Sermon on the Parable of the Talents
How you relate to this parable depends on who you relate to among the characters. If you manage people at work or you are a leader, you may relate to the challenge of entrusting other people with responsibility. If two out of three people on your team come through, that is a very good day. Delegating work and hoping it will happen is an act of faith. The old saw, “If you want a job done well, do it yourself,” sticks in every leader’s mind. But you just can’t do it all. How many of you have exhausted yourselves, ruined your health, or your relationships, trying this? Every leader must find a way to let go, trust others and realize that it may not be done in the same manner you would do it, but it is still good.
Kudos to the Master for leaving town- maybe he went hiking in Yosemite with his wife and kids- and entrusting other people with truly exceptional responsibility. If every talent of silver is worth tens of thousands of dollars, he is entrusting millions to other people. I imagine he must have worked on these relationships over time, to have such strong belief in others to take this risk. I would like to be more like that, and I think I would like God to be like this. Does God trust us with the world? Does she need us to be active stewards of love, justice and creation?
Perhaps you identify with the successful servants. You might be thinking, “How did they double their money?” That is hard to do. If you compound earnings at ten percent a year, it takes seven years to double your money. This was extraordinary. This parable appeals to part of me. My Enneagram type is “Achiever.” I am constantly setting goals and working at self-improvement. After church today, I will make omelettes for Jeanne and me, and ask for her honest assessment of how it all went. Then Pastor Sarah and I will do the same thing Monday morning. (She is also an “Achiever” on the Enneagram!) If God wants us to be our best selves, achieve great things for church, love and justice, I’m all in. I’m ready to enter the joy of the Master.
But let me play the skeptic for a moment, and identify with the third servant. Achievement is not everything. Sometimes it is better to just be. We need to play, to relate, to realize that we have value just as we are. We are human beings, not human doings. An achieving mindset be a burden, being constantly measured, evaluated and under pressure. And some of the best things in life have no tangible reward-there is no diploma for being a good parent, you don’t get an “A” for being a good spouse, and there is financial bonus to being a Christian or just a decent human being. What you get out of these is a relationship and a sense of your own integrity and well-being.
The plight of this third slave is disturbing when we drag an ancient parable it into the modern world. First, the whole slave/master relationship is distressing. I don’t want anyone to be a slave, even a good and rewarded slave, in the Kingdom of Heaven. Many early Christians were slaves. Would they have found the trust of the parable’s Master to be empowering and affirming of their human value, despite their slave status? Second, the outcome for this slave who buried the talent in the ground is horrendous to our mind. This harsh and judgmental God seems out of synch with Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness, and God’s deep concern for people who are marginalized by society.
Here’s the question I have been wrestling with during the week. Were the third slave’s words true about the Master?
“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.”
If true, these words are speaking truth to power. Why should this master get the double reward of the slave’s work? Isn’t he unjustly taking the value and creativity of another human being for himself? Most likely he will also get a tax break for his private jet too. Then the Master seems to reinforce the slave’s conclusion by throwing him into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew is far to prolific with this phrase, to my mind. I would love to hear Luke and Matthew argue this parable together. Luke was more explicit about Jesus’s mission as freeing the oppressed and woe to the rich. They often had differing interpretations of the same material. For example, Matthew’s Beatitude said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” whereas Luke said, “Blessed are the poor, and woe to the rich.” If Matthew and Luke differ, then we are allowed to wrestle and challenge scriptures in the same manner.
The best thing to do when we struggle with a verse of scripture is to compare it to other texts, rather than leave it dangling in isolation. Here are some cross-references from Matthew. First, there are several “Master” parables in Matthew, and the Master is always a generous hero. In the Laborers of the Vineyard parable, the Master pays every worker a living wage for their work, even if hired late in the day. He is generous. In another parable, a slave has an enormous debt and cannot pay it, and the Master forgives the whole debt. I would like to see this added to the current parable. Imagine if the second slave had invested his two talents in real estate, and then lost it all in the financial collapse of 2008? What would the Master have done? Would he have forgiven the slave for at least trying to invest?
One interpretation of this parable is that God wants us to take our best shot at something. The third slave’s problem isn’t that he failed, rather his fear of God and fear of failure dissuaded him from any attempt to grow his talent, so he hid it in fear.
I relate to this interpretation as a writer. Nearly every writer struggles with fear. We might be criticized and rejected for what we think. Writing for critics is very bland, and fighting with critics comes off petty. The deeper fear is that we have no real talent. Many potential writers never write because they don’t want to be unmasked as a hack or a fraud. Better to imagine that one day I will write a best-seller, than to complete a book and fail. Even great writers have to wrestle with their inner critic, often daily, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, until the book is done.
This is how the parable speaks to me. I am the third servant when I give in to the inner critic that says I’m no good, and I give in to fear. If I think God is harsh and will judge me and throw me into outer darkness, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t think God smites us. I think we do it to ourselves when we are ruled by fear. If we think God is generous, kind and wants us to flourish and grow, we are likely to move towards growth and creativity. If we think God is judgmental and will reject us as soon as we make a mistake, we will stifle ourselves and live anxious lives. So I ask myself, is the negative voice in my head something divine, or my own fear and judgement?
If the parable makes us wrestle and ask hard questions, it has done its job. It doesn’t mean simply one thing. I like to close on a hopeful view. The phrase I keep revisiting is “enter the joy of the Master.” This seems like more than approval for good work. It is one more step beyond “well done my faithful servant.” Enter the joy. I researched the frequency of the word “joy” and “rejoice” in Matthew’s Gospel.
- When the Magi see the star over them, they stop, “with joy and rejoice.” 2:10
- Having found and hid a treasure in the field, the man “in his joy” goes and sells all that he has and buys the field (13:44).
- The shepherd at finding the one lost sheep, rejoices over it more than over ninety-nine that never went astray (18:13).
- The women, after seeing the empty tomb and hearing the angel’s message, leave with fear and great joy, running to tell the disciples (28:8).
What do these verses have in common? The star aligns, the treasure is found, the lost is found, what we thought was dead and done is still alive. Joy is the great surprise. We did not see it coming. When do we enter “the joy of God?”
- When we discover our hard work is not wasted by more fruitful in ways we did not imagine
- When our failure is not the end of the story.
- When our awareness shifts, “the stars align” for a moment, and we can feel it in our bones. God is good and I’m doing exactly what I should be doing.