A Christmas parable in the heartland

parable of the talentsThe Associated Press sent out a fairly solid story of religious and social significance Thursday, although one would not think so at first glance. A local pastor in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, gave members of his congregation $50 and told them to go see how they could multiple the money for charity. The story has been carried on several newspaper websites, but as best I can tell, the AP is the only news outlet to publish something on this.

The theological underpinnings of this pastor’s challenge did not slip by reporter Helen O’Neill:

First, he read from the Gospel of Matthew.

“And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his ability.”

Then, he explained the parable of the talents, which tells of the rich master who entrusts three servants with a sum of money — “talents” — and instructs them to go forth and do good. The master lavishes praise on the two servants who double their money. But he casts into the wilderness the one so afraid to take a risk that he buries his share.

Gazing down from the pulpit that Sunday, Throckmorton dropped his bombshell.

Like the master, he would entrust each adult with a sum of money — in this case, $50. Church members had seven weeks to find ways to double their money, the proceeds to go toward church missions.

The story proceeds to tell how various members of the congregation used the $50 to multiply the money — from making soup to flying airplanes to producing crafts and even offering rides on a 2006 Harley-Davidson Road King.

The only thing missing from this story is an example of someone who failed to make a return on the $50. Wasn’t there at least one person who “buried” their $50 for safekeeping?

I think including an example of a “failing church member,” while surely difficult to find, would have expanded the story’s perspective. Did everything in this $50 challenge really end up as rosy as the story tells us? O’Neill clearly spent a fair amount of time reporting this story, and shows an appreciation for the religious significance of the pastor’s challenge.

The story is also limited to the church’s experience with the $50 challenge. There are several places a reporter could take this story. First, the perspective of the story is that investment of money for the purpose of helping others is a gain for everyone. But what does it say about our society and culture when investments and financial returns are tied to charity giving? Whatever happened to giving for the sake of giving?

This local story reflects the larger movement of microfinance charitable giving, mostly in underdeveloped areas of the world. In some cases, people are advocating for replacing traditional aide with microfinance strategies. There is a moral and religious angle to this. The parable account of the talents is seen as an example of how Christians should seek to help others.

But there are critics of this type of charity, and a more comprehensive story on this trend ought to reflect these criticisms rather than portraying it as an entirely wonderful endeavor.

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  • http://google.com MarkAA

    This kind of approach to church charitable work has been going on for several years in evangelical churches. A church I belonged to did such a campaign in 2002 or 2003, and the seed amount I believe was lower, perhaps $25. But most people were pretty successful at using the seed money to produce a return that was much higher.

    We saw a lot of things like cookies bake sales selling cookies whose dough and frosting were bought with the original money. One person I know used the original money as gasoline money for his car for a week (for driving to and from his long-hours office job), and then at the end of that week he gave back double the original amount — not perhaps the intent of the seed money, but the end result can’t be overlooked: the church got $50 back for its $25 seed.

  • Chris Bolinger

    A few comments:
    * Chagrin Falls is a small, wealthy suburb of Cleveland
    * The church, http://www.fedchurch.org/, is in the heart of Chagrin Falls
    * The Post version of the story omits the denomination, United Church of Christ
    * A multimedia presentation of the story is here: http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/_national/giving/index.html

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    The Parable of the Talents is about a rich master who tells his servants “to go forth and do good”? Uh, not likely.

    This may be one of the most misunderstood parables there is. There is a lot more that could be said about it, but for now, allow me to quote what I wrote here, in a comment at my church’s blog when someone raised the subject of usury:


    No answers to the immediate questions here, but I figured I might as well complicate matters further.

    You know the Parable of the Talents from Matthew’s gospel? The one that ends with the servant describing his master’s alleged wickedness and the master replying that the servant should at least have put his money in the bank so that it would collect interest? How do you think that would have sounded to an audience that was familiar with the Jewish scriptures’ prohibition against the collecting of interest? If our understanding of, say, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is enhanced by our knowledge of the Jewish laws that declared pigs to be “unclean”, then should not our understanding of the Parable of the Talents be enhanced by these other laws, too?

    Add to this the fact that the Parable of the Minas from Luke’s gospel is very similar to the Parable of the Talents, and the master in that version of the story seems even more deserving of the servant’s criticisms. (Something to consider: In that day and age, why would someone go to another country in order to be made king in his own country? Historians have seen this, rightly I think, as a not-so-subtle reference to the Herods, the corrupt Edomite family who ruled Judea, Galilee, and so on at the discretion of Rome. And Jesus was no friend of the Herods.)

    I do not mean to say, incidentally, that the master in these parables is somehow not a stand-in for God, on some level. Jesus often seems to draw analogies between God and questionable figures — an unjust judge, a shepherd who abandons most of his sheep in order to save just one, a landowner who is somewhat insulting to the day labourers he hires and then doesn’t pay them “fairly” — but I think he does this not to say that God is questionable himself, but rather to say that even in our dealings with questionable people we are still dealing, in some sense, with God and what he is doing in our lives.