation of the sheep and goats, where we learn (and I paraphrase a bit) that “just as you nourished or clothed the least of your fellow human beings, you did the same for Christ.”
All three of these stories are told, in private, to his immediate disciples, not to the crowds. And, after he is finished, at the start of chapter 26, he says “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” And then comes that distressing sequence of events – the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal, the arrest and trial, ending with his crucifixion.
All three of these parables tell us something about what we are called to do while waiting for the second coming of Christ. The first tale covers what we should do while we wait: always be prepared. The second (according to the classical interpretation) tells us to not just sit around and wait, but to actively use what we’ve been given. And finally, the third tells us that we are to minister to the needs of our fellow human beings, no matter how low their estate.
OK, all well and good. Many a sermon has been preached using this interpretive lens, and it is hard to argue anything other than this view is what the author of Matthew intended to convey. But as we all know, when we skim through a scripture thinking we know what it is telling us, we miss those little details that – once examined, opened up new vistas and revelations upon our faith and upon our individual journeys with God.
I feel for that third slave! In the Parable, the Master entrusts him with a Talent; which was a fortune in those days, equal to around 70 pounds of silver. Silver, in today’s world, is around $20/ounce, so a talent of silver is worth around $20,000 or so today. But, back then a Talent was a standard unit of currency that was more or less equivalent to the expected gross earnings of a day laborer over a 20 year period. If we use that measure, and take our present minimum wage in Massachusetts of $8/hr or $64/day as equivalent to a day laborer’s wages, then a Talent was worth at least $400,000 in today’s money. That’s quite a sum.
The parable tells us that this man is very cautious with what he’s been entrusted with – perhaps even wise! Fearing the Master’s wrath, he buries the Talent, which was considered the best way to prevent theft back then. In fact, according to Jewish custom at the time, as recorded in the Mishnah, if it had been stolen after it was buried, the slave would not have been held responsible. We also need to remember that banks were not safe back then – there was no deposit insurance; so bank failures were always a risk. Therefore, the Master’s admonition that the slave should have invested it in a bank for the interest is really unfair, and even more than it seems, since the Jewish Scriptures forbid usury, the charging of interest. Why would the Master then say that at the very least, this is what the slave should have done? According to established Jewish custom and the common wisdom of the time, the man had done everything right.
So, what’s the problem? The guy was prudent – he didn’t play games with the Masters money, and he didn’t do anything that would have risked loss of that money. And yet, he’s the bad guy – the worthless slave who will be thrown “into the utter darkness where there is miserable mourning and great fear.” The Master isn’t being remotely reasonable!!!
But, that’s precisely the point: faith is not a safe thing! At its heart, Christianity is always challenging the existing social order and mindsets – no matter whether we’re talking about back then, or today; whether we’re talking about pagans and idols, or our church. It’s about challenging ourselves, moving to new places, learning new perspectives, seeing more deeply, having more compassion, being filled with more love. Faith is about becoming a vibrant, growing, fulfilled, productive child of God rather than some static, lifeless, creature. A living faith is difficult, and even scary, because it means doing what isn’t safe, setting aside the known and launching into that which is unknown. Growth cannot occur without change. Faith is indeed a very risky business…
And frankly, as far as I know, every religion, certainly every major one, emphasizes that the taking of risks is an important factor in achieving spiritual growth. The Buddha, for instance, took a risk when he walked away from his privileged position as a Royal Prince to become a monk. The Prophet Muhammad took a risk in fleeing from persecution in Mecca to take refuge in Medinah. The Pilgrims took a risk in seeking a new land far from their original home. What is now the Church of the Latter Day Saints made the risky decision to follow Brigham Young across the Great Plains and into the wilderness to establish Salt Lake City, Utah in 1847. And even today, in the lives of people like Suu Kyi, Malala Yousafzai and Pope Francis, a drive to constantly take risky actions and speak risky words: challenging where we are with their faith and passion for a better future for all.
So here’s the heart of the problem: our ever so prudent third slave is not acting in faith. Yes, he is acting prudently, cautiously, maybe even wisely; but that’s not faith. He’s grasping for a risk-free solution in a very uncertain world, and will never find it. This is because risk is an essential aspect of life, and faith. You can’t avoid it, and you can’t bury it. Faith tells us this, that certainty is found only in God. It embraces change, rather than providing false assurances that the boat will never be rocked again!
The film we’ll be showing after service today: “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath” – falls in line with this theme. Back in early September 2001, Valarie Kaur was the granddaughter of Sikh immigrants who’d arrived in California a century ago. She was a third generation American; preparing to return to college after summer break. Then came 9/11.
Valarie, was already very aware of the ongoing instances of discrimination against her people in this country, and it got much worse after 9/11, even though Sikhs are not Muslims, and espouse a faith that advocates peace, tolerance and justice for all – not terrorism! Worse still, to even identify a Sikh as a Muslim must be painful for a Sikh to hear, given the centuries of Islamic oppression and genocide against their ancestors.
And so Valarie was faced with a dilemma: her family has been in this country for a century – about as long as my father’s family. And yet, people were yelling at her and her people, saying “You don’t belong here, go back home where you belong, you terrorist!” But she does belong here: She is an American, this is her home: always has been, and always will be. She didn’t see herself as anything but as American as you or me. And yet, people were saying she wasn’t. How could this be?
And so, she took a risk – a big one. Even though she knew nothing about journalism or film-making, and had seen very little of the world outside of California, she took a leave from school to set out on a journey across the country, driving to New York City and Ground Zero to begin a journey of months and even years that led to the creation of this documentary, to – as she says in the introduction to her film, ”Discover what it means to be American.” In so doing, she came to a much deeper and more profound understanding of who she is: as an American, as a Sikh, and what being a Sikh and an American means to her.
This certainly wasn’t a prudent thing to do. I’m sure her parents worried a great deal for her safety. She could have gone on with her studies, losing herself in Academia until the crisis was over, perhaps studying it from a distance, maybe even getting herself “better prepared” for some future journey. Instead, she chose to act now, and to open up her heart, to hear the stories of many of her fellow Sikhs and their oppressors. To understand how their stories – Sikh and bigot alike – are part of her story, and how their stories, together with yours and mine, are part of the American story. As I said a few seconds ago, she did not lose herself, as she could have easily done; and as the third slave did. Instead, she found herself.
And that’s where our third slave failed. In being prudent and cautious, he stagnated, learning nothing about himself or what he was called to do. He did not succeed because he dared not risk failure. He did not grow because he was afraid. He did not thrive because he refused to take any risk at all, and so he stayed in the place he had always been. He did not learn what his “talents” were, or what he could do with them. He was good only at protecting himself and guarding what he already had, until called to account for it. In the end, he lost, and was lost, because he was unwilling to risk losing.
And for me, that’s what this parable is really about – not about using whatever your talents are, but rather about not letting fear keep you from giving it a shot. In fact, the whole message of being “Open and Affirming” boils down-to almost the same thing: taking a risk, leaving our positions of comfort and safety and stability. Reaching out to embrace someone who we’re not totally sure (yet) if they’re “safe,” someone who is different, and then learning their story – learning to appreciate them for who they are. Learning what it is that makes them unique, amazing, precious, people. Learning that their story is part of ours, too; and that all of our stories, together, are part of the story of our infinite, amazing, and Still Speaking God.
In closing, I wanted to mention an event that was in the news this past Friday, the sponsoring of the first ever Muslim Prayer service in the National Cathedral in Washington.
This very act, of inviting those of a faith we’ve long battled to worship inside of a church that some have called “A National Treasure,” is an enactment of this parable. We are not to hide our treasure, but put it to use – take risks with it.
Now some certainly will object to this – and did that day; and, I could quote a few dozen scriptures to counter the many who so vehemently condemned this opportunity for Muslims to pray in the National Cathedral, but then I’d be judging them. (But I already am, aren’t I?)
So, I think it best to merely say that in a world where we seem to so often be more concerned about what divides us than what unites us, particularly in cities like Washington DC, this effort by the National Cathedral to reach across the gap between faiths is an affirmation that there is hope that we will someday look at our neighbor and see them as God does – as simply a child of the Creator like we are, and just as beloved.
Many of these others – these strange worshippers from another faith – have sacrificed just as much as any “normal” American has for this country. They are as American as we, and deserve to be welcomed as such – even if we find that embrace a little uncomfortable – a little risky, perhaps, the first time we welcome them.
Yes, Faith is a very risky business indeed…
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)