November 15, 2020

Pentecost 23A

The Parable of the Talents

GOSPEL

Jesus said, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 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? 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. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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.’ “   Matthew 25:14-30

 

SERMON

Today’s gospel invites us to remember something that all of us sometimes forget – God does not require us to be successful but to be faithful. 

The gospel is known as “The Parable of the Talents.” The word “talent” has two meanings.  In the biblical world, a talent represented 15 years of wages paid to a laborer.  It was a huge sum of money. In giving his servants one or more talents the master is entrusting them with a small fortune.

The contemporary meaning of the word “talent” is abilities or skills.  As the master entrusts his servants with money, so God entrusts each of us with abilities. 

But “The Parable of the Talents” isn’t really about money or ability. It’s about something even more important than either of these. “The Parable of the Talents” is about trust.  Yes, trust.

The story opens with an act of trust, does it not?  The master is about to leave town. He entrusts his wealth to three servants. Each is given a different sum of money. Yet each is given a big amount – one, two or five talents. If there is one think we can say about the master, it is that he trusts each of his servants. He even hands over the money without any instructions or conditions.

After a long time, the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money.  But the third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly what he received. 

This servant has simply buried the money in the ground. Before banks the ground served as a secure vault. Why does he bury his money?  He buries his money because of his fear of the master.  His trust in his master was zero, so he reduced his financial risk to zero. Yet he also reduced the possibility of profit. It, too, was zero. 

The story leaves us with an unanswered question. How would the master have responded to the first two servants if they had not returned a profit? What if they had put the money at risk and come back having lost it all?

I think the master would have affirmed them. After all, in the parable what he commends is not the profit they made, but their faithfulness. The servant who produced five talents is not commended more than the one who produced two. Each receives the same commendation: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.”  The servants are acknowledged for being trustworthy.  They are rewarded for being faithful.  Each receives the same invitation: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And in responding to the third servant, the master makes it clear that he would have accepted anything – even low-yield savings-account interest. He would have accepted any outcome that had been motivated by faith rather than fear.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that the doubling of talents on the part of the first two servants is not due to the cleverness of the servants so much as their willingness to act out of trust.

Yes, the parable is not about money or ability so much as it is about trust. The master trusts his servants and acts on this trust. Two of the servants return the favor by acting out of trust in their master rather than fear, and they come back to their master having doubled their fortune.

The third servant paints an ugly picture of a hard master who demands success. Consequently, he gets the rejection he fears. He’s a small-minded man who insists that his master is just as small minded.

Do we live from a place of trust or a place of fear?  Do we play it safe or do we take risks with all that has been given to us?  Are we immobilized by our fear of failure or do we understand that the only real failure is not to try?

The first two servants, however, recognize generosity when they see it. The sums of money thrust their way reveal a master who is generous, who takes a risk, and who affirms them, even honors them. At the receiving end of such outrageous trust, they feel empowered, and are willing to take risks of their own. The love their master has shown them overcomes their fear of failure. They realize that any master who treats his money managers in this open-handed and open-hearted way is more interested in them than in turning a profit.

Once again, Jesus uses a parable to turn the standards of the world upside down. The worst thing that can happen to us is not failure. The worst thing that can happen to us is that we make God out to be a horrible old grouch who rejects us when we fail.

The story tells us that the worst thing is not losing but rather never risking. In the eyes of God, the fear that keeps a treasure in the ground is an act of atheism. The freedom that puts that treasure at risk – and may even result in its loss – that is an act of faith.

We can learn from our failures, and often it is failure that provides the most indelible lessons. But fear teaches us nothinguntil we leave our fear behind.

The gospel stage is crowded with people who are there precisely to shock us into recognizing that it is both stupid and ugly not to trust God. 

There’s the snide, self-righteous, elder brother who refuses to welcome home the prodigal son. The all-day workers who demand in the name of fairness that late arrivals receive less than the daily wage. The Pharisee who tries to talk God into accepting him because he’s kept the rules, not because God is merciful. 

All these live in a gray, fearful world, where grace is absent, and slackers get thrown to the wolves.

We understand these pathetic people.  Are we not also given to burying our talent out of fear? We’re made anxious by that idol of our imagination – the God who is an ogre. We know what it’s like to misperceive and mistrust God.

What if the true, living and only God has no interest in keeping score? What if God’s concern is simply that we all get up and take a turn at bat?

The gospel gives new meaning to success and security. Success is found not in accumulating more than we can ever use, but in our willingness to risk in response to God’s invitation. Security is found not in keeping pace with our rising paranoia, but in the utterly reliable God who trusts us before we trust ourselves, who risks, and asks that we risk also.

The French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes:

“The only thing that concerns God, the only thing he desires intensely, is your faithful use of your freedom and the preference you accord him over all else. Try to grasp this: the things that are given to you are given to you purely as an exercise.  They are a ‘blank sheet’ on which you fashion your mind and heart.  God seeks to know whether you are capable of being translated into his presence. It matters very little what becomes of the things of the earth, or what they are worth. The whole question is whether you have learned how to obey and to love.”

“The Parable of the Talents” is not a story about money or abilities. It’s a story about trust, a story about risk. Life is very much the same. What turns out to be important is not money or abilities in themselves, but our decision to use them in ways that show our willingness to trust and to risk. We have been trusted with the care of this earth, with the care of the least among us, with the care of all those who endure injustice for one contrived reason or another.  All these are the treasure with which we have been entrusted.  What risks will we take on behalf of all these?  What return will we make to the Lord?   The central question about life is not “What did we accomplish?” but whether we learned to obey and whether we learned to trust, to risk, to be faithful and, most importantly to love.

 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
November 15, 2020