14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Does anyone know what psychologists will tell you is one of the, if not the, most powerful motivators?
Now, this can be a good thing. It can be good that fear is such a good motivator, because sometimes, when we are afraid, we need to do incredible things. Like run fast away from a potential threat. Or jump out the window of a burning building.
But problems arise when someone takes advantage of our fear, by causing or creating fear, so that it benefits them.
Too often, we use fear to get things from people. Marketers, commercials, news media, and politicians do this all the time. In fact, most commercials I see are built around making you, the consumer, afraid. You don’t want to get into a car accident with all of this snow, so you better buy our car which is # 1 in safety. You don’t want the girls at school to think you smell and are a nerd, so you better buy this body spray so that they will flock to you. Or you don’t want to have an ugly body at the beach this summer, so you better start dieting now with our new weight loss program. Or all of the political ads which were about who was going to destroy the country more. Or take Ebola. Who isn’t a little bit afraid of Ebola right now? But did you know that you are more likely to be killed by a shark, a bee sting, or lightning, than you are by Ebola, but no one seems freaked out by those things. Do you see how our world is saturated by one phrase: be afraid. Be very afraid.
Well, that parable we just heard…it kind of frightens me. But not in a good way. Jesus tells a parable about a master who was leaving town for awhile, so he gave a sum of money to each of his three slaves for them to look after. The first two went off and doubled the master’s money. But the third one went and hid his money in a field. And when the master returned, he praised the first two slaves for doubling his money. He even promoted them, saying, “I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” But did you hear what the master said to the third guy at the very end? He took the money the slave buried in the field and gave it to the first slave with the most money, saying, “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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That is utterly terrifying. And when I hear it, all I want to do is figure out what I need to do to not be like that guy.
Now, over the years this parable has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some preachers will tell you that the message is easy enough- take what God has given you and grow it for the kingdom of God. And while you’re at it, be sure to share to sure to share the profits with God by giving to the church. This is stewardship season in most churches, and therefore a lot of churches are talking about money. And some pastor may be very excited about this parable today, because it offers this great opportunity to frighten people into giving money to the church. They might say that this parable of the talents is about God who has given you so much, now you need to give even more back to God. And then you, like the first two slaves, can enter into the joy of their master, ie. heaven. And if you don’t then you, like that third slave in the story who really had nothing to give back to God, will be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Be afraid. Be very afraid. And generous.
Which is convenient, I guess. I could use this as a fundraising opportunity and say that it’s time to give back some of the profits of all that God has given you. I’m certain we could have our new children’s playground fully funded in no time, if I simply spent the next 10 minutes convincing you that your eternal salvation was entirely dependent on it. And many of our visitors will go home and email their pastors and say what an awful sermon, and greedy sermon they heard over in Owatonna, MN.
Others will go with a softer approach to this parable, but still no less scary… Some will say that this parable is a moral tale about not being lazy. The first two slaves took the money that the master had given them and they put themselves to work, doubling the money they had. But that third slaves did nothing with it and had nothing to show for it. And God doesn’t want lazy people in the kingdom of God. This is capitalism at its best.
Other preachers have done a little word play with this parable. Now, when the gospel of Matthew uses the word “talent”, he means a sum of money. In fact, a large sum of money. 15 years worth of wages, or $756,000 in our day. But preachers have turned this parable into being about talents, as in the gifts that God has given you – like the talent of singing or the talent of speaking or the talent of financial management. And then they would say, “All of us have a talent. We are all good at something. Don’t bury your talent in the ground. But let it out where others can see!”
There have been many ways people have interpreted this parable over the years, and almost always, the master in the stories was God or Jesus and the third lowly slave was the one no one wanted to be. And they almost always motivate the listener with one thing: fear. Because whether he wasn’t generous enough, or was too lazy, or didn’t honor the gifts God had given him, he always ended up in the same place – outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
But here is what I keep wondering is: whoever said that the master in the story was God or Jesus? I am not trying to make a fancy move or do some theological gymnastics – but seriously why does the master have to represent Jesus or God? Jesus certainly doesn’t say it. Jesus simply tells the story and leaves the interpretation up to us. And if the master is God, what kind of God would that be? A God who does the opposite of Robin Hood by taking from the poor (the third slaves with the least amount of money) and giving to the rich (the first slave the one with the most)? That’s the God of Wall Street, not the God of Jesus. The master in this story has at least $6.2 million in his possession based on the talents he gives. This is a rich CEO kind of master to say the least. Is that what God is like? Earlier in this gospel, Jesus told a rich young ruler to go and sell everything he has and give it to the poor, because it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to get into heaven. In fact, just next week, we will hear Jesus say to his disciples that when you give a drink to someone who is thirsty or something to eat to someone who is hungry, you give it to him. Throughout the gospel, Jesus always seems to be associating with the poor and those who have nothing. And do you remember that the master in the parable is leaving town for awhile, but Jesus says to his disciples at the end of the gospel, “I am with you always. Until the end of the age.” Jesus isn’t going anywhere.
So maybe God and Jesus aren’t the master in the story. But if not the master than who? What if God and Jesus are the third slave? The one who tells the truth about this master and his trickle up ponzi scheme. The one who goes and hides the money in the field, where it can’t hurt one anymore. Because money does that doesn’t it? When we value money more than people. It divides family. It severs relationships. Someone dies and everyone wonders how much they will get and when. Or just ask most lottery winners who will tell you that when they won big, it ruined their life. What if God and Jesus are the third slave? Because in just a couple of chapters, Jesus too will be thrown out to the dark place called Golgotha and onto a cross where there is weeping and great suffering.
Think of what kind of God that would be. A God willing to suffer and die to display such undying love for the people of God.
Maybe Jesus is telling this story to the disciples and to us, to paint a picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus tells us it’s risky. It means not keeping with the status quo. It means standing against destructive system like that third slave did by burying the money. It means not playing into the game anymore of who can be the best and at the top of the social pyramid. And to do that, to live like that takes courage. We will need to practice it.
And we have two beautiful opportunities to do just that. Two beautiful opportunities to practice and proclaim that we play a different kind of game.
Opportunity #1: Today we get to stand witness and participate in little Kira’s baptism. A sacrament that publicly proclaims Kira as a beloved and claimed child of God. A promise that God gave to her long ago before any of us knew her, but that gets spoken out loud and affirmed by all of us here. And here is the thing, Kira didn’t earn this. As far as I know, Kira has given no money to the church. She has done nothing to deserve the title of “child of God.” The talents that she does or does not have are not yet obvious to her or us. And yet today we declare that God has claimed her as God’s own child, and nothing can ever change that. The rules of this world will try and try and try to convince Kira that she is not enough until…she acts right, looks right, smells right. Until she is generous enough, is smart enough, independent enough. And we today get to do this incredibly radical thing, which is to lift her up and proclaim that even when she has nothing to give, that’s enough for God.
Opportunity #2: we get to enter into this joy of our master, the joy of the Communion table. Where all are given the same amount to eat and drink, the same blessing. Those who give more money to the church don’t get more bread. Those who give less aren’t served a cheaper wine. It doesn’t matter if you got student of the month or if you’ve been in the principal’s office every day this week. Whatever status you have out there, it is not recognized at this table, except for the status we all share: beloved child of God.
It’s risky…to live out the promises of these two sacraments out in the real world. It’s not easy. People will want to throw you into outer darkness. But maybe this isn’t a parable that is supposed to stir fear in us. After all, the most common phrase in scripture is Do not be afraid. But rather what if it is to give us courage. Trusting that as disciples of Jesus, wherever we go, whatever we are led to, whatever challenges are ahead… , Jesus (that third slave) has gone ahead of us. Therefore…
Be brave. Be very, very brave. For Christ is with you. Always. Until the end of the age. Amen.