Right on cue, the Parable of the Talents turns up in the lectionary on the third Sunday in November, when many churches, like ours, are collecting their pledges and estimates of giving for the coming year. How many Stewardship Sermons have you heard on the Parable of the Talents? The thing is, it is a parable, which means it’s multi-layered, with many interpretations, heard differently in different settings, so we would do well to remember the wise saying that reminds us, “If you believe you know ‘the’ meaning of a parable, you can be assured that you’re mistaken.” [Kate Matthews, sermonseeds, 11/19/17]
“To those of us who breathe the very air of capitalism,” one commentator observes, this parable sounds like Jesus warning us to invest our money wisely, or at least deposit it and earn some interest. Sounds just like Jesus the Financial Advisor, doesn’t it? Wait. Isn’t this the Jesus who told the rich young man who wanted to follow him, “First, go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me”? How many of us could follow that financial advice?
Like last week’s parable about the 10 wise and foolish maidens and their oil lamps, this parable is set in Matthew’s gospel at the end of Jesus’ life, his last week, in fact, and Matthew’s community–some 70 years after Jesus’ death–was wrestling with how to live until the Master returned, how to live “in the meantime,” until the Reign of God, or as Marcus Borg called it, “the Dream of God” comes in its fullness. The parable of the maidens uses oil as the illustration of what we are to tend to in the meantime, and this parable uses money, which is what a “talent” was–an astonishing, overwhelming amount of money. Jesus typically uses exaggeration or hyperbole to make a memorable point. Many generations for many years could have lived on the talents described here–literally worth millions of dollars. It was, in fact, a way of saying the master gave away and entrusted his whole life’s worth and substance to his servants, just as Jesus was about to do in Jerusalem. And he gave it to them, according to their “ability.” The word used for ability here is dynamis, or “power,” dynamism. “…as each had ability or power” to use or make of this treasure.
Our English word “talent” actually came into the language from this parable. It has come to mean our personal gifts or abilities. A few years back, we did a couple sessions of the Laity Empowerment Project, one unit of which was called, “Unwrapping Our Gifts.” We tend to think of “talents” as something we could share or perform in a “talent show,” some artistic ability like singing or dancing or drawing or painting, maybe playing an instrument, doing magic tricks. A friend of ours in seminary could recite all the books of the Bible before one matchbook match burned her fingers. If you’re going to make your living using these kinds of talents, you have to invest a ton of energy into practicing–at least 10,000 hours one researcher says–and even then, it’s tough to come up with health insurance, let alone food and rent money, as our son Alex can testify.
But, as we saw in the Laity Empowerment Project, a gift, or “talent,” if you will, can also be something like the ability to teach, or the ability to help people work together, or facility with budgets and numbers, the ability to bring order out of chaos, the ability to make someone feel valued and cared for, the ability to cut through all the smoke and mirrors and perceive what’s really going on, the ability to stand up and articulate what justice demands. “God speaks to each of us as he makes us,” the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke imagined, “then walks with us silently out of the night. These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing–embody me.” Embody me. Each of us is given a unique way of embodying God, realized when we “go to the limits of our longing.”
How are we to live “in the meantime,” until the Dream of God is fulfilled, or even until the end of our life arrives? Not by hoarding, guarding, clutching and hiding what we’ve been given, like the third servant, but by creatively, imaginatively, faithfully, letting what we’ve been given loose into the world, putting it into circulation, where it can become a source of further blessing for others and ourselves, where it can intensify and infuse God’s presence in the world. “The major themes of the Christian faith,” wrote Fred Craddock, “–caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving, hoping–cannot be understood or lived without risk.” [Imaging the Word, vol. 3, p. 70]
For Matthew’s community, that risk -taking meant following Jesus’ way wherever it led, and they knew where it led Jesus–to arrest and crucifixion, and then, of course, to resurrection. But the punishment the master gave out in the parable–throwing the third slave into the outer darkness–was not a punishment in the afterlife, but in this one. “The greatest punishment,” Bruce Epperly writes, “is a life of regret, a life of missed opportunities and love lost.” Responsible risk-taking opens us up to possibilities that, as Epperly says, “elude those who live in the past or hang on to the status quo.” [processandfaith.org, 11/19/17] “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” poet Mary Oliver asks us. And we might ask today on this Stewardship Sunday, this Thanksgiving Sunday–What do we plan to do with this one wild and precious church?
The consequence of not setting our “talents” loose in the world – or not being allowed to–is as much a place of darkness and gnashing of teeth as any imposed punishment. “What happens to a dream deferred?” the great African American poet Langston Hughes asked in his poem, Harlem.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
There are too many dreams deferred today, never allowed to see the light of day. I’m not talking about dreams of grandeur or fame or fortune, but dreams planted by God to go to the limits of our longing, to embody the Divine Impulse in the world. How many deferred? And so trauma, environmental poisoning, mental illness, lack of health care and inadequate education, prejudice, the “hit parade” of “isms” all bury the valuable gifts entrusted to us–gifts that could be at work in the world, contributing to its beauty, helping to solve our problems. Instead they crust over, or sag, or fester, or explode. How many weeks will we have this red candle on our altar, commemorating the bloodshed of the week? Part of what we must do with this one wild and precious church is advocate for the dreams of all people to be allowed to develop and emerge.
Was the third servant lazy, or foolish, or immobilized by fear? Maybe all three. Fear of the master, who, he said, he knew to be a “hard man,” fear of risking a downturn in the market, fear of failing at something he’d never tried before, all three seem like perfectly reasonable fears. But fear can indeed immobilize us, can constrict our lives down to a narrow, clutching perimeter, can shrivel up our dreams and our gifts so that they end up in the dust heap. Marianne Williamson observes that many of us are less afraid of failing if we use our gifts and more afraid of succeeding. In fact, Nelson Mandela quoted Ms. Williamson in his 1994 Presidential Inaugural Speech to the people of South Africa–
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” [Williamson, A Return to Love]
We have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving–and nothing more so than the people in our lives who have shone their light so that we might find our way, those who have shared their gifts and embodied God for us and for the world. That is how we are to live in the meantime, while we still have this one, wild and precious life. May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark