“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.”
Hold on a second…Is Jesus actually preaching prosperity gospel, where the rich are wealthy because God wants them to be? This really an uncomfortable thought because they seem so out of character for our justice seeking, compassionate Christ. Honestly, those two sentences seem to counter everything we know and hold dear about Jesus and his ministry.
Theologian and writer Phyllis Tickle calls this parable “one of the most difficult and contrary passages in the whole canon.” She says the parable is “fraught with unattractive paradox.”
One unattractive paradox has to do with Jesus apparently encouraging people to use the ways of the world to increase their wealth and power, as seen in the actions of the first two labourers. The other unattractive paradox is surely the harsh criticism of the third labourer. God is supposed to be a God of grace and mercy, but in the case of the third labourer, he’s called names and then thrown “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”… a stunning lack of grace and mercy. And then, then there is the unattractive paradox that lies between what happens here and “blessed are the poor?” and the last shall be first.
This third labourer was just trying to keep the landowner’s money safe and honestly, burying it was the best way to do that. In his cautiousness, the labourer also ended up on the wrong side of the landowner’s temper ensuring that he’d not be trusted with anything, talents or otherwise, in the future.
All of this unexpected paradox reminded me of story that I read when I was working on my research for this reflection… let me tell it.
A man went each day to his back yard and uncovered the money he had buried I the ground. He would then put the money back in the hold and cover it with dirt again. To his shock and disappointment, on this particular day, he dug up the ground in the special spot and found that his money was gone! Shocked, he cried out in dismay! His neighbor, hearing the man’s distress, came over to help out right away.
When the neighbour heard the man’s story, dropped his head, and while walking away said, “what’s the big deal anyway? You weren’t using the money for anything good? Maybe whoever got it will use it for some good!”
The parable of the talents is particularly interesting because it both about money and is about so much more than money. A talent in Biblical times, this is your cocktail party trivia moment, was a large amount of money. One talent was approximately the amount an average labourer would make in a year. It was way more than most of Jesus’ average listeners could imagine having all at one time.
So, knowing this you can imagine the importance of the gift and opportunity the land owner was giving these three workers. Once they had the money in their hands, it was up to the labourers to decide what to do with this new opportunity: guard it and keep it until the owner returned. Or they could take a chance, risking the gift in the hopes of multiplying it. They could play it safe and bury it or they could be brave and take the risk.
I am pretty sure that Financial Advisor was not one of Jesus’ official titles, and this is not a parable that ends with a sound investment strategy. If that had been Jesus’ aim, he would have been promoting some pretty high-risk financial maneuvering. But I am not convinced that Jesus is trying to increase anyone’s financial portfolio.
Here’s the moment in the reflection where I encourage you to shift away from thinking about talents as money and start thinking of the things Jesus is talking about as, well, talents – the things we are good at, the gifts and skills that we have fostered and developed either for work or for pleasure. Things like playing instruments, singing, doing complicated math, being a leader, intentional listening, even praying.
If we interpret talents as being gifts and skills, then it sounds like Jesus is telling us that we should be putting our talents to good use. Don’t hide them, or bury them… figuratively speaking, of course. We’ve developed these talents for a reason, and Jesus is reminding us that we are to us our gifts to God’s ministry in this community and world.
What’s the saying about becoming proficient in a skill or talent? It takes 10, 000 hours of practice. So it makes no sense to bury the ability hoping that it might somehow miraculously develop on its own. We need to use them, just like we need to use the muscles of our bodies. Practice and usage allows us to improve. The more I preach, the better I get at fine tuning my style, and my skills get better (fingers crossed). Megan and Valdine haven’t achieved the level of musical skill they have without hours of practice and study – some of it likely mind numbingly boring. But through their dedication to practice, they have not only honed their skill but are then able to share it with the rest of us.
And you know that I am going to remind you that the same goes for you. When you use those skills, you’ve been given they begin to grow.
Now, this is the more comfortable interpretation of what Jesus might have been talking about. More comfortable mostly because we as a church are bad at talking about money from the pulpit. But what if we wander for a bit into the more uncomfortable place where talents are indeed wages earned, and Jesus is indeed talking about money. When we shift our focus back to that, we see that Jesus isn’t actually giving us advice to invest our wages in high-risk stocks, but rather is encouraging us to make use of it doing the risky work of Christ’s ministry in the world.
There are so many ministries, outreach organizations, charities and churches asking us to consider donating our talents to their work in the world. Sometimes, it is overwhelming the number of asks. It becomes even more overwhelming when we begin to wonder if the donations we make if the work of the organization is actually making a difference in the world. We know that the money is going to be used, but we wonder if they will be used to pay the CEO and administration costs or is it actually almost fully going to where it is needed.
When you send money to Rock Lake Camp or if we give money to support a youth retreat do you ever wonder: “is this going to make a difference in their lives?” What about when we donate to the West Broadway or the Food Bank, do you ever wonder: is this an expression of God’s love? Will this make a difference for the people who need it?” What about when we give to Westworth? We just finished our Stewardship campaign… but as you filled out the form with your plans for the next year did you find yourself wondering: Is Westworth making a difference in people’s lives? Is Westworth making a difference in my life?” Can you and would you say that God’s presence is very much in this place? Are we reaching out into the world?
Those are big questions, and likely not always easy to answer. Making a difference in a life can look take many different forms, and not all of them are easily named. Taking our talents (financial and skill based) and investing them in the church is risky business. Spending the money instead of tucking it away in mediocrely earning investments is risky because we have no idea if it will increase or if we will lose it all. We can’t know… and should that keep us from trying. And this is where the parable leads us… our talents will be multiplied in the impact they have on the world.
So, while Jesus’ parable may have been about money, it was about more than money. It’s about the decisions we make with the gifts that we have. It’s about talents, time, skills, resources. It’s about life itself – received as a gift from God and spent, despite the risk, for bringing about God’s dreams in the world.
I want to end with a story from Robert Fulghum (All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten). Fulghum was attending an institute in Greece on healing the wounds of war. The speaker was Dr. Alexander Papaderos, a Doctor of Philosophy, a teacher, and a politician.
Fulghum writes: At the last session on the last morning of a two week seminar on Greek culture, led by intellectuals and experts in their fields who were recruited by Papaderos from across Greece, Papaderos rose from his chair at the back of the room, and walked to the front where he stood in the bright Greek sunlight of an open window and looked out.
He turned and made the ritual gesture: ‘are there any questions?’ Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence.
“No questions?” Papaderos swept the room with his eyes. So, I asked., ‘Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?’
The usual laughter followed, and people stirred to go. Papaderos held up his hand, and stilled the room, and looked at me for a long time. Asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was, said, ‘I will answer your question.’
Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he took out a leather billfold, and fished out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter. And what he said went like this:
‘When I was a small child, during the war we were very poor, and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.
I kept the little mirror and as I went about growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light – truth, understanding, knowledge – is there and it will only shine in many unlit places if I reflect it.
I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the shadowed places of this world – into the hurting hearts of people and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’
And then he took his small mirror, and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face, and onto my hands folded on the desk.”
May our lives, too, become like fragments of a mirror, reflecting the love and compassion of God not just for ourselves but for this world. May God give us the courage to use, to risk, and to multiply the gifts we have been given.
May it be so. Amen.