The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
I am glad to be back with you today. While I loved worshipping with our brothers and sisters at the National Cathedral on All Saints Day, and I so very much appreciated Rachel’s fine sermon last week while I was away at Camp McDowell, I missed being here with you as well. I’m learning how there is a rhythm to preaching week after week, and when you skip a Sunday, you feel not only like you’ve played hooky, but you’ve missed the warm up lessons. In today’s gospel reading from the lectionary for example we’re reading the third of four parables about accountability and judgement—I’ve been missing out on all the fun.
We are coming to the end of the long season after Pentecost, which brings us near to the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is hard at work teaching and preaching before he must leave his disciples, and Jesus is challenging his followers to think—what will you do when I am no longer here? How will you spend your time while you wait for my coming again? Thus, we have the Parable of the Talents.
You’ve heard this parable before, and I suppose those of you at home, if not a few here today, are settling in for a nice sermon on stewardship, perhaps entitled, “Don’t bury your talents.”
Well don’t get too comfortable, because whether or not you see this parable ripe for talking about the divine economy, you can’t hear this lesson without at least a twinge of anxiety. The story doesn’t end with the weeping and gnashing of teeth for nothing.
But we shouldn’t start at the end of the story—this ending is so often misused; the ending is rich with hyperbole to amplify Jesus message—you see, just how does one take away everything from someone who has nothing?
No, let’s not start at the end. With such a detailed story…we need to start at the beginning.
A man going on a journey entrusts his property to three servants. He gives them talents. In some translations the story says he gives each of them valuable coins, but this interpretation does not help us understand the enormity of what the man has given his servants.
The word talent (talanton) refers to a very large sum of money—15-20 years of wages. The first man gets five talents, that is enough money to live on for 75-100 years, a lifetime. The second servant receives 40 years of wages, and the third gets 20 years of salary—each is given according to their ability. None is asked to take on more than he can handle.
I wonder what makes the difference between these three servants.
The truth is not much for the first two servants—they are treated basically the same; they invest the talents given to them and are rewarded with the master saying to both them, “Well done, you have been trustworthy, I will put you in charge of many things.” These servants’ good efforts bring them praise and put them into the good grace of their master.
The third servant is different. He is the focus of the story. This servant hid the money because he was afraid. He was unwilling to take the risk of putting this money to work, so he buried it. He was not a bad man. It seems he intended all along to give the great sum of money back to his master when he could have spent it on things for himself. You might be thinking, maybe this servant is prudent. What if the first two had lost the money in bad investing? Then this man might look like the smart one. At least he’d kept the master’s money safe.
The problem with this thinking, is forgetting the parable is about God’s kingdom—not our worldly economy, but the saving economics of God’s reign. The master places great wealth at the disposal of these servants, giving this away freely, generously. Just as God gave us our lives, freely, generously.
All three servants experience the generosity of this master: in return, two acted out of trust in their Lord, increasing what was given to them. One acted out of fear, prejudging his Lord as harsh and cunning, and brought back only what was given.
Two acted out of trust, one out of fear. This is the distinction we should hear in the story. This parable is about the danger of letting fear turn us inward and guiding our decisions. Jesus is teaching about the end times and telling a parable that warns us not to act out of fear. It’s a tall task.
Fear and end times go together like cookies and milk.
So the task is not to deny fear, but to decide what do we do with our fear? I forgot to count how many times we are told in the bible “fear not.” I meant to do that for us. It’s a lot. The angels say it, the prophets say it, and Jesus says it. That’s good enough for us. Yet, fearlessness is one of those things more easily said than done.
I’ve alway been a little bit glad when the scary movies of Halloween are over. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies. Maybe I’m too much of a scaredy cat. The movies where Jason relentlessly chases the kids out into the night creep me out, and the ones where the disturbing psychotic pops back to life just when you think he’s dead, means Rob is first to go upstairs at night.
Maybe my aversion to these movies is why I love that Geico commercial so much. The commercial where the teens are trying to run away from the killer…one kid says, maybe we should jump into the running car, and they all say no, let’s go hide behind the chainsaws. And the creepy guy rolls his eyes, as if to say, you dopes.
This commercial makes ridiculous fun of how absurd we are when we act out of fear.
Our Lord models for us a very different posture. Jesus is teaching his followers on the Mount of Olives. This place, the Mount of Olives, is a craggy, dry rocky mountain ridge barely a 2 mile walk east of Jerusalem, just across the Kidron Valley. It’s a place where the sun bears down on you, and the scraggly olive trees give little shade, their barely green leaves are covered in the desert dust. The Judean desert is just on the other side of the peak and you feel the heat. The Mount of Olives has for 3000 years been a gravesite for the Jewish people. Thousands and thousands of people are buried there—the tombs sit on top of the rocky ground, side by side, end to end. Sitting on the Mount of Olives, you can see the eastern wall of the great city of Jerusalem. The wall is so large, it is practically insurmountable and its gates are thick and guarded. Those inside the walls live in security. When you’re outside the gates, it is much easier to succumb to fear. Jesus is looking upon the city where he’ll be tried and sentenced to die, the city in which he’ll carry the cross to his death just outside its gates. There on the mountain side, amongst the graves of ancestors, outside the great and ominous city, Jesus is saying to his disciples, I must go to my death. Now what will you do? Have you known me your Lord as loving or harsh? Will you act out of fear or trust?
Trust is what Jesus hopes for. When we act out of fear, we hide, we conserve what we have and are reluctant to risk anything. Following me, Jesus says, doing the work of the kingdom, means taking a risk, not holding back, not hoarding your resources. God gave you everything as a gift. We are not to hide what we’ve been given but to use our wealth and gifts for the kingdom.
What do we do with our fear then? We offer it up to God, along with our worries.
My snarky sister used to tell my daughter who is a first-class worrier, “Hayley, why pray when you can worry?” There it is in a nutshell. We believe our worries save us from missteps, but what they really do is immobilize us. Fear prevents us from living into the generosity of God.
St. Paul uses more graceful, kingdom-like language than my sister when he is teaching the Thessalonians about the end times. But he is saying the same thing. You are people of the light, you are not to fear. He is calling Christians to show their courage, “to put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.” These things faith, love, and hope of salvation propel us forward and ward off fear.
Followers of Christ, this parable is saying so much more than, “Don’t bury your talents.” We are bidden to be investors in Christ’s kingdom. We are called to be brave, “the armor we wear is God’s armor of love”—it has nothing to do with self-protection or self-defense and everything to do with trust in God. “For we already know that God has destined us, not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Thanks be to God.