Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Return on Investments -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23A

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 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. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

                If you want to make money in life you have to invest it.  Putting your money in the stock market carries risks.  I know – we once had money invested in Enron (thankfully not too much)!  But, if you go and bury your money in the back yard out of fear that you might lose what you have, well, if you can remember where you buried the money, all you’ll have is what you started with.  If you plan to retire on that sum of money or pay for a child’s education, you will be out of luck.

                The parable of the “talents” is a story of investments – wise and not so wise.  It is also a story of world views – that of scarcity and that of abundance.  When we talk about a theology of abundance, we’re not talking about a prosperity doctrine.  It’s not a matter of trusting God for a new Mercedes or a luxury yacht.  Instead, it is a doctrine of expectation that God is present and active in the world and that we need not fear the world around us.  It is fear that distracts us from living with expectant hearts.  It is fear that keeps us from loving/embracing our neighbor.  It is fear that keeps us from dreaming dreams with God.  It is fear that keeps us from investing our lives in the work of God.  It is fear that leads us to hoard and bury our resources in the ground rather than investing them in the work of God.

                It is good to remember the contexts in which Matthew sets this parable.  First it is good to remember that in Matthew’s narrative it is Holy Week.  Jesus has entered the city in triumph and is moving toward a final encounter with the authorities. Jesus has been challenging the crowds to make choices – the realm of God or the realm of Caesar.  Where will the crowds invest their lives?

The second context is Matthew’s church, the recipients of this Gospel. They continue to wait for the return of Christ. Thus, this parable has a significant eschatological component. The King has gone away and left the realm in the hands of his servants. He has entrusted his servants with responsibilities in relation to the way they have handled previous responsibilities.  When the King returns, what will he find?

                Jesus describes three slaves (it is important to remember that there were many kinds of slaves in the ancient world and that it is difficult to compare with American version of slavery).  One receives five talents (a talent is the equivalent of up to twenty year’s wages for a typical worker); the second gets two and the third just one talent.  Even the last worker is entrusted with a significant sum of money. It could be both a boon and a bane that we use the word talent to speak of gifts/skills; while in the biblical context it is a form of money.  In the life of the church, however, gifts and skills might be as appropriate here as money. 

                When the king returns, he calls for an accounting of the resources given to each.  The slaves with five and two talents each doubled the investment.  The third slave, however, chose safety.  Instead of taking the money to the bank, where he could at least earn some interest (remember when a pass book savings account earned 5% interest?), this slave went out into the backyard and buried the money.  That way, when the king returned this slave wouldn’t get penalized for losing the funds entrusted to him.  Why would he do this?  Well, he lived in fear – fear of the king, whom he believed was an angry, capricious ruler.  Perhaps he read Jonathan Edwards’ famed sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God soon after receiving this bit of money.  The king, of course, knew that this servant embraced a theology of scarcity and so he didn’t waste too much on the servant’s fear-driven ideology. 

This parable, like the others around it should cause us a bit of disquiet.  The fearful servant gets cast into the darkness and experiences a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  In other words, there is judgment to be faced here.  Perhaps it is best to see this as a reminder that those who are entrusted with the job of oversight of the kings resources are held accountable for their use, even as we are held accountable for the gifts given to us.  Since this is stewardship season for many congregations -- this is a good reminder.  

With regard to the two servants who were entrusted with larger sums, Jesus puts it this way:  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (vs. 29).  Once again we must be careful in how we read the parable, because it could be read as saying that the poor get what they deserve.  When we read a verse like this we must always be careful that we don’t misread this as a form of retribution dogma – that riches are a sign of divine blessing for holiness.  We all know that wealth is not a necessary sign of holiness.  After all, Jesus made it clear that riches could be an impediment to entering the kingdom (Matthew 19:23-26).  So, the message here is one of accountability.  Those who are charged with the responsibility of leadership will be held accountable for their work.

This is an important point relating to Matthew’s context.  They are waiting for Jesus to return and restore Israel. They have begun to get restless due to the delay.  In telling this story Jesus (Matthew) addresses their concerns.  Living (as we do) in the interregnum (in between times), we should be faithful with the resources given to us. Rather than burying them, we should be investing them.  That is, we should look at life through the lens of abundance rather than scarcity.  Ron Allen and Clark Williamson put it this way:
Waiting is not a passive activity.  The enterprising and active followers of Jesus who spread the good news will enter their master’s joy.  For Matthew there is a time limit to this activity, but the function of the time limit should be to energize our activity. (Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentaryp. 85). 

As we await the coming of God’s realm in its fullness, we are not called upon to sit back and twiddle our thumbs.  We are called to be at work, sharing in the work of God in the world.  An abundance of resources have been provided to us.  We needn’t live in fear.  We just need to invest the resources in the work of God in the world.    


John McCauslin said...

This is one of those "the Kingdom is like..." parables, which means that we should be listening for what it has to say about living in the Kingdom. The parable ends on a sour note, with a warning apparently to those who who do not make generous use of the gifts of the Master (God) - they will be delivered to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. over the course of the parable its easy to forget that this is about the Kingdom, and not about money. The story in Luke (19:12-27) concludes instead with the master ordering the "slaughter" in his presence of all those who reject his kingship - thus making it hard for the hearer to overlook the linkage of the parable with the Kingdom.

So what do these "talents" have to do with the Kingdom, and what is the message about those who get more and those who get less? Are the three slaves already in the Kingdom? Is our presence in the Kingdom to some degree a result of the operation of our spiritual imagination, operating in this world in a transformative (trans-formative) way?

Are the talents the gifts from the master? Is the one being punished even though he is already in the Kingdom? Is his punishment caused by his terrible image of the Master (King)? Is the reward for the others due to their more generous or more trusting image of the Master (King)?

And what do we make of the call for punishment which concludes the parable - is punishment an unavoidable aspect of the Kingdom? How do we balance that notion with the teaching that God is ever and forever forgiving? Can we forfeit the gift of forgiveness?

These are hard questions. I look to the terrible perception of God held by the third slave as the key, the pivot on which the whole parable turns. This suggests to me that how we think of God is critical to how the Kingdom manifests itself in our world. Our image of God has consequences, and God is deeply concerned that we get it right - that if we reject the image of God as good and just and generous we reject the Kingdom - and we will have chosen to live in the outer darkness. For God it will be as if we have chosen death over life.

Wayne Sherrer said...

Reading this passage in the light of Matthew 6:24 (No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth) I believe we are only dealing with half a parable if we think it ends at verse 30. Mammon (or wealth) is an all-consuming master whose motto could very well be summarized as " to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." However, if the parable continues through verse 46, it becomes consistent with Jesus' pattern of upending conventional wisdom. The first two slaves and their master are the goats who have exploited the desperation of the poor (How do you imagine they achieved 100% returns on their entrusted riches?) and failed to recognize the image of God in those in need.

Despite his fear of the master, the third slave refused to exploit others as his fellow slaves did or to even collect interest (prohibited by Exodus 22:25) on the money entrusted to him. Furthermore, he accused his master of not actually doing anything to get his wealth: he didn’t plant, he didn’t distribute any of his wealth. The flow of money was only in one direction. The master responded by firing him.

But our God is a generous God, who lavishes love and mercy upon us all, who cares for us as a mother cares for her children, who sent his own Son to demonstrate the depth of God’s love for us and to bring about reconciliation us and God. To serve such a God as our master is to follow the example set forth by Jesus. It is to see the image of God in those we meet and to recognize the face of Jesus in them. It is to meet the needs of those who are hungry, thirsty or naked. It is to welcome the stranger and to visit those who are sick or in prison. It is to trust that God will continue to provide for us and to share with others from the abundance that our generous God has bestowed upon us. And as we do this, God, working in and through us, will establish the kingdom of heaven which has been promised to us.