22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live. It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least?’ Matthew 25:26 (The Message)
The parable of the talents has always made me uncomfortable. First of all, Jesus uses money and investments in his illustration, and I have never claimed to have a real head for finance. In fact, I’ve made my share of blunders, so if this story was only about finances, you can bet I’d be doing something along the lines of what the third servant did with his one talent. I know I wouldn’t want to risk losing it only to have the master come calling for it!
This response would make sense in the world of first century Palestine. The banking system lacked checks and balances, there was no Wall Street, and a greedy, unscrupulous landowner was the rule more than the exception. A hole in the ground was a prudent way to guarantee that no money went astray.
In our current North American culture, risk has more often been rewarded, and prudent investors who squirrel away their money in passbook savings accounts or low risk Certificates of Deposit are looked on as overly cautious and lacking in financial savvy. One should learn to understand and manage a portfolio of investments or at least have sense enough to retain a good manager. Risk is often regarded as equal to reward–well, at least until the housing bubble burst.
But perhaps this parable is not really about money and financial management. Could Jesus merely be using a timely and accessible example to make a bigger point about the life of faith? What if the issue is more about the conflict between fear and faith, between the life that God desires for us and our fear of living that life and what it might mean?
If Jesus’ audience would have related to the one talent guy as the norm and found the landowner’s response shocking, how can people today hear the parable and experience the same kind of shock and dislocation? I wonder if folks today hear this parable not as scandalous and counter-cultural but more as “oh, no, here’s another sermon asking me to give more of my time and self to the church and how I’m not measuring up in the duty department.” If so, no wonder there’s little excitement. Who needs more guilt and obligation?
Is there another way, or multiple ways to understand what Jesus was getting at in this story, a way that illumines the upside-down, inside-out radical way that God works? Frankly, I have a really hard time equating God with vengeful, angry master in this story. It just doesn’t square with the overall picture of Jesus in the gospel narratives. Perhaps that master is better understood as someone or something else.
What if the master is anything that causes us enough anxiety and fear that we fail to live into our God-given potential? Fear can definitely muster up a “do-nothing” reaction like the one-talent guy exhibited. Fear and anxiety can cause us to play life safe and to dance to the music of the masses. Fear can keep us from ministry and mission. Fear can also make us selfish when we live from a scarcity mindset rather than an abundance mindset.
Pastor Steve Garnaas Holmes offers an artful retelling of the parable in line with the current “Occupy” movements happening across the nation where the one talent guy is the one who refuses to play by the world’s rules. Click here to link to his blog and read more. In line with Garnaas-Holmes’ retelling is Warren Carter’s comment “The specific socioeconomic commitments of the master and the activities of the first two slaves are not to be imitated” (Matthew and the Margins, 488). The overriding point is faithful discipleship.
So what does it mean to be a faithful disciple, and how do we achieve that end? What happens when the fear factor in life squares off against the faith factor of the reign of God? Just how countercultural are we willing to be as stewards of the good news of Jesus Christ? These are good questions, indeed. It might be worth asking the people to whom you preach and teach.
I pray that whatever direction the Spirit leads you this week, you will be that bold, prophetic voice that people in your particular context need to hear. I pray, too, that you will find a way to show folks that the faith factor has already triumphed over the fear factor if we will but live into that reality. As people and communities of faith, through the work of the Spirit and by the grace of God, we are equipped to do so.
Now go stir it up, trouble the waters, and let the power of the Gospel quench the fears and anxieties of the day. Blessings on your proclamation and teaching.
Consider the following quote by Marianne Williamson from her book A Return to Love:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light , not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make and manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Discuss this quote in light of this week’s gospel reading. Why does our potential cause us to be fearful? How can we “make manifest the glory of God that is within us”? How does letting our own light shine help others?
Talk with the children about sharing their talent with others. Tell them that all of us are uniquely gifted by God with talents we can share. Point out members of the knitting or quilting ministries in your congregation. Point out musicians and Christian education teachers. These are just a few possibilities. Ask the children what talents they have to share. Point out that sharing a smile can even be an important talent to give to others. End with a prayer thanking God for each child’s unique gifts and asking that they be blessed to develop and share them with others.
(Photo by dryhead used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!)