November 16, 2014
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
“For it is as if…”
To begin the Gospel reading with these words means we need to go back and find out what the “it” in this sentence is. It is the Kingdom, which Jesus described in last week’s reading in the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. And if last week’s reading about the five with extra oil and the five who did not have enough was not about grabbing and hoarding oil, then this week’s parable probably has some surprises for us as well.
Our first surprise is how much money we are talking about here. Sure, five and two and one do not sound like large sums. But the Greek word “talenton” refers to the amount of silver equal to the weight of one amphora of water. One talent is between 75-96 pounds of silver. A talent was enough money to pay the 200 man crew of a trireme, one of those triple-decker oar ships that Rome sailed, for a month. Put another way, a denarius was a common worker’s wage for a day. It would take nearly twenty years to earn a talent at that rate. One talent is twenty years’ wages. Two talents, forty years’ wages. And the first slave was entrusted with 100 years’ wages. So either Matthew is using hyperbole to get our attention, or what we are talking about is so very valuable, so very dear, that it is beyond our normal sense of measuring.
The parable does not answer our questions. Where did the master go? Why was he so long in returning? Why, when he comes to settle accounts, does he take the one talent from the last slave and give it to the first? Was this not the master’s money? Instead of answering questions, parables often raise more questions.
Rather than try and settle this passage for now and all time, I want to offer a few ideas about it and invite you to see where that takes you.
First, it is okay to be troubled by parables. However settled we are in our faith, parables cause some discomfort. I believe that is a good thing.
For to 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.
This sounds like the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This sounds more like the ways of the world than Good News. So what is going on?
The first two slaves refer to the generosity of the master: “You have handed over to me ten talents…” They have taken the talents as a trust and they have grown them. We do not hear that the master is a harsh man until he is described this way by the third slave.
Master, I knew that you were a harsh man,
reaping where you did not sow,
and gathering where you did not scatter seed;
so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.
Here you have what is yours.
For the third, it was not about what the master had handed over, but fear of the master. The reply is, “If I am such a harsh man, you could have at least put it in the bank and gotten interest on it. You got no return for it.”
This brings me to a second thought about this parable. If the master is God, how many people both inside and outside the church see God as harsh and critical and judgmental and cruel and demanding? Last week I said that everyone in the United States knows Jesus, just because there are few places you can go without a billboard, church, t-shirt, or some other representation. But the image may not coincide with what we find in the Gospel.
The question this raises is, if we believe God to be harsh and critical and cruel and judgmental and demanding, might we want to put forth at least a little effort to be faithful? But that is not how human beings work. We are stubborn. We will not be pushed around. So if God is going to be like this, then we are going to hide the gifts God has given and not even play the game. It makes me wonder about the difference between church attendance in the 1950’s and the 2000’s. Are people hiding their faith because the church has been so set to describe God in ways that do not reflect the Good News?
But what if we learn that God is not harsh and critical and cruel and judgmental and demanding? What if we learn that God is generous and abundant and gracious and loving and comforting and a source of hope and joy and love? What if we learned that life is to be lived abundantly, not hidden in fear or self-interest?
My friend and mentor Boyd Carter used to tell the story of a man who was given a cup. He was told that the cup was filled with his life. So he clamped his hand over the top of the cup and he kept his hand over it, waiting for the day when he could sit and sip of life and enjoy it to the fullest. He thought maybe when he graduated college, that would be the day. But it wasn’t. So we thought maybe it will be when he got married. Or when he got that promotion at work. Or when his children were born. Or when he retired. Finally late in his years he decided that it was finally time to enjoy that cup full of life, and he carefully lifted his hand off the top of it, so that he could drink it to the dregs.
Looking in the cup, he discovered that there was a hole in the bottom, and his life had dripped away one day at a time. When he finally got to the place where he thought he could enjoy life, there was no life left to enjoy.
Waiting for that someday to live our life to the fullest, when all our responsibilities are over, or when we finally have an open schedule, or when our grief has finally abated, or whatever it is we might be waiting on, it is as if we buried the talents God has given us.
The life that Jesus gives is more precious than one hundred years’ wages, more abundant than the stars in the sky. The day for living it on behalf of love and faith and hope and joy is today. The day for discovering that God is much more generous than demanding, more loving than judging, more comforting than cruel, is today. The day to live out of love and not fear is today.
Thanks be to God.