As promised, another parable from Matthew today that ends with someone being thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Today’s parable may be a familiar one, especially for those of us who have been through a few stewardship seasons in church–that time of year when we try to gather estimates of what folks plan to give to the church in the following year so we can build a budget. It’s familiarly called, “The Parable of the Talents,” but the more familiar we are with it, the less likely we are to be able to hear anything new from it. Parables are multi-layered and come with a warning, as one writer says: “If you believe you know ‘the’ meaning of a parable, you know you’re mistaken.” (Kate Huey, weeklyseeds, 11/16/14)
A talent was an amount of money equivalent to about 15 years wages–an unthinkably large amount of money for a servant. We who are steeped in capitalism easily read this parable as an endorsement of the investment and dividend system–the more you invest, the more you’re likely to get, though, of course, not without risk. Stan Duncan, a UCC pastor and blogger who also happened to go on the CWS trip to Honduras with me and Sue Wiskoski and Vic Callirgos a few years back, gives us one possible layer of this parable. He writes that it was dishonorable for the elite of Jesus’ time to openly try to expand or increase their wealth, so they gave the dirty work of investing to their servants. The first two servants went along with the system, Stan points out, not for their own financial gain but for the power and prestige that would come their way. The third servant, interestingly enough, actually followed Torah, which forbids lending with interest, and so buried the money, keeping it safe until his master’s return. He knew the master was evil, and he ends up being “crucified,” as Stan puts it. The traditional readings of this parable, Stan says, equate Jesus or God with the master, but then you have decide what you want to do with the image of a harsh and punishing God. What if Jesus is the third servant, refusing to go along with the domination system? Or what if this is simply a description of what happens when you stand up to an unjust system?
That’s one possible layer or meaning of this parable. AND–it doesn’t have to be just one meaning– AND we could also look at this parable as part of the group of the other parables here at the end of Matthew’s gospel which all have to do with waiting, about living in the meantime until Jesus returns. Last week’s illustration with the five wise and 5 foolish virgins used oil for a lamp. This week’s uses money. We get our English word “talent” meaning gift or ability from this same word, and so we often hear the parable in terms of using our gifts and talents. As it is, research in positive psychology has shown that using our strengths actually does have a ripple effect on our sense of well-being–instead of always focusing on our weaknesses and expending all our energy trying to make up for them, it is far more productive to exercise our strengths. To allow a gift or strength to lie unused until some other, more desireable ability is acquired, too often leaves a child feeling like they’re in the outer darkness. A little girl who was brilliant in math but not so great in verbal skills was assigned to all sorts of remedial English and reading work, to the exclusion of math. She eventually became so disheartened and discouraged about her abilities and worth that she also lost all her passion for math. What a waste! Similarly, a young boy who had not been at all successful academically felt a sense of shame and embarassment, until one day his teacher discovered that he was actually an amazing juggler. She asked him to demonstrate his juggling for his classmates, who were mightily impressed and asked him to teach them. He devised a series of lessons from basic to more advanced juggling, and his self-esteem and even his other classwork improved. Had that teacher not perceived and cultivated his talent, he too might have ended up in that proverbial “outer darkness.”
One meaning of this parable is certainly that the gifts or resources that we have are not to be hoarded or buried, but rather are to be put into circulation for the greater use and blessing of others. John Wesley wrote of the third servant, “…so mere harmlessness, on which many build their hope of salvation, was the cause of his damnation.” Mere harmlessness, not rocking any boat, keeping on keeping on, not risking anything, may have just the opposite effect than we intend.
For me this Next Level process we are engaged in with the Center for Progressive Renewal has reinforced that truth. For us as a church to merely keep on doing business as usual will not preserve or save us, but will rather guarantee our demise. We may continue our worship and ways that are comfortable and meaningful to those of us who are here until we are no longer here–nor will anyone else. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying new ways of reaching out to those who have never been here or part of any faith community. We will have only a building and an endowment left if we don’t risk investing in new programs, new ministries, new outreach. We have been entrusted with incredible resources–not only of this accessible, open building and assets on our balance sheet, but also of an amazing variety of talents, experience, passion, generosity, and compassion. We need to invest them in growth [which is apparently now called “the G word” in the UCC] and in creating a welcome and a message that will literally be life-changing, even life-saving, to others.
In this parable, the third servant thought of the master as a harsh man, and so acted accordingly. The response he got from the master was what he expected, and he was thrown out into the outer darkness. This challenges us to consider how we imagine the One whose return we await. Is the motivation for our response to God one of fear or of awe-filled expectation? Do we imagine God as having thrown down the gauntlet, or the challenge, to use what we’ve got …or else? Do we imagine ourselves as our Puritan forebear Jonathan Edwards put it in a sermon–”Sinners in the hands of an angry God”? As one writer says, “Fear distracts us from living with expectant hearts…it keeps us from investing our lives in the work of God.” [Robert Cornwall, Ponderings on a Faith Journey, 11/11/14]
Or do we trust that God is in the midst of our ministries and our initiatives, creating alongside us, working with us to bring new life and new meaning to individuals, to a community, and to a world starving for that meaning and joy? Nancy Rockwell writes that there is “power that comes from the joy of receiving life as a gift and from the confidence of being loved by God. This hope opens us readily to share with others the bounty we have–our bounty of ideas, welcome, the riches in the day itself, and our riches.” (Rockwell, biteintheapple, 11/9/14)
For Matthew’s community, the issue was less about investing money and all about spreading the gospel. That was risky business. While we don’t face Roman soldiers knocking down our doors to throw us into the arena with lions, we do seem to shrink from advertising or even talking about the meaning and message we find here in this community of faith. After all, this is New England. We don’t talk about this stuff! But, maybe we’re withholding life-giving experiences from our spiritually-starving neighbors just as surely as shutting down our Sunday Supper or the Emergency Food and Fuel or the Kitchen Cupboard would withhold physical food.
A memorable story like this parable uses hyperbole–exaggeration–like the image of thousands of dollars, 15 years’ wages. What would it take to impress us who are used to hearing billions and trillions of dollars thrown around in national or international monetary terms? What image would convey to us what’s at stake as we wait in this time that God has given us, to be the Body of Christ, to heal and lift up, to bring joy and meaning and abundant life and dignity for all God’s children? What would get our attention before God–or we– bring this experiment in Earth-living to a close? The number of children who die of hunger each day? That statistic is already available. The number of species that are disappearing each week? We can look that up. The number of feet in the rise of sea level and degrees of warming? Already done. It doesn’t seem to raise our blood pressure or change our habits. What about the extent of depression and addiction? What about the weeping and gnashing of teeth that so many of our sisters and brothers already live with and that we ourselves experience from time to time?
In this time of waiting, the tension in these parables and in our lives today is between preservation and preparation–holding on to what we’ve got, making security our priority, seeing the world through a scarcity mindset, on the one hand, and on the other, risking everything for the possibility of a whole new creation, loosening our grip on the tried and true and opening our hands to receive gifts we’ve never imagined, seeing the world through an abundance mindset.
The great humorist Erma Bombeck, wrote in a column back in 1987–
I always had a dream that when I’m asked to give an accounting of my life to a high court, it will go like this: ‘So, empty your pockets. What have you got left of your life? Any dreams that were unfulfilled? Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?’ And I will answer, ‘I’ve got nothing to return. I spent everything you gave me. I’m as naked as the day I was born.’ (Cited by Steve Goodier, Lifesupportsystem, 11/16/14)
I know I’m not there yet. What would you answer?
There is a story from the Desert Fathers in which one of the brothers came to Abba Joseph and said to him, “I’ve been doing some fasting, some praying, some basket-weaving, but what more can I do?” Abba Joseph raised his hands and flames shot out of his fingers. “Why not become all flame?”
Can you imagine? Can we imagine? What would it be like to become totally flame? What have we got to lose? Let’s see what we–with God–can set on fire!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark