The sermon for week November 13, 2011
November 13, 2011
If it sounds familiar it's because you've heard this story before. Jesus' "Parable of the Talents" is a feature of the lectionary cycle that occurs in the fall when most churches are engaged in the cycle of renewing their giving for the coming year.
It’s a story that stays with you. There’s something about thinking about our yearly pledge to the church to the tune of being “thrown out into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” that gets our attention. That may have become the parable’s application in some modern church settings; but it I believe it obscures the parable’s original intention.
Teacher and theologian Marcus Borg observed that “Jesus used aphorisms and parables to invite his hearers to see in a radically new way. The appeal is to the imagination, to that place within us where our images of reality, and our images of life itself reside; the invitation is to a different way of seeing, to different images for shaping our understanding of life…indeed, the roots of the word parable mean to “throw alongside of.”’ A parable is a story “thrown alongside of” some life situation.”
Matthew recorded this parable during the risky environment of the early days of the Church. It was a Bear Market for investors in the faith. The Church was under constant threat of destruction both from within and without.
After centuries of barter and exchange the use of money became common place in the ancient world. For the first time, a talent (the equivalent of a thousand pieces of silver) could easily be turned into legal tender and invested to pay interest. With changes in the economy the ancient world began to tilt in a new direction. Currency became a necessary and efficient tool by which the bureaucracy and the empire could survive by controlling the lives of the peasants.
While many of us are familiar with the parable of the talents, we have not heard it “thrown alongside of” a more threatening economic environment than currently exists in our own country. The statistics are sobering: 14 million Americans are jobless and millions more are underemployed.
Recent headlines on the front pages of the The Blade trumpet the end of prosperity as we once knew it: “Desperate times seize area suburbs!” Metro Toledo’s middle class reeling from unemployment, housing crisis.” Another reads: “Safety nets strain to meet vast needs. Tough times put area aid agencies, family support systems to the test.”
For most of us the issue has become personal on some level. We begin to notice the homeless with increasing frequency. He is standing at the entrance to Cory Road holding a sign that reads: “Homeless. Will work for food. Have daughter.” As we approach the top of the ramp we may catch a glimpse of the new face of poverty. He is young man and fresh shaven. We may roll down the window of the car and offer a lead to follow or a small amount of money to ease the guilt we feel for being part of a system that has failed him so tragically. When we return home we may pick up the phone to hear the fearful refrain of a son or daughter who is living in a large city, out of work for over a year and running out of hope. With each passing day these stories are growing more numerous and more personal as the circle of recession draws new victims into its systemic embrace.
According to a recent article in Salon what unites the outraged 99 % of Americans who are caught in the economic down-turn is that we have “played by the rules” only to learn belatedly that the game was rigged. Apparently the richest 1 percent of Americans have been getting richer by 245% over the last three decades while the middle class and poor have seen their after-tax household income increase only slightly in comparison.
“Supply side economists are fond of pointing out that a rising tide lifts all boats. But as the gap grows between rich and poor, which it has every year since 1980, it becomes clear that the rising tide they’ve been talking about has lifted only the yachts and the battleships, the rowboats got swamped in the wake.” Seven Deadly Virtues by F. Forrester Church p.24.
With such gloomy economic reports it’s no wonder most of us will identify with the servant in the parable who was given only one talent. If you have only one talent, the most basic instinct is to hold on to it, to preserve it any way you can. The servant who received one talent did just that. He took that small fortune that talent represented and he buried it!
It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do! First-century biblical scholar, Eduard Schweizer, says that the Jewish law of the day read, "Whoever immediately buries property entrusted to him is no longer liable because he has taken the safest course conceivable." The Good News According to Matthew
The one-talent man followed the letter of the law. He acted prudently and responsibly. But instead of being impressed with the servant’s virtue, the master, when he returns, flies into a rage and punishes the servant by taking the talent from him and giving it to the one who already has ten talents!
And what about the other two servants, the ones who multiplied their talents? Their actions were based upon an entirely different assumption of their obligation to the one they served. They knew the system was rigged! So when they were given the talents with no further instructions from their Master, they simply followed his example! Like their Master, these two servants went about “reaping where they did not sow and gathering where they did not scatter seed.” And they were rewarded for it!
In the context of our time the parable of the talents is especially disturbing if we believe that it is God who punishes and rewards the servants in Jesus’ story.
It may be helpful to remember that the parables of Jesus were always about the Kingdom of God; but God does not appear in any of them. Jesus paints a portrait of a heavenly kingdom with the earth tones of the familiar: a sower scattering his seed, a merchant looking for land, a mustard seed, a net full of fish, a hidden treasure. But a portrait, however masterful, conceals more than it reveals. That which cannot be fully seen can only be imagined. Jesus did not explain how these stories were related to God’s imperial realm; he left it to his listeners to figure that out for themselves.
But in the meantime “There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem from insignificance," as poet W. H. Auden observed. The mean time is a kind of purgatory which requires patience for all that remains unanswered in our lives, and faith that all the loud talk in the halls of Washington and the small solutions applied to big problems may one day make a difference.
The meantime requires patience and a tolerance of ambiguity when most of us would prefer finding the answer as quickly as possible at the back of the book. Jesus knew that about us. So he gave us the answer. The answer to this dilemma is the faith we invest in the One who is telling the story and upon whom the final answer waits.
In the parable of the talents the clever who take risks are rewarded, while the prudent one suffers the painful reprimand of the Master whose wrath he had taken such pains to avoid. Of all the parables of Jesus, this one seems the most elusive in its meaning, unless we heed it as a warning for those of us who are living in the meantime.
“Mean times” were familiar to Charles Dickens who drew from his own experience among the working poor during the Victorian era to construct a body of literature that explores the hardships with which we are becoming all too familiar in our own day.
Ebenezer Scrooge is the central figure of Dickens’ Christmas Carol the tale of a law abiding, and responsible Puritan businessman which is often read as the Christmas season approaches with the purpose of frightening all of us into being more generous.
Early in his life Scrooge put together a formula to insure his freedom from earthly care: “Attend to your own business and work hard” became his personal motto. Like the one-talent servant, Scrooge’s virtue was prudence, a virtue that is admirable, practical and safe. It rewards the one who possesses it with the security we all long for. Few goals are more lofty, yet its achievement as a bulwark against vulnerability may soon become a prison, as Scrooge was to find out.
Aptly enough, Scrooge’s night of judgment takes place on Christmas Eve. Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s old partner, returns from beyond the grave to pay Scrooge a visit.
Dickens describes Marley as a ghost who was “doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth and turned to happiness.”
Marley informs Scrooge that in order to avoid a similar fate he will be visited by three spirits, who turn out to be the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Not an attractive prospect, but better than the bargains with the devil Marley and Scrooge offered most of their clients during their long partnership.
Scrooge endures a night of torment, visited by visions from Christmases past, present and future. Scrooge sees visions of relatives suffering by virtue of his selfishness in the past, domestic happiness coexisting with poverty and sickness in the present and the jocularity of his business associates upon hearing word of his death, and his untended grave in the future. When Scrooge emerges from his dark night of the soul, he concludes: “I am not the man I was, nor will I be the man I must have been.”
Few texts better depict the workings of purgatory. Scrooge enters fires that both illumine and purify. Transformed, Scrooge emerges from his ordeal stripped of selfish self-regard and clothed with communal goodwill. For the first time in his life, he celebrates Christmas generously with lavish gifts, extravagant tips, hearty greetings to strangers, charitable bequests, family celebrations, and generous bonuses. By virtue of his generosity Scrooge abandons the security of his insulated life and enters the risky diversity of the commonwealth of God.
If the world could be changed with rule keeping, it would have been accomplished by the Scribes and the Pharisees who tended to the letter of the Law, and the one talent man with his shovel or Ebenezer Scrooge keeping score with his ledger. They are the ones we would expect to wake up on the right side of the heavenly gate, leaving the rest of us "weeping in utter darkness and gnashing our teeth." But instead, God sent his Son Jesus to offer us “ne’r do wells” the unmerited wealth of his grace.
In the parable of the talents Jesus warns us that the systems of this world are fatally flawed. Jesus exposed the corruption and injustice of his times by telling stories that challenged popular assumptions, stories of human law preempted by divine law, parties thrown for run-away children, tax collectors and other social outcasts getting preferred treatment while the rich are turned away. Each story exposed the deception of the prevailing system and imposed a choice between the kingdom we live in and the one we long for. The choice we make will change the world, beginning with us.
Jesus taught us again and again that it is in losing ourselves that we are found, it is in emptying ourselves, that we are filled. That’s a hard sell, especially in a bad economy. But in order to reap the benefit of God's grace, we must be willing to invest the currency of our faith in the economy of God.
The people of God will be those who understand that to live by faith we must be willing to emerge from the protection of our respective bunkers and risk engaging the world with the one talent which has been given to us, which is our faith. We must be willing to face our fear and recognize that the place fear has opened up in us is holy and just large enough to accommodate God’s grace. We cannot make this world safe, nor avoid being vulnerable to the threats that are common to us all. Yet it is the risk of faith that God requires of us.
Depending on what we want from God, this may not sound like good news in a bad economy. But the children of Light are those who have learned the value of a good offense when it comes to defending ourselves against the dark systems of the world. We do not abandon hope when things get dark. We are too busy spending the unmerited wealth of God’s grace with the wild abandon of entrepreneurs who are out to change the world.
Thanks be to God! Amen