The following is a draft of this Sunday’s sermon at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, Lebanon, PA. What I like about what I am working through in this sermon is that I am giving props to the traditional reading of this parable (the parable of the slaves’ talents) while at the same time turning the traditional reading inside-out. Or at least this is what I was attempting to do, without declaring the mainstream interpretation to be completely wrong or dangerous. I’d love to know what you think. The preaching text is Matt. 25:14-30, which is the Gospel lectionary reading for November 13; this Sunday we welcome a new member into the church, as well.
This story is one of the familiar parables of Jesus, though it isn’t one of the most famous of Jesus’ teaching. A slave owner gives one slave five talents; to another slave, two talents; and to a third slave, one talent, when he is about to go on a long journey. After some time the slave owner returns, and the slave to whom five talents was given somehow had ten total talents, and the one to whom two was given somehow now had four, and the slave owner says that these slaves are trustworthy and that he trusts them to put them in charge of things. But the slave to which was given one buried the money and kept it safe, and only had one to show to the master, and the master curses the slave for not making more money with the one talent. The master uses harsh words, that what talents he has saved for his master shall be taken and given to the more industrious servants, and the lazy slave will be thrown into the darkness, “where there will be gnashing of teeth.” This is what the Kingdom of God is like.
This parable is so deeply entrenched in our culture that the word “talent,” as in “talent show,” America’s Got Talent, or saying that someone is “talented” comes from the way in which Jesus speaks of “talents” in this parable. The word “talent” here is referring to an ancient way of measuring weight, and was a typical way of measuring the mass of previous metals—Jesus even makes reference to the talent being gold in the scripture. But this passage of scripture has been interpreted to mean “talents” in the sense of the non-monetary gifts that we all have. In other words—and I am sure you have heard this sermon before, all the way back to childhood lessons in Sunday Schools—that God gives us gifts and talents that we don’t know about. But we have to use our talents for God and for the church, and the more we use what we’re good at, the more we realize what gifts we have that we didn’t have.
When I first started thinking about pursuing ordained ministry, this parable of Jesus was brought up to me constantly. I was convinced from the beginning that I was not really called to preach, because I did not like to stand in front of people and talk. I couldn’t imagine that I would know enough about the Bible or have enough life experience that anyone would care what I have to say from the pulpit. In fact, after I stepped down from my first church in Blue Island, Illinois, I was pretty convinced that I should never step back into a pulpit again: I felt like no one was listening to what I was saying, and I felt like I had no point of reference for the people in that congregation. It probably didn’t help that I was still figuring out how to communicate with people outside of a university, as I had just spent the last 7 years in school to be a minister, but I left that church committed to never preaching ever again.
But things changed for me. I preached occasionally when I was invited, and I began to be invited to preach more and more. And then, all of a sudden, I became interested in preaching again, and took a couple advanced preaching classes, and suddenly felt called back into the pulpit. In fact, I had no interest in being ordained at one point, and suddenly the lure of the pulpit brought be back into the ministry.
I share this story not so much to trumpet my own gifts, because I know some folks think I’m a terrible preacher. But my point is that the way we have interpreted this passage of scripture is very much about our talents and our hidden talents. Sometimes our life situations lead us to discover talents we never would have thought we had. I know a lot of folks who became interested in singing at a later age who had no interest in their younger years and joined a church choir only to discover that they could sing and that they really enjoyed singing. Many of us never thought of ourselves as good parents or good grandparents until you’re thrown into the fire of parenting, just hoping that you don’t get burned. In fact, I think it’s probably safe to say that many of the younger parents I know who are convinced they’re really good parents are the ones who are probably really bad parents; I have found that convincing yourself that you’re good at something before you really are is not only an easy way of being disappointed down the road but it’s a way we avoid doing the hard work of earning or doing the heavy lifting of being really good at something.
I used to work with someone who had stuff about how great of a mom she was all over her office and was so self-righteous about being a good mother, and even had a license plate that said “Supermom” on it; but the fact is that if her kids were mine, I would be embarrassed as a parent and embarrassed for my children. You know the type: the parents who think their kids can do no wrong; one time I had to ask myself if we were talking about the same child with her when she was telling me how great her son is, how he had a nearly 4.0 in high school (even though I knew she harassed the teachers if they dared give her darling son an A- in anything), and how pretty his girlfriends are, just as I was getting ready to go visit the kid in jail for drug possession. You all know what I’m talking about! My point is that often the things we think we’re really good at are not what we are really good at, but if we’re honest and we work hard we discover that there all other things we’re good at.
And this seems to be the message of the story, in the way it’s usually read: That if you are given a talent or two, you can discover that you have four. Or if you’re really talented, and are given five talents, you have to come up with even more talents: when the Master returns, you should be ready to show ten. But if you have just one talent, and hide it somewhere, and the Master discovers upon his return that you still only have one, you are lazy and incompetent, and, so the story implies, you deserve to go to Hell.
What I don’t buy about this interpretation is that we all know that it’s easier to make money if you have money. Now, it’s also easy to spend the money, too, if you have money. But if you’re investing, and you begin with $500, you are probably able to take on more risk in your investments than if you only have $100. In fact, if you only have $100 to your name, you might not try to invest the money at all, because you wouldn’t want to lose it all if the market crashes.
Some things to keep in mind about this story is that we’re talking about a master and his slaves, not an employer and free employees, and not a father with his sons. The story is kind of ridiculous on this level, because only a fool would let his slaves hold onto his money. A talent, we should keep in mind, was a significant amount of money. So one talent might have been about 150 times what a typical wage-earner would have received for his work for an entire year. The slave who received one talent was receiving 150 times what he would have earned if he were a free man; the one who received five talents would have received 750 times the yearly pay of a free worker.
Now, let me turn this story around a little bit. Jesus’ story in the scriptures say that the rich man is about to leave for a journey when he entrusts these riches to his three slaves. And Jesus says that when the rich slave-owner returns, his return comes “after a long time,” and when he came home, “the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.” When I first hear the story, I think that the journey is maybe a couple weeks, a couple months even. But Jesus says that it is a long time. How long, we don’t know, it’s just a story. But it is a “long time.”
Picture this. Suppose that the slaves thought that the Master was gone so long that the slaves assumed that he really wasn’t really going to come back, and the slaves started investing the money as if they were free men. The slave with five talents eventually had a value of ten talents; and the one with two eventually increased his net worth to four talents. Not too shabby, even if the Master was away for ten years or longer.
When the Master returns, these slaves can’t believe it! Their Master has returned not just to check his bank account numbers, but to “settle accounts with them.” Because the Master owns the slaves, everything that is theirs is his. Imagine what must have been going through these rich slaves’ minds: all of the sacrifices and hard work they made to make this money grow, all of their riches, this enormous wealth, for the one slave was more than he would have earned in over 700 years as a free man! Now he has to turn it all back to the slave-owner, who was gone so long they didn’t think he was going to return.
The Master is jubilant, because, even though the slaves took risks with the money, the Master returns richer than he was before. So I imagine the slaves, saying, in shock, not so much proud, but humble, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” And the Master jovially says, “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!” Instead of sharing in the wealth, the slave-owner says, since you have doubled my money, you’ve done alright, so now I won’t whip you when I get angry. You’re still less than human to me, but I’ll be nice to you now. This exchange is not so much one of congratulations but one of hopes unfulfilled and harsh sarcasm.
In other words, the slaves thought they had earned all of this money for themselves, and they are suddenly reminded that they are in fact slaves, and not only is their money not their own, because it never really was in the first place, but they don’t get to reap the benefits.
But the one slave believed that he would return and saved the money, hiding it to keep it safe. Not taking risks or liberties with his slave-owner’s money, he actually believed that the master would return, but now seeing that he has returned and taken the money back from the others, the slave says to the master: “I know you did not earn this money honestly, and I know you did not invest in honestly, but when you gave it to me, out of fear and respect for you as my slave-master, I did not risk it. I kept it honestly, I did not spend it, but I sustained it. You gave less to me because you did not trust me with more, and out of respect for you I did what you expected. Here’s your talent of gold, my Lord!”
The Master is mad, and gives the famous line of the parable: For 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. The Master casts the lazy slave out into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” What strikes me is that the slaves who earned the riches still had nothing as well, and even having nothing, what they did have was taken away from them.
To Jesus’ claim that this story is “what the Kingdom of God is like,” could it be that Jesus is not really siding with the industrious slaves, but instead the Kingdom of God sides with the conservative servant who, even in loyalty to his master angers him for doing pretty much what he expected him to do?
We’ve all been in situations where you may have had two or three choices, and no matter what choice you make your boss is going to be angry. Or the boss might be happy with what you have done and took credit? Or even that you’re doing the right thing and someone takes what you’re doing to be the opposite? It stinks to be in that situation, and perhaps what Jesus’ parable is saying is not the typical reading, which takes the side of the slave-owner who exploits his slaves, but instead the parable has God siding with the poor servant who did what he was supposed to do, who treated other people’s talents with respect and kept them safe.
And most importantly, placing this parable in context with the rest of the chapter of Matthew 25, the so-called lazy servant is the only one who really believed that the Master would return. The other slaves didn’t believe he would, and encountered a harsh reminder when he did. The parable right before this one ends with the line “Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matt. 25: 13), and the very next line after our passage of scripture begins, “When the Son of Man comes in glory…he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats” (25: 31-32). My point is that the so-called lazy servant wasn’t too surprised that the master returned, and he spoke the truth to the master, whereas the others were too embarrassed and ashamed that they just continued on in the shock of their own status as slaves.
We are to be on guard and ready for Jesus to come again. So very often, we start planning stuff for the future, often so distant that we would be disappointed if Jesus came to interrupt our plans. Not too long ago I had someone ask me to schedule a wedding for June 13, 2015. I said to the woman on the phone, “did you just say 2015?” “Well,” she said, “we need to save up some money and I want to get married on the second Saturday in June, and the place I want to get married at is booked for that Saturday in 2014.” I told her that it’s my experience that when couples schedule weddings that far in advance it’s usually a defense tactic for the guy to buy some time to figure a way out of the wedding.
But there are things that we look forward to: We look forward to seeing our grandchildren and children graduate from school, or get married, or have children themselves. Or we look forward to our retirements. Or we look forward to the vacation we’ve been saving up to. The question we have to face, then, is whether these plans, which are all legitimate things to look forward to, are really an elaborate way of declaring that we have no faith that Jesus will come again? What if Jesus returns in the first week of December? Would one of our first thoughts be that we still need to get some Christmas shopping done? Are we really waiting in expectation, or is the future only something whose hopes are built in what we can earn, or what our children can earn or do, and not in a faith of the return of Christ? Are we really ready to cancel our season passes for HersheyPark for next year? And are we really willing to close the church and enter into a truly new Kingdom when Jesus returns? Or will we just keep preaching the old Gospel stories, because we think we know them?
One thing I thought of when I actually checked the date of this wedding—June 13, 2015—was that the second Saturday in June is always the date of the Penn Central UCC Conference meeting. The very fact that we can think about this date in the future in this way demonstrates that our routines of going-about our lives and our business forbid any reality of the actual return of Jesus. I’m actually already committed to attend the Conference meeting that Saturday, and just by virtue of the fact that I can think this way assumes a kind of religious dishonesty, that as I expect to be present at the Annual UCC Conference that weekend, I also expect that Jesus won’t return by then, as well.
Our lesson from Jesus today demonstrates that the one who believes in the return is the one who has the least to lose and has placed the least amount of self-importance into his possessions and in his money. And the one who is believed to be lazy, and the one who is believed to be selfish, and the one who is cast out into hell by the mainstream of society is really the one who is faithfully waiting.