November 16, 2014 Matthew 25: 14-30
Rev. Catherine Purves
Work hard. Use your head. Invest wisely, but don’t be afraid to take a risk. And the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Can that really be what is being taught in this parable? It sounds like a defense of the most unforgiving form of capitalism, a financial survival of the fittest. I must admit that I cringe a bit inwardly to have faithfulness described in these terms. It is jarring to my sensitive Christian ears. I thought we were supposed to help the poor, not take away what little they have and consign them to the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This parable might make perfect sense to modern economists who favor the cut and thrust of capitalism, but what does it really have to say about discipleship?
It wasn’t until I read again what the rich man said to his two faithful slaves, that I began to think that there might yet be some gospel good news in this little story. As the two slaves who had used their talents well presented the results of their efforts to the Master, he said to each of them, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave…enter into the joy of your master.”
That hopeful note, twice repeated, seems to get lost in all of that weeping and gnashing of teeth at the end of the story. The Master’s generous invitation which is so full of blessing is forgotten once we begin to look at the failure of the third slave, who, according to his ability, had only been given one talent. We need to insert some more information here, however, to keep things in perspective. A talent is obviously an amount of money, but it is a lot of money. It was the equivalent of more than 15 years’ wages for a laborer. Even one talent would have been a small fortune to a slave. The slaves who were given two and five talents must have felt like they had won the lottery. Take a minute to think about the extreme generosity of the Master, and the degree of trust he had placed in those slaves.
I decided to ‘google’ the average annual wage for a physical laborer today, just to get some sense of what we’re talking about here, if Jesus wanted to tell us this parable. Apparently, a laborer today earns about $30,460.00 each year, give or take. But a talent, remember, is 15 years’ worth of wages. So the slave who was given one talent received about $457,000.00. The one who had two talents was handed approximately $914,000.00. And the slave with five talents had $2,285,000.00, give or take. That’s crazy, you must be thinking. What kind of a Master gives his slaves these amounts of money, with no directions, no advice, no restrictions, and then leaves town for a long time? What was Jesus thinking?
When you look at it that way, it is pretty amazing that the one-talent slave began his little self-justifying speech by telling the Master that he was a harsh man, whom he did not trust, and whose business practices were highly suspect. In fact, that slave claimed to be so afraid of his Master (for some reason), that all he could do was bury his talent in the ground. He was not interested in pleasing his Master, or serving his Master, or thanking his Master for the undeserved blessing he had received. He obviously didn’t want the responsibility of using his talent, his $457,000.00. But what good was a hidden talent – to anyone? Burying that huge sum of money did the Master no good. It did the slave no good. It did the community no good. Is it really all that surprising that the Master, when he returned, was outraged at the failure of the one-talent slave to do anything with so great a windfall?
The excuse that the slave offered to his Master was, “I was afraid.” I was afraid, so I did nothing. That is so poignant, so sad. He could have entered into the joy of his Master, but instead he wasted an amazing opportunity because he was afraid – afraid to try, afraid to fail, afraid to risk, afraid of the very Master who had blessed him in the first place. That seems almost inconceivable… and yet, how many of us are held captive by fear, a fear that keeps us from using our talents and from serving our Master faithfully?
Last week Rebecca preached her first sermon ever. All ministers have to preach a first sermon. And every time one of our student interns steps into the pulpit for that first time I am reminded of how absolutely terrified I was the first time I tried to preach. Remember, I’ve been doing this now for about 35 years. I wasn’t always this poised and confident. Knees knocking, dry mouth, creaky voice, fumbling fingers, and above all, fear of failure – I remember it well. If I’d had a shovel, I would have dug a hole and buried my talent right then and there. That would have been the easy way out: not to take responsibility for the talent I had, not to use the talent I’d been given. I didn’t want to start at the bottom with a first sermon. I didn’t want to make the inevitable mistakes and then learn from them. I was tempted not to serve my Master to the best of my ability, fearlessly, trustingly, faithfully. I was tempted to bury my talent. Fortunately, I was able to overcome my fear.
We have all received a precious talent from our Master. Some of us have more than one! These talents represent a tremendous windfall for each of us. Jesus said that each one represents more than what a laborer would be paid for 15 years’ worth of work! I don’t need to repeat those labor statistics, do I? Suffice it to say that we are talking about a small fortune. And these talents are entrusted into our care by the Master. They may include particular abilities or skills, financial resources, time, energy, creativity, compassion, wisdom – whatever you have that makes you who you are, whatever you have received from the Master that could be used to do the Master’s work – that is your talent.
The question that this parable poses to each one of us is this: What are you going to do with your talent? Are you tempted to grab a shovel and start digging? Are you afraid of making a mistake or misusing your gift? Are you secretly nervous about how your Master is going to judge you? Or are you more concerned about how others will judge you? Does it really sound better, safer, more prudent just to dig that hole and jump in, effectively burying your talent, your precious gifts, given to you by your Master to be used?
This parable answers each one of those questions. When your relationship with the Master is based on fear rather than faith, you are opting for a life lived in the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. You are separating yourself from the Master and rejecting the good gifts he has given you.
You know, Jesus doesn’t call disciples and then tell them to keep their heads down and be safe. He doesn’t urge them to be prudent and careful with their talents. He certainly isn’t going to hand you a shovel. He is more likely to offer you a cross. But (BUT!) remember the grace and the love and the good fortune with which he first blessed you when he gave you your talents, when he planted the seed of faith in your heart, when he first welcomed you into his fellowship! That is the reality of our lives. That is the relationship that we have with the Master.
Our fears and hesitancies are self-inflicted wounds that only make it harder for us to enter into the joy of our Master. So let’s be done with them. Throw away your shovels and start living in freedom and in faith. Use your talents! Employ those gifts that you have been given to do the Master’s work! Your Master is not a harsh man who stands ready to judge and punish you. Your Master is a loving Father who gave his own Son so that you might live, so that you would have the confidence to use your gifts well, and so that you would be able to enter into the joy of your Master. You have been invited to enter the joy. Why are you still afraid?