PROPER 28, A
Today’s lesson is usually called the Parable of the Talents. It is the third of four lessons in Matthew that seem to be about judgment. All of them center on the return of the Master/king/bridegroom, the judgment that follows, and how those who await his return spend their time. (Mark Douglas, Feasting).
Hopefully you heard the first one five weeks ago. That was the parable of the wedding banquet, where a guest did not wear the proper attire, and was therefore thrown out. As Sam pointed out in her sermon, the wedding guest was thrown into an outer darkness of his own making because after being invited to the wedding party, he refused to fully participate.
The second parable we heard last week, the one about the ten bridesmaids who were keeping watch for the bridegroom to arrive. Five of them had brought extra oil for their lamps, since their job was to provide light to the groom, but the other five did not. When they feared they would run out, they left to find more oil rather than staying and trusting the bridegroom to forgive them. As a result, they were excluded from the party. Sam modeled this by showing up for her sermon even though she was not fully prepared. (And we didn’t throw her out!)
This week’s parable is quite similar, but even more specific. A wealthy man gives three of his servants large sums of money to care for while he goes on an extended journey. To one he gave one talent, the equivalent of 15 years of earnings for a day laborer (Lindsay Armstrong, Feasting). To another he gave two talents and to the third he gave five talents. This disbursement of his wealth was based on his estimation of the capabilities of the servants.
Then he leaves town without giving them any instructions. Lindsay Armstrong sees this as God offering gifts and space to lead, grow, take chances (ie. Learn) and flourish. Robert Capon, who has written extensively on the parables, points out that the master has established a fiduciary relationship with his servants. The word fiduciary, while meaning then what it means today, is based on the Latin word fides meaning faith. He has given them great wealth and is trusting them to use it as they see fit.
The two servants who received the most money invested it and doubled it in the time the master was gone. The servant who received one talent just buried it. He expected to be treated harshly by the master if he lost any and so was afraid to invest it.
When he returned, the master praised the two servants who invested their talents and promised them more responsibilities. The master shouts at the servant who buried his talent and then orders him to be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Notice that this servant admits that he acted out of fear of the Master, when we have seen no reason for the servant to feel that way. Mark Douglas comments, in passing, (Feasting) that “perhaps , for Mathew, the God we face is the one we imagine.”
It might help to wonder what would have happened in the story if one of the other servants lost part of the master’s money, but stood up and confessed his mistakes or his bad luck. It’s hard to imagine that the master would have thrown him out like the servant who buried his talent.
Doesn’t burying your talent remind you of hiding your light under a bushel? While this is classified as a parable of judgment, it also strikes me as a parable of discipleship. That’s the part about how we are supposed to live while we await the second coming/final judgment. We are meant to live fearlessly, with passion and joy, giving our all, taking risks, using our gifts to do God’s work in the world.
The most prevalent understanding of this story is that God gives us various gifts to use in his service. Those who use them are blest and will have more, while those who don’t wind up with nothing. This is the timeless sense of the story in that it fits with our experience of life, no matter what age we live in.
We know from our own experience that if we don’t use the gifts and skills we have, we’ll eventually lose them. We know that if we work to develop our skills and natural gifts, our level of ability will rise. As it does we always have more to do. We are called on more often to use those talents.
For the people listening to Jesus, it would have had this same universal significance, but they would also have recognized this story as a comment on the scribes and Pharisees of their day. The scribes and Pharisees, by their own admission, wanted to build a fence around the law to keep it exactly the same forever. Their attitude was parallel to that of the bad servant. To preserve without risk, without use, without adaptation, is to turn your back on God. What’s the point in having brains and freedom of choice, if we’re going to put our heads in the sand and refuse to move. The paralysis of the bad servant is related to dead laws that the scribes and Pharisees wanted to preserve no matter what was happening around them.
Capon asserts that this parable is not about rewarding good works or punishing evil ones. “The only thing that can deprive us of the favorable judgment already passed upon us is our unfaith in his gracious passing of it.” This means that since God has already forgiven us, pretty much from day one, the only thing that can screw it up is our lack of trust in God’s promise to us. In other words, Capon sees these parables as illustrating the “sovereignty of grace over judgment.”
Do we believe the promises God made to us in baptism? Are we living out the promises we made to God in baptism?
For centuries the church emphasized the theology of fear and judgment, but in our church this has given way to a much greater emphasis on a theology of confidence, of grace, and of forgiveness. We are living in a time of rapid and sometimes mystifying changes.
Where do you stand? That’s your assignment for the week, not necessarily to change your beliefs, but to become very mindful of what they are. What kind of a God is the God you worship – a God of love or a God of judgment? Or both? Are you afraid of God or do you feel like a child of God, confident in God’s forgiveness, no matter what? Or both?
Do you believe the Spirit of God is still speaking to us or not? What are you doing with the gifts God has given you? And how willing, how confident, are you to risk those gifts to do God’s work in the world?
If you are, you can do as Alfred Souza suggests: “Dance as though no one is watching, love as though you have never been hurt, sing as though no one can hear you, and live as though heaven is on earth.” AMEN