Generous Orthodoxy  




Saturday, November 17, 2018

An unpublished pre-Advent sermon on the "Parable of the Talents"



Jesus’ Parable of the Money in Trust

                             Originally preached at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

 Wednesday, November 12, 2014

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            Tonight’s sermon is about Jesus’ so-called Parable of the Talents. As we shall see, this is the wrong title.

Here is the parable:

Jesus said, “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 25:14-30)

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This is an extremely hard-nosed parable, showing Jesus’ in his most worldly, most financially acute, most psychologically penetrating mode. Let’s see if we can make sense of it.

            My husband and I had a friend whose father died after a brief illness. The father had at one time been in possession, through inheritance, of a substantial amount of money. At his death it was almost all gone. The father had not invested it, had not seen to its growth. It simply sat in the bank. In the father’s last years, it drained away. Our friend was torn between grief and anger: grief because he loved his father, and anger at the waste of the inheritance.

This is a subject for the end of the Christian year, which will be upon us in two weeks. I believe it is becoming more and more important for us to observe the Christian year in a deep way. That’s an aspect of being an Episcopalian that’s very precious. Everybody complains about the merchants putting out the Christmas displays right after Halloween, but the merchants wouldn’t make Christmas come seven weeks early if there wasn’t some payoff for them. For Christians, the payoff comes with rebellion against this trend, and the best way to rebel against commercial Christmas is to observe Advent. You can learn to have a split personality in this seven week season. You can develop a capacity to enjoy some of the Christmas carryings-on even as you embrace the dwindling light because you know that the Advent church is tunneling under the commercial culture, undermining its foundations.

            If you listen carefully to the Bible readings on Sunday morning, you may have already noticed that after All Saints Day (November 1), the church shifts into high gear. The seemingly interminable “long green season” is finally coming to its conclusion. You can always tell, because the Scripture readings begin to communicate a sense of urgency, so much so that many liturgically-minded scholars and church people are beginning to think of Advent as seven Sundays, not just four. We’re already in this pre-Advent mode. All three lessons this coming Sunday, and also the appointed Psalm, speak of the Last Days, the end-time. We can think of this as our own personal end, or we can think of it as the Last Judgment of the whole world, or both, because the Bible speaks of both. The year’s end puts us in mind of that future time when Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Whether he comes tomorrow or a hundred millennia from now is not the important thing; entering into a new state of mind is what matters. St Paul writes about this in the second reading for this Sunday:

You are not in darkness, brothers and sisters, for [the final] day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day...So then let us …keep awake....since we belong to the day, let us...put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (I Thess.1:4-7)

            The 25th chapter of Matthew is divided into three parts, one for each of three Sundays at the end of the church year. Last Sunday, we had the parable of the Ten Virgins, or the Ten Bridesmaids. Five of them got the door shut in their faces because they ran out of oil to keep their lamps burning. This Sunday is the Parable of the Talents. The Sunday after that is the Feast of Christ the King, the last day of the church year, and the reading is the Last Judgment. It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to face up to these challenging passages.

            The idea of Jesus as the cosmic Judge is disturbing to most American Christians. We have not grown up with those Greek Orthodox mosaics of the Lord’s head looming over us in the domes of our churches. Those images show Christ as Pantokrator, Judge of the universe. Our American version of the faith is more likely to show Jesus holding a lamb, or a child. We’ve managed to domesticate our Lord’s parables as well. We tend to think of them as suitable for the children’s story hour. How can a gentle story-teller be also the present and future Arbitrator of the cosmos? This is an important question. Here’s what one New Testament scholar has to say:

Jesus used parables, and Jesus was put to death. The two facts are related...Why was this man crucified?...The parables must be understood as part of the drama. No one would crucify a teacher who simply told pleasant stories to enforce prudential morality...the parables are not harmless tales, but weapons of warfare.[1]

            The weapon of warfare that we have before us today is the so-called Parable of the Talents. I think most of us who grew up with this parable thought it meant that people should use their God-given gifts and talents for the good of others. According to this version, God gives different abilities to each of us, and he expects us to use them wisely and generously.

This, however, is not what the story means. Nobody would be crucified for telling a story with a moral as inoffensive as that. When Jesus originally told this parable, and when the church re-told it later, it had a shocking impact. Matthew makes this particularly obvious, because he’s arranged his Gospel to put this parable into the section that dramatizes the intense confrontations between Jesus and the religious conservatives in the last week of Jesus’ life. Here’s the introductory setting. Jesus has been engaged in a three day battle to the death (literally) with the religious leaders in the Temple, and now he’s withdrawn with his disciples to the Mount of Olives. They ask him a question that seems very strange to us, but in Jesus’ time it was very much on people’s minds because they knew by heart the prophecies like that of Zephaniah, the first reading for this next Sunday. They ask, “What will be the signal for...the end of the world?” (J. B. Phillips translation) Jesus warns them in no uncertain terms to pay no attention to any predictions of the end; the important thing is to remain vigilant and faithful. “About the actual day and time, no one knows....only the Father...You must be on the alert, then, for you do not know when your master is coming” (Matthew 24:36, 42). Then Jesus begins to tell them the various parables of chapter 25, to show what he means by being alert. Again, these three parables are read on the last three Sundays before Advent. So the parable of the talents is closely related to the final judgment of the world by the arriving Kingdom of God. Next Sunday on the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Christian year, we will hear Jesus’ own account of the Last Judgment.

It is in this world-defying context that Jesus begins to tell the three parables of chapter 25. The second one is the Parable of the Talents.

It is like a man going abroad who called his household servants together before he went and handed his property over to them to manage. He gave one $200,000, another $100,000, and another $20,000—according to their respective abilities. Then he went away.[2]

 As you can see, the master does not give out what we call “talents,” as in “gifts and talents.” The master gives out money. It’s unfortunate that the English word “talent,” meaning natural ability, is the same as the word for the gold coin in the original parable. As soon as we start talking about “talents,” we’re going to lose sight of the point altogether. We need to get “talents” out of our minds. This parable is about money. There’s this little slogan that Episcopalians use during stewardship season; I’m sure you’ve heard it—“time, talents, and treasure.” I don’t know who invented that, but in my perspective of the wider church, it’s done more harm than good. Putting time, talents, and treasure together distracts our attention from the real issue, which is money. For one thing, we don’t use the word “treasure” when we talk about money. Having those three “t”s sounds clever and quaint, but it also sounds irrelevant. It makes it too easy for us to avoid the issue of money. The slogan is ineffective because it lets people off the hook. If we can divert attention to time and talents, which aren’t very threatening, we don’t have to think about what really makes us nervous, namely, giving up some of our money. Over the years, various new titles for the parable have been proposed to correct the misunderstanding about “talents.” The best one is “The Parable of the Money in Trust.”[3] That we can understand.

            In the parable, Jesus assumes that his listeners know something about good business practice. The whole point of the master’s apportionment of the money was that it should be used to make more money. The expectation of the landowner was that profit would be made for him to collect when he got back. In other words, he is hiring money managers. Jesus takes for granted that his hearers are going to understand this. Money is not just to sit there. It is meant to go to work. The landowner has given the servants quite a lot of money, showing that he trusted them with a significant responsibility.

            “Some years later,” Jesus continues, “the master of these servants arrived and went into the accounts with them.” The one who had the $200,000 came in with double that amount—not much by today’s standards, but we are meant to understand that he did a good job. The master is delighted: “Well done! You’re a sound, reliable servant. You’ve been trustworthy with a few things, now I’m going to put you in charge of much more. Come in and share your master’s rejoicing.” The second servant did equally well with his $100,000; and received just as much praise and the same invitation: “Come in and share your master’s pleasure.” These two servants were eager to advance their master’s cause. The note of joy and enthusiasm is pronounced; servants and master alike are thrilled with the results and look forward to celebrating. Now here comes the third servant. This is the one who was given twenty thousand. “Sir, I always knew you were a hard man, reaping where you never sowed and collecting where you never laid out, so I was scared and I went and buried the $20,000 in  the ground. Here is your money intact.”

            What a craven statement this is! Instead of acknowledging the trust his master placed in him, he seeks to transfer the blame. “You are so demanding, you are so intimidating, you make me feel so inadequate.” We have all seen people like this (most of us have been people like this at one time or another). They look for indulgence and escape instead of shouldering responsibility. The landowner is disgusted: “You’re a wicked, lazy servant! Take his twenty thousand away and give it to the one who has the four hundred thousand. Throw this useless servant out into the darkness outside, where he can weep and wail over his stupidity!“

Now this really is very interesting. We’ve gotten so tender-minded in the church that we get all worried about this poor servant and his fate. That’s not what our response is supposed to be. Remember, this parable depends on our understanding financial practices. We’re supposed to be thinking of a stock portfolio that we’ve turned over to an investment banker. Can you imagine how we’d react if he gave it back to us a few years later having made not one cent? Wouldn’t you fire him on the spot, with perhaps a few choice words to go along with it? That’s the correct reaction to the parable. Like our friend who was angry with his father even though he loved him, we are supposed to understand that the third servant blew it. The shock of the story is not related to the fate of the third servant, because Jesus expects the disciples to agree with the judgment on him. If an endowment does not grow, its caretakers are considered to have failed. That’s just common knowledge. The challenge in understanding the parable does not lie here. The offense lies somewhere else.

            Remember, this parable was told just a few days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. In order to figure out why this parable, among others, would make people want to seek Jesus’ death, we need to look deeper. We need to figure out who the parable was directed against. Who, in the world of Jesus and his disciples, was like the third servant? The answer may come as a surprise. Jesus told this parable against the powerful religious aristocracy of his day. All four Gospels tell us that this group found his teachings intolerable. Its members were chiefly concerned to maintain their own position. Very early in Jesus’ ministry they began to see that many of his parables were directed against them. That was the reason that they began to plot his death.

            Jesus warns in the parable that God’s gifts must never be passively possessed. They may not be clutched, grasped, hoarded. That which the Lord gives must be put to work, must live, must increase and multiply. Personal and institutional security is not what God gives; as the prophet Zephaniah says in today’s Old Testament reading, “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord.” God asks for servants who are ready to invest their resources in his cause. A wise Christian once said to me, “The best thing to do with God’s money is to keep it moving.” God asks for servants who are ready to extend themselves, to venture and to risk for the sake of the Master. The third servant never understood this. He apparently expected to be commended for his prudence and caution. His unfitness for the job is vividly demonstrated by his complete lack of insight into the basic principle of money in trust—money which is to be used, not stored up as a guarantee of safety.

            Affluent churches have a particular challenge in this regard. Building up large endowments is a hedge against an uncertain future. An endowment needs wise, shrewd management, that’s for sure. But it is human nature to be overly cautious in this regard. We don’t typically look for ways to give away money. Consequently, we’re likely to be uneasy about Jesus’ message. Instead of recognizing it as our charter of freedom, we feel it as a threat. So we cling to what we have and we don’t risk anything. The more comfortable we get in our churches, the more likely we are to hang on to our money, so that it just goes round and round in a tight little circle. Jesus, however, is looking for a breakout. When God gives riches, he doesn’t give them to hoard and hide. He means for them to be put into action. God’s gifts are never to be passively possessed, let alone greedily clutched. They are to be put to work, spread around, made to increase and multiply. Jesus lets us know that the third servant’s timidity and lack of imagination are unacceptable. The master is totally frustrated with him, saying, “You should have at least put it in the bank so it would have drawn some interest!”

            What’s going to happen to the third servant? He’s going to miss all the fun, all the excitement. Listen again to the landowner as he praises the first two servants: “Great job! You’ve done so well with what I gave you, I’m going to put you in charge of a lot more. Come in to my house and celebrate with me!” That, believe it or not, is classic end-of-the-world imagery. When the Bible starts talking about a celebration or a marriage feast, that means the Kingdom of God is near. God loves a party; the theme of God’s great everlasting banquet runs all through the Bible. This third servant is going to miss the party because he was afraid to trust the master’s commission.

            What does it mean to invest money in the Kingdom of God? We are all familiar with the arguments against taxing the affluent. A point that is often made is that the government is punishing the people who want to save and invest, rather than consume. I’ve been thinking about that for weeks since. It seems to me that there is a third alternative here. Saving and investing, on the one hand, and consuming on the other are not the only options. There is another option: giving. For one thing, giving money away is a great way to get a tax break, but somehow I don’t think that’s what the Lord had in mind. What the Lord had in mind was the joy of giving. As St. Paul wrote, “The Lord loves a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7).

            The New York Times takes a lot of heat from many of my friends who think of it as hopelessly biased and liberal, but the paper does a superb job of sending out its journalists to uncover the lives of the nameless and forgotten, neglected people who live unnoticed among us, and that is surely a Christian concern. There was a front-page article about the men from sub-Saharan African countries who deliver groceries in Manhattan. They are new immigrants, raised in their home cultures to have gentle manners, and they are hurt by the way they’re treated in New York. They work twelve hours a day, six days a week, and they make less than $3.50 an hour. Needless to say, they receive no benefits. The supermarket chains contract out the service to delivery companies so they can distance themselves from these unfair and probably illegal practices. The supermarkets charge $3.00 for each delivery. The men often have to deliver many heavy bags of groceries up several flights of steps and receive a dollar or less as a tip. If they deliver to a doorman building, they get no tip at all. The Times reporter walked along with one of these deliverymen as he carried four shopping bags to the handsome Upper East Side building of Mrs. Lillian Winston. The reporter asked Mrs. Winston if she knew about the men’s low pay. “That’s unacceptable!” she said, “My father always told me to fight for the little guy.” When the reporter asked if she might offer the man more than her usual one dollar tip, she sighed. “I’m already paying $3.00 for this,” she said; “Why should I pay more?”

            Why should she pay more? Here’s why: for the joy of giving. That’s what she’s missing: the joy of being generous, the joy of giving a helping hand to someone that Jesus loves just as much as he loves you and me. My mother-in-law had a saying that stays with me. She said, “When in doubt, be generous.” I always think about that when I am making a decision about giving. The Lord doesn’t want us to clutch fearfully at what we have. He doesn’t want us to hold it back for fear of losing it. This doesn’t apply just to individuals and tips. This also applies to institutions and corporations and churches. Jesus was nothing if not business-wise. He doesn’t want his church’s mission to become a gigantic irrelevance!—which is what it would become if it didn’t have any money. Let’s get our money moving. The Lord can do great things with it. What a thought! The quicker we get going the sooner the fear will begin to dissipate.

About two hours ago I was flipping through today’s copy of the aforesaid New York Times and here’s what I saw: a full-page ad from the AmeriCares charity.

We’re Fighting Ebola.

(Show the ad with the photos of four medical volunteers going to West Africa with AmeriCares.
One is Katy Close, M.D., of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine)

A full-page black-and-white print ad in the Times costs at least $25,000, maybe more. This ad was not paid for by the four-star Charity Navigator agency. It was paid for by special donations from individual members of their board. My informed guess is that it will result in five to ten times the amount in donations.

For the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us expend what he gives us so that it will increase. Let us fear nothing except the loss of meeting together to praise God for his salvation. To live in his light: this is what it means to expect his return. This is what it means to be a child of the day. The joy of generosity. The joy of helping. The joy of keeping the money moving. Won’t it be wonderful when the last day comes and Jesus Christ on his throne says to us,

“Well done, good and faithful servants; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will make you rulers over many things; come and enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:21).

                                                                                                AMEN.




[1]Charles W. F. Smith, The Jesus of the Parables (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1974), 11-12. Smith’s book is a bit dated in some ways; he holds to an older view that leaves no room for allegory in the parables. However, his angle on the parables as weapons in Jesus’ apocalyptic war is right on target.
[2]This J. B. Phillips translation is sixty years old so I have multiplied the amounts accordingly. It is supposed to be a very large amount of money, fifteen years’ wages in the case of the first servant.
[3]C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribner’s, revised edition 1961).