Nov 17

The Parable of the Talents

            The most important thing you need to know about the parable you just heard from Matthew’s gospel, the parable of the talents, is that the third servant, the one who buried his treasure in the ground, did exactly what he was supposed to do. In the ancient world, there was no federal insurance for banks. Investing money back then was an even bigger risk than it is today. And the safest, most reliable way to ensure you did not lose your money was to bury it. The servant who buried his master’s treasure didn’t just play it safe; he played it smart, and he played it right. His master had just given him a talent, the equivalent of at least fifteen years’ worth of wages, more money than most people would ever see at one time in those days. So he buries it, just like he’s supposed to do.

            You see, Jesus’ parables are not just relatable stories. They are not mere real-life examples of common sense. They are stories with a twist: something unexpected that upends contemporary wisdom or that results in an ending that no one could have predicted. So many sermons and books on this parable focus on how the servants make use of their talents. That’s important, of course, but those approaches can obscure something deeper and more challenging about the parable of the talents. In this case, the servant who does the right thing is the one who ends up being punished. Why?

            Asking why the servant was punished shifts our attention away from the servants and back to this strange master. And that’s where our attention should have been all along, at least according to Jesus. One of my rules of thumb for reading Scripture is if Jesus tells you what something is about, it’s a safe bet that that’s what it’s about. Here, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is like a man who decides to take a long and indefinite journey, a man who entrusts vast sums of wealth to his servants while he is gone: to one, enough money to last a lifetime; to the next, enough money to live comfortably for his entire adulthood; and to a third, enough money to retire on. Can you imagine?! This master is on his way out the door. He gives no timetable for his return. He offers no instructions for what to do with his wealth. He leaves no trusted overseer, no one with designated power of attorney. There is no accountability while he is gone. His servants could wait until their master is just out of sight, take their talents, and high-tail it in the opposite direction as fast as they could go. No one would ever catch them. They could set up in some distant country and be set for as long as they might want. Why would anyone take such foolish steps with such vast wealth? Who would do such a thing?

            I think this is why the third servant finds himself in so much trouble when his master returns. If you worked for a master who behaved so strangely, who courted risk so casually, over time you would begin to pick up some of his characteristics. You would see him as an example, and as his servant you would imitate him, regardless of what other masters might want in similar situations. Faithful service to a master means doing as the master does or would do. It’s more than being an ambassador, though, more than just acting on behalf of the master. It’s becoming more and more like the master, shaping your own life in his image. So if your master is the kind of person who takes huge risks with his resources, who even entrusts them indefinitely to his servants, you had better be the kind of servant who takes risks, too, with what your master has given you. The first two slaves get it: they barter and trade with what they have. They risk losing it all in some crazy venture, because that’s what the master had done with them. The third slave, he’s clueless. By hiding his talent in the ground, he shows that he really doesn’t know who his master is, even before he falsely accuses the master of being “a harsh man.” The third servant does not understand what it means to serve this master.

            The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is not about a place we go. It’s not about how the world is supposed to work, or some lofty ideals for the church or society. In fact, the kingdom of God is not aboutanything. The kingdom of heaven is the Lord God, God himself, reigning in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God is God in Jesus Christ ruling over creation. The man who foolishly risks his wealth by entrusting it to his servants is God in Jesus Christ. He is, as I said months ago, the God who is all in for us.

            In Jesus Christ God gives us wealth beyond anything we could imagine. Not the wealth of gold or silver—the wealth of God’s love, even the wealth of God’s Love in the Holy Spirit. Who would be so foolish as to entrust people like us with such riches? Only the God who is also foolish enough to risk his love by creating a world that might turn against him; who, when that does happen, takes another risk and comes down in human flesh to offer that love to the same people who have rejected him. Jesus offers the fullness of the riches of God’s love to those who would be his servants. In Matthew’s gospel, he tells this parable during Holy Week, days before he is crucified. And then Jesus does leave us. For how long, we don’t know. It may seem like a long time, but he will return. In his absence, he leaves it to his servants, his disciples, his followers, to use the wealth he has given as he would use it.

            For those of us who follow Jesus, we must be ready to take risks with what God has given us. God did not play it safe with his love for us; we must not play it safe with our love for others. That’s why I’m so excited about the budget church council will vote on tomorrow. It’s not a done deal yet, but the proposed budget actually includes line items for mission work.

            We’ve spent money as a congregation on missions before, of course—in fact, we do it all the time. But putting it into the budget means we’re willing to take a risk. Not a financial risk—financially speaking this is an opportunity to give more for the whole reason we’re here in the first place. No, the risk is much bigger and more exciting. You see, by putting missions into the budget, we’re emphasizing that following Jesus is what being the church at Centre is all about. We’ll be saying that going into the world to spread the gospel as we love our neighbors isn’t just something we do when we have special collections or a small surplus—it’s what we expect to happen as routinely as paying the electric bill or keeping up with the roof.

            And here’s where the risky part comes in. If we make missions part of the routine, part of what’s expected to happen at Centre, we’re going to have to put our talents where our mouths are. Not just our money or the skills and abilities we have. The greatest treasure we have: the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We’ll have to risk forgiving people no one else wants to forgive. We’ll have to risk walking alongside people who have been abandoned by the world. We will have to invite into our buildings and worship services people no one else will have around. We will have to challenge ourselves again and again to love extravagantly, to take risks with our love for the sake of the kingdom, to love as our own Lord and Savior loves us.

            Then we, too, may hear those precious words: Well done, good and faithful servants; enter into the joy of your master.