I read a story in the Christian Century just recently about a church in
that, along with two other churches, invested in an affordable housing
development in the 1970’s. They put money and sweat equity into creating this
housing, and in the last few years that development was sold for a large sum of
money. The church received a big, BIG dollar amount in the sale. While there
many needs and demands for the money they received from the sale, the governing
board of the church went a different way. They made a bold decision. They took
$160,000 and divided it into $500 checks for every active, attending member to
use for God’s purposes in the world. There were no dotted lines to sign. There
was no fine print. Each active member of the church was given $500 dollars to
use in any way he or she saw fit to serve God in the world.
Before this took place, the church had been working through a study on spiritual discernment and decision making; and the day the checks were passed out, the pastor preached a sermon using this passage on this parable of the talents from Matthew’s gospel. According to the writer, there was anxiety on the part of the church elders. Certainly, that money was needed for other things. It was a windfall that could have helped their overall budget enormously. Giving away $160,000 without any accountability was seemingly nuts. It was a risky and pretty insane thing to do. They could be throwing away $160,000! But as the writer put it; that’s how it can feel following Jesus, living the gospel and being a disciple: it feels risky, vulnerable, and nuts in light of the world’s values.
I do not have a series of happy endings for this story. I don’t know what happened next. It would be wonderful to report that members of the church took their $500 and made amazing ministries happen – maybe they did. But I don’t know that. The happy endings are still in the making. And it’s quite possible that not all the endings will be happy. It’s realistic to believe that some of the folks who got the money just gave it back in the offering plate or spent it on something else or are still trying to figure out what to do with their share of the abundance.
Abundance is at the heart of this parable in Matthew’s gospel. The word “talent” is deceiving. It sounds like something small. It is easy to equate it with a gift; such as I have a talent for cooking or writing or gardening, etc. But in that context one talent was equal to fifteen years worth of pay. If you make $25,000 a year and multiply that by 15, that’s $375,000 dollars in one talent! That’s just one talent, and that was a fortune! Now think about how much money the slave who was entrusted with five talents was given. This master was not leaving his servants with scarcity. He was leaving them with abundance; an abundance of money, an abundance of fortune. The master entrusted them to do with this abundance as they saw fit. And as the writer of the story I told at the beginning of this sermon wrote, it was never about the money, it was about the risk.
What would the slaves do with the abundance they were given? What risks would they take? Would they take a chance and make more? Would they hoard what they were given? We see both in this story. The first two slaves took the talents they were given and traded them. The slave given the five talents, traded them and made five more. The slave given the two talents, traded them and made two more. But the third slave was a different story. The third slave was afraid. We could argue that the third slave did not waste the talent he was given. He did not lose it or throw it away. He was not profligate with the talent. He did nothing illegal or immoral with money that was not his. The problem was that he did nothing. He was so afraid of losing it, that he buried it instead. He dug a hole in the ground, put the talent in there and waited until the master returned. Surely the master wouldn’t be upset with him. No, he would have no more than the talent he was entrusted with to return to the master, but he would still have that talent.
But that isn’t how the parable goes, is it? When the master returned, he congratulated the first slave for making five more talents.
“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.”
He did the same for the second slave for making two more talents. But when the third slave came to the master, bearing the original talent, the slave said,
“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.”
If the third slave thought that this would be well received by the master, he was wrong. The master was furious.
“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.”
Huh? To say that is harsh response would be an understatement. There’s so many things happening in this parable, it is challenging to unpack them all. Why did the slave assume these things about the master? Perhaps they were true, but we have no way of knowing what his assumption was based on. How interesting that what the slave assumes becomes the truth, whether it was initially true or not.
It also seems strange for Jesus to tell a parable which ends with someone who has much getting even more. That seems to go against the idea of reversal which is so prominent in the rest of this gospel and the others. However, one commentator urged preachers and teachers to see this parable through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. This is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, and in the beatitudes, those who are blessed are the least of these. The slaves who took a chance with what was entrusted to them may be the least of these, receiving blessing upon blessing.
Ultimately, I return to the quote I used earlier, when it comes to the parable of the talents, it was never about the money, it was about the risk.
Some commentators and scholars encourage sermons on this parable to be reminders about not squandering the gifts that we are given. Others urge the preacher to remember that we have unique opportunities to be a prophetic voice – to speak out against injustice. I cannot help but think that when it comes to this parable, all of the above apply, because ultimately it is about not playing it safe. That’s the true sin that the third slave committed. He played it safe. True, he did nothing illegal or immoral. He toed the line and walked the straight and narrow when it came to keeping safe his master’s money. But if it was about the risk, not the money, then he gravely committed the sin of playing it safe. He was afraid to step out in faith. He was afraid to risk doing more. He was afraid to try. He played it safe.
How often, as a preacher, as a teacher, as a disciple, have I played it safe? How often have I feared more the judgment of others more than the judgment of God? How often have I squandered my unique opportunities to further the gospel because I was too afraid of reproach or failure? How often have I played it safe?
But living the gospel is never safe. Following Jesus, being a disciple is always risky. Faith is not a certainty. If it were, then it wouldn’t be faith. To be a disciple, to love with your whole heart, to follow Jesus, is to risk everything. It is not about playing it safe. Think about that church in
They took a huge gamble by giving each member that money. There are no
guarantees, no assured outcomes, no definitive happy endings. But they did it
anyway, because to risk in that way felt to them like what it means to be
The coolest way to end this sermon would be to tell you to see Lori this week and pick up your check. But that’s not going to happen. Sorry. But I will encourage you to examine how you are living – I’m not calling you to look for sins. I’m calling you to look at how you are playing it safe when it comes to your faith. How are you avoiding risks when it comes to living the gospel?
I read a quote this week that went something like this,
“The saddest thing would be to do the same thing for 75 or 80 years and call it a life.”
Life and love and faith is risky business. Step out in faith. Take a leap of hope. Walk in trust that God is walking beside you. But whatever you do, don’t play it safe.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.