Living Generously: Time and Talents
We continue our consideration today of the invitation to live generously, with all we have and all we are. We know that a generosity of spirit, possessions, our lives even, is fundamental to the work of following Jesus in the world, as he is the one who came to show us the lavish generosity of God as a model for our relationships with each other.
And, it’s stewardship season. So what’s a lectionary preacher to do but crack open the text to the assigned passage and hope for a word that will bring the message home, right? Well, today we’ve been assigned a classic stewardship text. As we consider the use of our time and talents in generous service to God, we hear a gospel passage from Matthew 25: the parable of the talents.
When I turned seventeen my parents threw me a surprise birthday party. Only, nothing about the party was a surprise. My parents are not that sneaky, all my friends knew, and . . . I had four younger siblings with big mouths. But, I knew it was important to my parents that I be surprised, so . . . you know the drill: you show up and feign shock. And I did, and to this day I still don’t know if my parents know that I knew!
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience of not really being surprised at all. I expected similar this week as I read the parable of the talents yet again, but instead I was really surprised. But as I read the parable of the talents yet again this week, I found myself a bit unsettled. Once again, the words of Jesus have shaken me up and asked me to change the way I have always thought about something.
It’s likely that, along with me, you’ve heard this parable many times and know it almost by memory; remember the story?
There was a master who was going on a trip. Before he left he called three of his slaves into his office and gave them each a different amount of money, then he went off to wherever he was headed. Each of the slaves did different things with the money—the first two slaves invested their money and made a whole bunch more; the third slave buried his money in the ground. When the man came back from his trip he asked each slave to give him a report of their activities while he was gone. The man was really happy with the first two and extremely mad with the third, whom he insulted, fired and threw into hell.
Given our theme today of offering our time and talents to God, I figured I would show up this morning and offer a nice little reflection on what it is each of us has been given by God in the “talent” department and whether or not we have been busy using our “talents” for God. I thought I’d preach something like that, you see, and maybe end with a meaningful challenge that would make everyone decide . . . to join the choir or something. At least that’s how I’ve always thought of this passage, and that’s how I’ve heard it—and probably how you’ve heard it—preached many, many times.
Let’s look together, and maybe you’ll see why I’m surprised—you might want to take out your Bibles and follow along.
First of all, this parable is not about talents at all, that is in the beauty pageant way of thinking about talents. Our language has played a trick on us here because in English we understand the word “talent” to mean some kind of special ability or gift, a special skill—you know, all the things you happen to bring the to table. Your talents.
This passage is not about whether you can juggle or do magic tricks. A talent here is a measurement of money. There’s no hidden meaning in the story Jesus is telling the people listening to him; he’s talking here about money, pure and simple.
And Jesus is talking about a whole lot of money, as it turns out . . . so much money that the people who were listening to him would have been startled, it was so ridiculous.
In Jesus’ day a talent was the largest measurement of money there was. In fact, a physical “talent” was a big chunk of metal that took several people to lift—not pocket change. It was worth about 6,000 denarii, and a denarii was a day’s wages.
To get a modern day equivalent, think of one talent as being worth 20 years of your annual salary. Say: if the salary of a first year teacher in the NYC public schools is $48,000 (according to my astute online research), that would mean that, conservative estimates would put one talent at roughly equivalent to about $960,000. And, two talents would be worth almost 2 million dollars, and five talents would be worth almost 5 million dollars.
So, that will give us some context as we imagine the crowd standing around Jesus with looks of incredulity—who among us has that kind of money sitting around, first of all, and if you did . . . would you leave it with a slave, like an hourly employee, while you went on vacation? You can imagine the crowd listening to Jesus might have thought that this story was shaping up to be completely ludicrous.
And then there are the characters in the story. I always just assumed the master represented God and the slaves represented us. But when I read a little more closely I began to wonder a little bit about that.
Primarily because, well, the master is a big jerk.
He leaves town, leaving other people in charge of his stuff. His main interest in this story about money is how much he’s making. He’s expecting to make an outrageous amount of money through shady investments. And he’s really mean to his employees. None of that sounds like the God I know, and it certainly doesn’t sound like the God in all of Jesus’ other descriptions of what the kingdom of heaven would be like.
And the slaves Jesus talked about were just that: slaves. Nothing about this story changes their status as forced laborers. Two of them made money, alright, but none of them got their freedom.
That’s not what life in the kingdom of heaven is like, is it?
So, surprise, surprise: the master is not God and the slaves are not you and me, and the parable is not about whether your high school band clarinet skills are being used to glorify God.
So what does it all mean?
Well, remember that Jesus is talking here about the kingdom of heaven—God’s dream for what the world should be, and very often the way he describes it, it’s in stark contrast to what the world IS.
Everyone listening to Jesus knew full well that Hebrew law was very strict about lending money and charging interest. You can do some sleuthing in Exodus and Leviticus and you’ll see that the legal interest rate in the Jewish community was 12%. Again, if we do some simple math we can see that both the slave with two talents who gained two more and the slave with five talents who gained five more each got a 100% return on their investments.
Now, this turn of events in our capitalist way of looking at the world might be a cause for great celebration, but remember the group who was listening to Jesus. They all knew that the legal interest rate was 12%, and in their culture anyone making more than that was considered a shameful, greedy exploiter—you know, the way people in Jesus’ day looked at tax collectors—not well-regarded in the least.
More than that, in the culture in which they all lived, self advancement was only considered good if it included communal advancement.
Ideas like: the sky is the limit; you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps; work hard enough and you can become very wealthy . . . these ideas were totally foreign.
In their thinking, there was one pie, and respectable and honorable members of society worked very hard to make sure that they were only claiming their piece of the pie—what they needed—because they knew that if they took more than their fair share . . . somebody else was not going to have enough.
So when Jesus told the story of a master who congratulated his slaves for getting 100% return on their investments, his listeners knew immediately that the master was an evil man.
And they also knew that to get a 100% return on an investment would entail some shady business dealings, extremely speculative investment that couldn’t help but profit from the exploitation of other people. The third slave, when he tried to defend himself, names it in verse 24: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed . . .”.
So, then, what do we make of the third slave, who went out and buried his talent in the ground? This has always sounded to me like the gravest of offenses against God. Just sitting on your gifts, not using them…no wonder God “the master” calls the third slave evil and throws him into hell!
(This is where you would make the plug about joining the choir.)
The third slave buried his treasure; it sounds downright sinful.
And the master thought so, too. To the first two he said: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master!” In other words, “Thanks! I’d like to invite you to a party to celebrate my good fortune!” Note the good fortune is the master’s and the master’s alone, because, remember, the slaves didn’t get freed. They were still slaves.
But the master calls the third servant “wicked.” He wasn’t going to participate in the abusive investing of the master, and when confronted says: “Here—please take what belongs to you.” Here’s what belongs to you: I object to the way you’re behaving; you don’t need to be taking any more than your fair share!
It seems to me that the third slave saw what the master was up to, and he didn’t want to have anything to do with creating or supporting a system of exploitation and greed.
And for that he got thrown into hell.
This has challenged the way I’ve always looked at this parable and made me wonder: Jesus, what could you have meant when you started this parable with, “The Kingdom of God is like…?”
So then, what did Jesus mean about life in the kingdom of heaven? Bury our treasure?
Here’s what I think. I think the third slave almost got it. Almost. He saw injustice taking place and decided he wasn’t going to be part of it. He just wouldn’t break the law by investing that money in shady deals that would exploit people and take resources from those who needed them.
But, then he stopped. He didn’t live radically into the kingdom adventure that Jesus was talking about—with his life. Why? It says right there in the text…he was afraid. He was too afraid. He didn’t have the guts to go far enough, into radical kingdom living.
Good for that third slave that he didn’t participate in injustice. But what would have happened if he’d taken taken a risk with his whole life—what if he’d moved past NOT doing the wrong thing to radically doing the RIGHT thing? What if he’d, say, started a micro lending bank, or opened a homeless shelter, or began a youth empowerment program?
Jesus is talking here about the kingdom of God, and right after this parable he talks about sheep and goats and what God’s kingdom looks like, practically. It’s Jesus’ prophecy about what heaven will be like, told as if God were a shepherd, moving through a flock separating the sheep from the goats. And I think perhaps it’s meant to be paired with the parable of the talents.
Jesus says that when everything is over . . . when we all have to report to the master of our lives, we will be divided and judged by whether or not we confronted strangers as if they were Jesus; gave water to those who were thirsty; fed those who were hungry; gave clothes to those who had none; spent time with those who no one else wanted to be in the same room with. Overcame our fear, and invested our lives.
Perhaps you’ve read of the city of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida’s new law, passed in January but only recently put into effect beginning October 22. The law restricts people from camping, panhandling, food sharing and engaging in other “life sustaining activities.” And because of this law, it has become illegal to feed the homeless on the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale.
This is a bit of a problem for 90 year old Arnold Abbott, who founded a non-profit called Love Thy Neighbor in the 1990s and spends several evenings a week serving hot food on the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale, to people who are hungry.
Just this last past Wednesday, Mr. Abbott was arrested for the third time since the beginning of November, but he doesn’t seem about to stop; in fact, the threat of 60 days in prison and a $500 fine don’t really seem to bother Mr. Abbott at all. When asked why he continues to feed people on the beach, he says: “Why do I keep doing this? Because these are my people, and they deserve to be fed.”
Mr. Abbott has got it. Ideological objection to all of the things that oppose God’s kingdom on this earth is not enough. In the as citizens of God’s kingdom, we invest everything.
I hope you and I can and will be like the third slave in the parable of the talents…and even more. In Kingdom of God thinking, it’s not just our ideals that have to change; it’s how we use our whole lives.
If you believe that the kingdom of God is coming to be right here and now, don’t let fear keep you from speaking out. Live your life—your whole life—in radical opposition to all the messages swirling around you: Love your neighbor. Take only what you need. Help those who don’t have enough. Stand up to powerful forces who say individual prosperity is the order of the day. Care about the whole pie. Don’t tolerate the exploitation of those who are on the bottom rung of society. Speak truth to power. See Jesus in everybody, even the most distasteful. Invest your life. Invest your life. Invest your whole life.
Living generously must be a whole life endeavor; it won’t do to let fear keep us on the sidelines. We are in the business of ushering in the kingdom of God, and to do that we’re going to have to jump in, feet first, with our whole lives to make it happen.
Maybe this is the message of the parable of the talents.