There’s a story that pastors like to tell. I think I first heard it when I was in seminary. It’s the story about a preacher who was leading a children’s sermon. This preacher told the children all about how squirrels gather nuts and hide them away for the winter. He explained to the children how important it was for the squirrels to store up nuts while they were available so that they’d have something to eat when the cold weather arrived. When he was finished, the preacher asked the children if they knew what his lesson about the squirrels was. One small child raised her hand, and she said, “I know, I know, it’s all about God.” The preacher was a little surprised, because he wasn’t talking about God at all, so he asked the little girl why she thought the lesson was about God, and she said, “because you’re the pastor and it’s always about God.”
Unfortunately, many of us have the same reaction when we hear Jesus’ parable of the talents. After all, it’s a story from the Bible, and Jesus told it, so the master handing out the talents must represent God. The only problem is, the master in Jesus’ parable is a real jerk! The kind of jerk, I for one, wouldn’t waste my time trying to worship.
The story says that the man gave the talents, which represent a huge amount of money, to his slaves. If the master in the story is God, then God must be very greedy indeed; expecting massive financial returns, without even bothering to communicate that expectation to the slaves. Fortunately for the first two slaves, they manage to double the master’s investment and the third slave managed to keep the master’s initial investment intact but couldn’t quite manage to earn any interest at all. Now, even given, the precious little I know about the stock market, I’d say the master had nothing at all to complain about. The master entrusted all he had to slaves, and they might have lost a great deal of money on their investments, but they managed to make their master richer than the master had a right to expect.
Let’s do the math. A talent represents about 15 years salary. Most scholars suggest you use a figure of $50,000 per year–times 15, that’s $750,000.00 per talent. So to the first slave the master gave 5 talents, that would be about three million seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars toady. To the second slave, the master gave two talents, that’s about a million and a half dollars today. To the third slave, the master gave, one talent; and that’s about $750,000.00.
According to the story this master had quite the reputation; upon the master’s return the third slave explains why he was so cautious with the master’s money. “Sir, I knew that 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.” According to the master’s reputation he is a thief who isn’t above taking what doesn’t belong to him. The third slave was prudent with the master’s money and did what was considered appropriate in the ancient world were banking methods were crude at best, and many people buried treasure for safekeeping; The third slave didn’t loose so much as a penny of the master’s money, and despite the fact that two of the his slaves have just returned to him an additional 7 talents, that’s a whopping great profit of about 5 and a quarter million dollars. Just imagine, that three of us managed to make our boss 5 and a quarter million dollars on an initial investment of 6 million dollars, that’s a return of 75%, well I don’t know where you do your investing but 75% profit is nothing to sneeze about. But instead of rewarding the trio, this master doesn’t deny his own reputation for reaping where he doesn’t sow, and he takes the talent from the fearful salve and gives it to the one who already has ten talents, and then declares that: “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” As for the fearful slave who played it safe, the master calls him worthless and orders that he be “thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
If this were all about God, then to say that God is harsh would be an understatement indeed. If this were all about God, then why in the world would anybody love God? For who can love such a cruel master? But more importantly, if this cruel master is God, then Jesus’ is describing a god that cannot be compared to the God Jesus boldly calls ABBA. For Jesus’ Abba would never be so greedy as to steal from another’s labour, nor would Jesus’ Abba take from the one who has the least, nor threaten to cast out the least of Jesus’ brothers for the crime of taking care of the gift that was given to him. Such a view of God is inconsistent with all that Jesus’ taught about Bod. So just because Jesus told a story, it doesn’t mean the main character in the story is necessarily God.
This parable, like all parables, is a good story and like all good stories it is full of all sorts of meanings. To simply draw a line from the slave-master to God, not only characterizes God as someone other than the God, revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, such a simplistic interpretation fails altogether to understand the various textures of this parable and misses the many valuable lessons that can be learned from this parable. Indeed, according to such logic, by simply drawing a line from the slave-master to God, we are guilty of the very crime that the third slave is indicted for, and we too will be convicted of being lazy and worthless and but for the grace of God, we too would end up in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This parable was written in its current form by the author of the Gospel according to Matthew somewhere between 50 and 70 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The writer of the Gospel according to Matthew wrote to an audience that was trying to figure out how Christians should live while they were waiting for Jesus to return. They wanted to know how they should behave and what they should be doing. So rather than looking at this story as a parallel between the master and God, it would be more consistent with all that Jesus life, death and resurrection revealed about God, to see this parable as a story about what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus the Christ. This story is meant to teach the struggling Christian community how to live out their discipleship. So let’s put aside any notions that we may have about this parable being a nice sweet little story that encourages us to develop our talents, or our spiritual gifts, or our money. Put aside any thoughts of self-help books, workshops or classes that will help you improve your church-going techniques. This parable is not about developing our talents! This story is about something much more important to a struggling little church like ours. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew knew exactly how difficult it was to be a member of a struggling Christian community like ours. For the struggles of the Christian churches in the first century were far more dangerous than our worries about how to be the church in the 21st century. Our worries about struggling to meet our budgets, or whether or not we can maintain our buildings, or how we’re going to raise enough money to eliminate yet another big deficit, well all this sort of pales in comparison to the struggles of a Christian community that gathered together at the risk of their very lives.
This parable isn’t about developing our various talents. This parable is about what each and every one of us is prepared to risk for the sake of the Gospel. This parable is about the perils of living in fear and this parable demands an answer to the question, “What will you risk for the sake of the Gospel?”…you know that stuff that Jesus was always talking about; that stuff about love!
What are you prepared to risk? The gospel according to Matthew shows us the consequences of living in fear. Just remember the authors vivid picture of the apostle Peter walking on water; there’s a storm raging, the disciples’ boat is being battered about and there’s little hope of survival, when Peter sees Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm. The disciples cannot believe it is Jesus; surely it must be a ghost. So, Peter challenges Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, Peter became frightened, and began to sink. It is Peter’s fear that caused him to sink. The first two slaves took what they received, spent it all, and doubled the amount. They risked it all. The third slave took what he received and buried it in fear. He risked nothing. Those who live in fear and who are unwilling to risk anything, well they are at the mercy of the world. This parable tells us just how this world of ours works, and it is just as true now as it was back then, and we all know it. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” You don’t have to look very far to see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It happens here at home in the first world where we have built an entire economic system that guarantees that the rich will continue to get richer just as the poor continue to get poorer and it happens in the developing world where the poor continue to get poor while the rich prosper at the expense of those who are dying from Ebola or AIDs, who have nothing to eat, and no hope of escaping the outer darkness of their poverty, despite their weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
We all know full well that millions and millions are suffering and dying and yet to protect ourselves we bury what has been given to us, because we are afraid of being consumed by the wicked master who will surely banish us into the darkness if we do not keep safe what we have been given. We dare not risk loosing anything at all, lest we end up in the outer darkness weeping and gnashing our teeth.
So, for the most part we play it safe and we don’t take any risks and we spend our lives living in fear of that wicked master. If I had to draw a line between the wicked slave-master and some character, I wouldn’t have that line end up with God. Indeed, I’m sure that the wicked master is not God.
In the storyteller Matthew’s day, the wicked master could be Satan himself; I mean who else could be so cruel? But these days there are a slew of wicked slave-masters that I can draw that line toward. The wicked save-master that haunts me and causes me to live in fear is the god of financial security. I mean, we all know the rules, we’re supposed to work hard, shop lots, and somehow manage to save a fortune so that we can retire and live to shop some more. So, we live in fear of not, earning enough, not having enough stuff, not saving enough and ending our days on social assistance.
Or what about the wicked slave-master that insists that we all have a successful career, you know the master that has us all running around from pillar to post, palm pilot in hand, from one meeting to the next, checking all the boxes as we climb each rung on the ladder to success. So, we live in fear of not accomplishing enough, of running out of time, of not pleasing the powers that be and ending up stuck in a rut. Or what about the wicked master that demands that we always be right and so we live in fear of making a mistake. Or what about that wicked master that insists that we fit the mold, so we live in fear of not looking beautiful, young, sexy, and skinny. Or what about that wicked master that keeps telling us that unless we are very, very careful everything is going to fall apart, so we spend our lives worrying about maintaining the status quo and we never ever take a risk, cause we know that the only way to keep things just the way they are is to play it safe.
These wicked taskmasters, whoever they are have us all where they want us, feeling like worthless slaves, living in darkness and so busy weeping and gnashing our teeth that we can’t see that we are free. We’re free! We’re no longer slaves, so we don’t have to worry about those wicked task-masters anymore. We’re free! We don’t have to play it safe anymore! There’s no need to protect what we have been given because it is ours, given to us by God’s grace, and guaranteed by the promise of Christ Jesus! We’re free to take all the risks in the world! Free to trust the power of the Divine who lives and breathes and has being in, with, through, and beyond us. But most of us, trust other things, or people much more than we trust God. We trust success more, we trust financial security more, we trust the status quo more. We tuck our trust in God who dwells in us, under the mattress; or we bury it – because we are afraid; afraid of what it might mean to actually use our faith in God. and so we continue to live in fear.
God is bigger than our fear. The gifts of God are abundant and unlimited. We are fearfully and wonderfully made; the stuff of the universe, tracing our origin back to the dust of the stars. We stand on the shoulders of generations who have evolved into an expression of the Divine that lives and moves and has Being in, with, through, and beyond us. The evolutionary process is littered with failures and crowned with successes born out of risk. We must risk. We must risk failure. We can bury the successes in the sand or we can look around us and breathe deeply of the Wisdom/Sophia/Spirit who lives and breathes in, with, through and beyond us and dare to be all that we are created to be.
It’s kind of like Jesus said all those years ago: “those who loose their lives for the sake of the Gospel, save it, but those who save their lives loose it…”The storm rages all around, somewhere out there, I can you see Jesus walking toward us, and just like he called to Peter all those years ago, I hear Christ calling us to, “Come.” Do we have the courage to take the risk of stepping out into the storm? Peter did, and even though his fear caused him to sink. Don’t be afraid, step out into the storm, and let’s take some risks for Christ’s sake! Take some risks for Love!