Saturday, November 12, 2011

And the Moral of the Story Is

Matthew 25:14-30


Our gospel lesson today is another parable. Jesus seems to like this type of teaching tool. Tell a story. It has a point, but you actually have to think about to understand the message. It’s like the Aesop’s Fables or Little Bunny Foo-foo. The last line is always, “And the moral of the story is….”

In today’s parable, we read about a man who is going on a journey. Prior to leaving, he takes aside three of his servants and entrusts each with a portion of his property. Each servant is giving a share of the property “in accordance with his abilities.” To one, the man gives five talents, to another two, and to the last one. We are not told that any of the servants was given instructions with what to do with their portion.

Whereas today, we think of talents as gifting and abilities (our God-given Talent Auction, for example), in the ancient world, a talent was a unit of weight. Because a talent measured weight, the value of a talent varied. A talent of gold was more valuable than a talent of silver or bronze. Thus, assigned a specified value to a talent is not possible. Theologians generally agree, however, that a talent in this context would have indicated approximately 20 years wages for a common laborer. This is a significant portion of wealth the landowner has entrusted to this servants.

What we see in this parable is that immediately, the servant entrusted with five talents and the servant entrusted with two talents each go work, investing their talents and doubling their initial wealth. The third servant, however, chooses to bury the talent which has been entrusted to him, hiding it rather than investing it. Something is clearly going on with this servant.

Next, we learn that “after a long time” the landowner returns. There is no indication of precisely how much time has passed, or whether the servants were even aware of the master’s return. We simply know that he came back, and his first order of business seems to be settling accounts with the servants to whom he has entrusted the talents.

Now, the first one comes in and shows the reward for his work—he has turned his 5 talents into 10. This is a 100% return! This is ridiculous! I’ve never seen anything like this. I mean, every payday, I try to put a little something in the bank, and at the end of the month, I’ve made $0.12. That’s a $1.44 at the end of the year. Interest rates on savings accounts these days are less than ½ of 1%. The stock market fluctuates from day to day, but even at its peak, watching stocks rise, most stocks never gain more than a few percentage points over any length of time. Yet this man shows his master that he doubled the amount which had been entrusted to him.

The master is overjoyed! He commends the servant, declaring, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” Similarly, we see that second servant has doubled the talents that were entrusted to him! And the master is equally pleased! Again he responds, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.”

Again, there are many things about this parable which are not totally clear. We do not know where the master has been. We do not know how long he’s been gone. We do not know whether his return was known or a surprise. We also do not know what it means for a servant to “enter into the joy” of this master. We do know, however, that having shown themselves to be trustworthy—investing their talents, using the abilities they already had to do so wisely—they honored their master and in return were honored by him. The master chooses to entrust even more to them. “You have been faithful in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

Last comes the servant to whom the master entrusted but a single talent. The servant who chose to dig a hole in the ground and hide his master’s money. He comes before the man and is totally honest about what he’s done. “Look,” he says. “I know that you are a harsh man. I know that you reap where did not sow and gather where you did not scatter seed. And because I am afraid of you, I went and I hid. Here. Have it back. This is the talent you entrusted to me.”

This is a servant who clearly does not know who his master is. The first two take the talents and invest them. They make excellent investments with high returns. But there is no guarantee that this is going to work out for them. Any time we choose to use our resources, putting them to work, there is an element of risk. Whether it’s investing our time, our money, our skills, or our abilities. There is always a chance that things will not work out in our favor.

But in this parable, it seems that these servants did not worry about that risk. They appear to have had no fear of what their master’s response would be if they risked everything and failed. They immediately went to work trading their talents. There is no indication that they even gave a second thought as to what would happen if they returned empty-handed.

The third servant, however, demonstrates that he is full of fear. Not wanting to risk the ire of his master, he chooses not to use the talent at all. Instead, he buries it. He hides it. He chooses to not use the talent. And an unused talent serves no one.

The master replies with anger. And though there are many ways to interpret a text, and though there is no narrative indication as to the master’s tone of voice, I think he responds with biting sarcasm: “You knew, did you that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.”

I don’t think the master is really giving advice here on how to make low risk investments. I think he’s turning the servant’s own unfounded and unjust fears against him, and pointing out the fallacy of his actions. If the servant is so afraid of this master, this master is going to give the servant cause for fear. “You think I’m a harsh master?” he seems to be asking, “Let me show you how harsh I can be.”

Though the master is portrayed as angry, I rather think he’s deeply grieved to be so misunderstood by a servant whom he has trusted. Now, it would be easy at this point to say, “Well, sure he trusted his servant—with a single talent. He gave the others far more. How much did he really trust this guy?” Except, the mater gave this servant 20 years worth of wages. And while other two were entrusted with far greater wealth, each was entrusted with an amount “according to his ability.”

This is kind of like freshman orientation at college. A group of 18 year old kids are thrown in a room together and told, “Here’s an outline of the next four years of your life. Twelve credit hours—usually four classes—is full time. Most people take five classes. In your junior and senior year, if your academic advisor approves it, you can take even more classes.”

Everyone has different abilities. Someone who with a learning disability who needs extra time to read texts, finish assignments, and take tests is going to take fewer credit hours than someone who is capable of reading a book a day and finishes tests in half the time allotted. Each is given an education. But each is educated in a fashion that fits their abilities. If the first were to take six or seven classes in a single semester, they would likely fall behind and seriously risk their academic standing.

So it is with the servants—each has been entrusted with a portion of the master’s property. But each has been given an amount that is designed to enhance their experience, not overwhelm them with the responsibility of managing something far beyond their skills or training.

And when the third servant chooses not to use his abilities in investing the talent, but chooses instead to bury it, the master takes the talent away from him and gives it to the first, declaring, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.”

Inevitably, in studying this passage communally, the question is always asked, “How can those who don’t have anything have anything taken away?” Except, I think there is an implied thought in the master’s words: To those who have been faithful, more will be given and they will have an abundance; but from those who have not been faithful, even what they have will be taken away.

Everyone has gifts, skills, talents to invest. We all have resources. The questions is: How are we investing these? Are we using our talents, exercising them, and building on our skill sets? Or are we hiding them? Do we choose to bless others when we have the chance, or do we make excuses as to why we can’t or shouldn’t?

Do we risk big with thing with things God has given us, trusting that God will provide an abundant return? Or do we keep our giftings to ourselves, afraid of failing even in the little things? Do we trust that our God is a God who can work miracles and wonders and who is more interested in effort than outcome?

I know I’m not always good at this. I know there are times when I shrink back, when I shy away from trying something new, because I’m not sure I’ll succeed. But I truly believe that if we choose instead to love others, to keep the faith, to hold to hope; if we choose to encourage one another and build each other up; then we’ll succeed every time. Even if we never see a final result. Be encouraged today! The work you do for God is valuable! And the investment will reap a return in the proper time.

No comments:

Post a Comment