23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 16, 2014
This is the second parable in a series of three that we hear from Jesus just before his arrest. In the chapter before this, Jesus’ disciples have been admiring the temple, it’s golden stones and it’s permanence. But Jesus warns them that such permanence is an illusion. He tells them that the time is coming soon when “not one stone will be left upon another.” In that time, he warns, there will be great suffering and people will beg to be put out of their misery. He tells them that those events will signal the end of the age. “I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Then he tells them the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the story we discussed last week. It’s a hard story to understand as it seems to imply that if you don’t do the right things, you will be “cast out into utter darkness.” But we heard that it is primarily a story about waiting. That in our waiting we are formed into the people God wants us to be to change the world. Today’s story is equally hard to understand. Is Jesus really telling us that if you are not clever in investing what God has given you, you’re in trouble? Or that God is a grouchy capitalist who expects people to provide themselves for God’s own projects? I don’t believe so. What happened to the God we heard about in Matthew’s earlier parables, the God who sows so lavishly and patiently waits for the wheat to bear its fruit before separating it from the weeds? Let’s see if we can unpack some of the things Jesus is trying to tell his disciples and through the Evangelist, to tell us about the Kingdom of God.
So here’s the deal, this landowner goes away and leaves his servants in charge of his property. A talent is a specific sum of money – like a million dollars in an IRA. It would take a working man fifteen years to accumulate “a talent.” So this landowner leaves his servants in charge of a whopping amount. Five times a talent for one, two times a talent for the second, and a whole talent for the third. The Five-Talent guy invests the owner’s money and doubles it – we don’t know how long the master was gone, but it was a long time. In the same way the Two-Talent guy doubles his money. The One-Talent guy keeps his secure instead, tucked away in the safest place he can think of.
We are used to thinking that the Five-Talent guy and the Two-Talent guy are so clever and are rewarded by their master when he returns. But wait. They were pretty reckless with their master’s money. What if they’d lost it all by trading it around? Maybe the guy who buried it was just being really responsible. In Leviticus, the law says that if you want to keep your treasures secure, you bury them. What is Jesus trying to tell us?
Here’s a thought:
What if this story tells us that our image of God determines how we will live in the meantime – that time in which we wait for the return of Jesus in which we will be gathered into the Kingdom of God forever. The Master in the story is not described to us in any specific way beyond the impression of the man who was afraid to part with his Talent. He describes the Master as harsh, a sly business man who expects a return on things that are not his. If this is true, it doesn’t seem to distress the others in the story. But the One-Talent guy is paralyzed by his fear of the Master’s judgment on any action that might risk the property of which he is in charge. Maybe what Jesus and Matthew want us to understand is that while we wait for the coming of Jesus, how we understand God will determine how we live and what we expect. If we see God as wrathful and judgmental, we will be paralyzed and fearful and feel unworthy, failing to live fully in a glorious world because we are afraid that God is waiting to cut us off forever if we are not good enough. But if we see God as generous and willing to entrust great treasure to us, we would more likely be willing to take a chance of letting go of what seems so precious in order to get back something even greater.
If this is the point of the story, then we have to ask ourselves what we have been given that the most precious thing that God could entrust to us. Say, maybe the Good News of the Gospel is our greatest treasure, and when we share it, when we tell how God’s love has impacted our lives and its purpose, we are doubling or tripling the effect of the message. Does our image of God cause us to be generous in the world, sharing our hopes, our abilities, our story, our material resources so that everyone will have security in Christ, food for their families, comfort from friends? Or are we stuck in anxiety that we will not be enough, not have enough to ever do God’s work?
The servants who took the biggest risks were the most greatly rewarded. They traded what they had in order to gain a bigger prize. They saw their master as generous by entrusting to them something great and important and they strove to return his generosity with courage and willingness. We too have been entrusted with great riches. We have the fullness of God’s grace poured out for us, forgiving our faults and failures and giving us eyes to see the hope of God’s future for all humanity. We are the keepers of God’s vision of justice and mercy for all. We have the power that comes from the great love that raised Jesus from death to new life. And we get to give it all away, for the gifts of God are meant to be shared and traded and multiplied through being used in communities of faith. “Enter into the joy of your Master.” What a shame it would be if we missed out on the joy that awaits us by sticking our treasures into a hole in the ground. Amen.