Scripture – Matthew 25:14-30 – Thanks & Giving Sunday – 24th Sunday after Pentecost – 11/19/17
Not about money. Not about stewardship. Not about prudent investing. Not about doubling your money. Not about our personal gifts and abilities. If Jesus’ parable of the talents is not about any of those things, then how can it be about money hidden beneath the mattress? Because, like that image, this parable is about distrust and fear in response to abundant generosity.
But before we go down that path, we have wisdom from the Rev. Kate Matthews of the United Church of Christ: “…parables are stories with layers, or perhaps many facets of meaning, stories that can be heard in different settings in different ways, stories that come with a warning…: if you believe that you know ‘the’ meaning of a parable, you can be assured that you are mistaken.”
But let’s risk an exploration, shall we? And let’s start by widening our lens, getting a bigger picture. Like Jesus’ parable last week of the Ten Bridesmaids, the Parable of the Talents, which immediately follows in the gospel of Matthew, is part of a two-chapter discourse by Jesus on the end-times, more specifically, on how we are to live in the meantime, until the coming of the Son of Man in his glory, so that we can be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven, the realm of God, and not be thrown into the outer darkness like the third slave or outside the wedding banquet door as was the case for those five foolish bridesmaids. [One scholar with imagination wondered if the third slave in the Parable of the Talents and those five foolish bridesmaids knew each other or, if not, what they might say to each other when they found themselves together out there in the dark… ]
So these parables are part of that discourse, but let’s widen that lens a little further and note where Jesus is on his journey at this point in Matthew’s Gospel: on his way to Jerusalem – to his death – and preparing his disciples for his leave-taking, knowing there will be a long delay until his return.
Like the master in the parable. Like the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids last week, we have another allegory here: the master is Jesus; the slaves entrusted with the talents are the faith community; the departure of the master represents Jesus’ ascension to the Father after his Resurrection; and then, as we read in verse 19, “After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them,” points to Jesus’ return and the final judgment.
This parable is not about money any more than the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is about oil. Jesus uses these images and these stories, says Charles Cousar, “to address the things that are uppermost on [Jesus’] mind: faithfulness, preparedness, and risk.” How we are to live in the meantime, until his return.
As several scholars point out, we need to start with the characterization of the master and then ask ourselves how our own image of God dictates the way we live. The master is about to go on a journey and he gathers his slaves together and gives them fantastic amounts of money. Remember that just one talent was worth about 15 years of wages for a day laborer. The master leaves them with this incredible abundance AND gives no “specific directions; rather, allows his servants the freedom to take initiative.”
See where we’re going here? We have a master – we have a master – “who bestows gifts abundantly, carefully calibrates gifts on the basis of ability, gives his slaves freedom to respond with loving responsibility, and rejoices in their fidelity.”
The first two slaves let go of, share, circulate, spread the generous abundance they’ve been given until it returns to them two-fold. The third slave, harboring a different image of the master, responds in fear, hiding the talent. Intentionally digging a hole and burying it in the ground. Not just leaving it in a safe place in a drawer, maybe procrastinating his decision on how to use it; no, actually hiding it – lifting up the mattress and shoving it way underneath. Now, think about this: who is he hiding it from? The intention may be to fearfully hide it from thieves, but the additional consequence is that while it is hidden, the slave has no use of it either. Professor Father Thomas Stegman of Boston College says this is “tantamount to putting one’s lamp under a bushel basket.”
My friends, I learned something this week that I must share with you this morning. The Greek word used in the gospels for “possessions… includes not only material goods but one’s entire substance and life.” When we hang on to our possessions, as this definition would indicate and, thus, as Jesus may have meant it, we are hiding, stifling, ignoring, wasting, fearfully hanging on to, refusing to share our very essence, not just our gifts from God, but the very gift we are to the world. When we think of it that way, there cannot be much question as to why the third slave was called wicked and lazy and worthless and banished to the outer darkness.
There may be a lot ways to interpret and misinterpret this parable, but one easy revelation has got to be what God wants of us. It doesn’t matter whether we have ample cash and stocks and bonds or a small savings passbook at the local bank, whether we have five talents or two, because you’ll notice they received the same reward, no matter how much we have, we are called to risk what we have and, more importantly, to risk who we are, in service to our Master, for the sake of the gospel, for the cause of doing our part to bring about that realm of God.
So what are we left with on this Thanks & Giving Sunday, on this Stewardship Sunday, as we commit our 2018 pledges for God’s work here? Today, as has been the tradition since our early American history, we remind ourselves of the abundant goodness of God generously given to us: the entire creation, the loving people in our lives, how God made each one of us – each one uniquely and lovingly made – and things like the food on our tables and the roofs over our heads. Our realization of that abundant goodness bestowed upon us moves us to thanksgiving and, in our gratitude, we are moved to share and shout and risk and try and to glorify God through our fear-less response. We are capable of so much more when we know we are loved than when we quiver in hesitation and fear.
When we are afraid, we cling and clutch.
When we are afraid, we hide by making ourselves small.
When we are afraid, we stand frozen in one safe spot instead of moving forward.
When we are afraid, we are so preoccupied with our own survival, we cannot possibly extend ourselves to others, never mind actually loving our neighbors.
When we are afraid, how can we possibly love God back?
That is why on this Thanks and Giving Sunday, as we offer to God our first fruits for the work of God’s church, for the bringing closer of the realm of God, we throw off our fear. We actually rise up out of our seats with pledge cards and offerings in hand and come forward singing – in our partner Hispanic church they come forward every Sunday dancing – because, my friends, our God is a loving God, our God is a generous God, our God wants us to share that abundance, our possessions, our whole selves, the incredible love we’ve been given, because, when we do, we know it will come back to us at least two-fold.
So, what is the meaning of this parable? It’s about lifting up that mattress; it’s about uncovering what we’ve buried; it’s about trusting in God and throwing off our fear. It’s about truly loving and living and giving in faith until He comes again. And, despite that warning about parables… I don’t think I’m mistaken. Amen.