November 16, 2014 – 23rd Sunday after Pentecost.
Remember that this is a parable. And parables have many meanings. And, because it is a parable, we are going to hold that meaning loosely because it is not the only way to understand the parable.
This is the third in a series of parables Jesus tells about how to live when the time of his return is unknown. In Matthew’s gospel, Matthew is telling stories about Jesus—who, by the time the gospel was written, has already ascended into heaven, and the early Christians are wondering when Jesus is going to return. So these parables of Jesus are told to help the early Christians get through this time when they thought Jesus would be returning but that hasn’t happened.
Today, for many of us, this is not a particularly motivating theological concept. Maybe another way to think about Jesus’ return is: when will the world be as God intends it? When, as the book of Habbakuk says, will the earth be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea? [Hab 2.14] When will what we long and pray for—God’s justice and joy, love and peace—be a reality? Not just in fits and starts but in all times and all places? Paul says “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face.” [1 Cor 13.12] When will that be?
Those early Christians had similar longings, only they were located more directly in the person of Jesus because that is who they had most recently known and in whose life and actions they had seen the presence of God’s justice and joy, God’s love and peace.
So in that time of waiting—for the fulfillment of all that Jesus embodied—what were they to do? Get back to life as usual as if Jesus hadn’t ever shown up? Gather with others on a mountain top and wait for the return? Or something else?
The question is the same for us. In this in-between time when the world is not yet as God intends for it to be, what are we to do?
In the parable, a man goes on a journey for a long time. Before he leaves, he entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. He leaves them with eight valuable coins—the NRSV calls them “talents.” A talent as it’s used in Matthew’s gospel is a hunk of money; about the salary a laborer would earn in fifteen years of working. What he entrusts to them is the total earnings of a laborer for about one hundred and twenty years of work—which of course no laborer would actually even earn because they would be dead by then.
Did you notice the master does not give instructions? There’s no conversation recorded in the story about what the master tells the servants to do while he’s gone. But they each move ahead with what they assume is the right thing to do.
The first servant leverages the five talents he was given into ten. The second servant leverages the two talents he was given into four. The third servant buries the one talent he was given in the ground.
Now think about doubling seventy-five years worth of wages—that’s what the first servant does. John Buchanan, who was the pastor for many years of a large Presbyterian church in Chicago, with a number of members in the wealth management industry, explored with them what you have to do and the risks you have to take to double your money. “If your investment has a guaranteed interest rate of 5 percent” you will double your money in fourteen and a half years.1 If you want to do it faster than that, your risk rises exponentially. “In the world of venture capital, only about one out of four or five—some say one out of ten [investments]—makes it. The other [five to nine] times you lose—everything.”2
Now the story doesn’t tell us how long the wealth owner was gone. “After a long time” he returns. We don’t know if that’s at least fourteen and a half years so the money could double without an enormous amount of risk or if the first two servants took some big risks and came out lucky with their investment doubled. Either way, the master is pleased and he invites them to a celebration. (And we might recall the wedding banquet of the parable Mark preached on last Sunday. As well as the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 from last month. The wedding banquet being a theological image for the “fully realized reign of God”3—which is another way of saying what it looks like when Jesus returns.)
The third servant was scared. He feared the anger of the master and did not want to risk losing anything. He buried the money entrusted to him in the ground. That’s the first century equivalent of hiding it in a mattress. And when the master returns, he’s met with the anger he expected. The master expects that he should have done something—at the very least taken the money to the bank and earned a percent or two or interest.
Now I wonder what if there had been a fourth servant in the story? And the fourth servant was also entrusted with some money while the master was away. And the fourth servant took a risk like the first and second servants, hoping to double his money. But instead he lost money and came back with less than the master had entrusted to him.
Now if the parable is only about money and only serves to reinforce the economic injustice that those who have money get more and those who have little money have even that taken away from them, then if there was a fourth servant who risked the money and lost it, he’s probably in big trouble with the master.
But remember the context of this parable is what followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing while they wait for Jesus to return.
So what if the parable is not ultimately only about money but is about how we live our lives—how we are to spend ourselves on behalf of the realm of God—then I wonder if the fourth servant would be rewarded for taking a risk for the sake of the gospel? We don’t know. But I wonder about it.
And in wondering about the addition of a fourth servant in this story, I suspect that if the fourth servant only saw God as harsh and angry, and was only fearful of God’s actions, then that servant would not have taken a risk. As I think about how this parable is also about us and where we are in this parable, I wonder how the first and second servants imagined God? Did they think of God as gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? [Exodus 34.6; Psalms 86.15; 103.8, 145.8; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2] Did they know God “as one who bestows gifts abundantly…[offers] freedom to respond with loving responsibility, and rejoices in…[faithful action]”4?
And did that conception of God shape their decision to take a risk to do something that potentially could have a great return?
Pastor Lindsay Armstrong writing on this passage says, “What we think about God and do in response…is neither trivial nor incidental. We have real choices and power, with genuine consequences resulting from the ways we use our freedom.” (Remember, the servants were all given freedom to decide what to do with what was entrusted to them.) “What we do or fail to do shapes this world and our lives.”5
What if this parable is really about how we live? And living involves taking risks. At the end of chapter 25, Jesus is headed to Jerusalem where he will be killed. He, too, knows risk. The risk of losing his life.
One of my favorite parts of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is from the first chapter that talks about the calling of the church. What is it that we, the church, the body of Christ, are supposed to be about? The Book of Order says, “Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be [Christ’s] body.” That is, what we need has already been given to us. “The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world: The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.”6 The rest of that section about the Church’s calling is inspiring to me but this notion of entrusting ourselves to God alone, even at the risk of losing our life is a powerful reality for me. I remember discovering this for the first time in my seminary polity class and thinking how crazy it was for an institution—which by definition means an organization committed to perpetuating itself—to put in its constitution that it is more important to entrust ourselves to God than it is for us to survive as an institution. I remember saying to my classmate sitting next to me, “Do people know this is in its constitution??”
So here we are in our New Beginnings assessment and the small groups are about finishing up their conversations and in January the small group leaders will gather with Mark and me to listen to what they heard you saying about what it is God is calling us to do and be in this time and place.
I have heard a few of you say your fear about the New Beginnings process is that we’ll go through it and then do nothing.
If one of the messages of this parable is about living our lives and risking what we have and who we are in service of the good news of the Gospel, then the greatest risk, says John Buchanan, “is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give [ours hearts] away and in the process risk everything. The great risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently. …digging a hole and burying the money in the ground…Jesus’ warning is that the outcome of playing it safe—not caring, not loving passionately, not investing [ourselves], not risking anything—is something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness.”7
In this parable, “Jesus invites us to be his disciples, to live our lives as fully as possible by investing them, by risking, by expanding the horizons of our responsibilities. To be [Jesus’s disciple] is not so much believing ideas about him as it is following him. It is to experience renewed responsibility for the use and investment of these precious lives of ours. It is to be bold and brave to reach high and care deeply.”8
It is my prayer that this is how we will live not only as individuals but as a congregation as we continue our discernment of what God is calling us to do and be in this time and place.
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1. John Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective – Matthew 25:14-30,” Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4, reds. David L. Barlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p308.
3. Thomas D. Stegman, “Exegetical Perspective – Matthew 25.1-13,” Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4, reds. David L. Barlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p285.
4. Stegman, p313.
5. Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Homiletical Perspective – Matthew 25.14-30,” Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4, reds. David L. Barlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p313.
7. Buchanan, p310-312.
8. Ibid., p312.