This great parable that Jesus tells in the 25th chapter of Matthew is better understood if we first say what it is not about. For starters, this is not a story about hell. To bring home the gravity of his message, Jesus closes the parable with a powerful image about being thrown into the “outer darkness.” But to think this is a story about hell, or about eternal salvation, is missing the point.
Also, this passage is not about money. Jesus had a great deal to say about money. Money appears in many of his stories and teachings. And in this story, money does serve as the metaphor around which Jesus makes his point. But even though the Stewardship Committee may cringe to hear me say it one week away from Commitment Sunday, today’s story is not about money.
What this story is about is living. Living. And in the midst of living, how to think about things like taking a few risks, not letting fear overwhelm you, and avoiding regrets over the chances you never took.
In the story, a rich man leaves home to go on a long journey. Before he departs, he summons his slaves and entrusts his property to them. He gives each one a significant sum of money. A “talent” was the equivalent of a laborer’s daily wage—for the sum total of 15 years! And in this story the rich man gives one of his slaves five talents—an entire lifetime worth of income; to another he gives two talents, or thirty years’ wages, and to a third he gives one talent. He entrusts this money to them while he is away. In all three cases, the amount they are given is so significant that some linguists believe this story led to our modern understanding of the word “talent” as a God-given ability that one can use…for living.
The rich man departs on his journey, and the three slaves take what they have been given and go to work. The first slave invests his five talents and by the time the rich man returns he has doubled his money; he gives the master five more talents. The one who was given two also doubles his money, he comes back with two more. The third slave was afraid. He says to the rich man, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” The master blesses the first two, and puts them in charge of even more things, and he severely reprimands the third for being wicked and lazy. The hyperbole of casting him into outer darkness, again, is there to bring home the importance of the point Jesus is making.
Do not miss that there is real risk in this story. You don’t have to be a financial advisor to know that you’ve got to take some bold chances in order to double your money. The first two slaves in this story might very well have come back with nothing. And as the third slave tells us, there was good reason to try to avoid that. The master is described as harsh man—one worth fearing. But this is where it is important to remember that this story isn’t about money; the “master” Jesus is describing—God—is not looking for the best return on an investment. This story is about living. God is trying to help us live without fear and regret. God doesn’t need more money. What God wants is for us not to bury our talents in the earth.
It feels strange to talk about risk this week, as COVID cases reach new record highs. So I’m going to take a moment for the first time since spring to say in a sermon: wear your mask; wash your hands, stay at home or out of contact with other people as much as you can. This is not the time to throw caution to the wind and gather in your dining room with the friends you’ve been missing. The risk this story is talking about has nothing to do with COVID.
However, there is a kind of risky behavior that God invites us to, and there are still opportunities for it, even in this time of pandemic. I think I can describe that type of risk to you.
One week from today, we hope that most of you will have turned in your pledge for 2021, so this is going to be my once-a-year push for that annual campaign. I know some people don’t like to hear the pastor talk about money, but I know others just want some plain, straight talk about it. So, bear with me for a few moments.
Like most churches, Knox always receives a significant amount of our income in December. People are making their year-end decisions, and Advent and Christmas are times when we see greater worship attendance. Since the start of the pandemic, so many of you have been generous and faithful with your giving. Our giving has remained strong, and the needs around our community have grown exponentially, so we have been taking some risks. We don’t know what this unusual December will be like, and we don’t know what you will commit for 2021, but you have been generous so far, and the needs are great, so we have been taking some calculated risks. In addition to honoring all our existing mission commitments, we have given tens of thousands in extra gifts to help our mission partners feed people who are hungry, support the unemployed, and safely house the homeless. Many of you are concerned about the way the pandemic has amplified existing disparities in health and wealth. People of color in our community have been hit hardest by this pandemic. So, without knowing what December will bring, the Session has already shared with you their intention to add $50,000 to the Knox budget for a new Racial Justice Ministry.
Individuals are taking risks for Knox too. Four Knox families have pledged a total of $125,000, above their usual pledge, as a matching gift. The match encourages everyone to increase their pledge or make a pledge for the first time.
In next week’s Stewardship video, you’re going to hear an amazing story about risk from one Knox family. A couple of years ago, this young family found themselves constantly anxious about money, always wondering how there would be enough. So, they prayed about it, and they decided it was time to begin tithing! They tell an amazing story about taking the risk to trust God, and discovering that they had enough.
You’ve also got to watch this week’s video. Christine Carli talks about being a mentor in the Knox-Third Friendship Ministry. It’s a great example of these adults and kids who are taking the risk of a new friendship with someone who is different from them. Lives are being transformed. Christine’s amazing quote in that video is, “You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be present.” All the people who participate in this growing mentorship ministry have taken a risk. The relationships aren’t always easy. But I have yet to hear a story from someone who regrets having taken the risk.
I know Jana shared in a sermon not too long ago that when we read the Bible, a great question always worth asking is, “What is God up to in this story?” So, what is God up to in the Parable of the Talents? In telling us this story, Jesus wants to show us a God who is amazingly generous, and willing to risk. God gives out talents, gives them on amazing scale, and not without risk. In this story, we see the master hand out the talents and then step away from how they are used. God doesn’t micromanage how our talents are used or whether they are used at all; God frees us to take responsibility for our talents. And Jesus is clear that the responsibility is a great one—there are consequences if we fearfully take our talent and bury it in the earth.
Every time I hear this story, it reminds me of a sermon I once heard by a great preacher named Cleophus Larue, a professor at Princeton Seminary. He remarked that many of us hear this sermon, and we assume we are like the one who was given five talents, or at least the one who was given two. Especially if we live somewhat comfortable lives, we say things like, “I know am blessed, more probably than most; God has been good to me!” But the reality is: all of us know there are ways our lives are limited by fear. Our minds, he says, are factories of fear, turning out all the many ways in which things might not go well. We forget about grace, and irrationally worry that God is out to get us for some mistake we’ve made. We know that things could be better, but it’s hard to let go of our fears. Cleo Larue invites us to consider that we may very well be that third slave in the story. Often, we are tempted to believe that we are not as good or as smart or as faithful as the next person, so we’ve been tempted to bury our talents in the earth.
“Dig it up!” That’s what he says. Dig it up, before the master comes home. So many of the things we worry about don’t ever come to pass, and if we can let go of some of our fears, our generous God will reveal to us talents we had forgotten, or didn’t even know we had.
I wonder in what way God has prepared you for these challenging times, a time when your church needs you, and the world needs you. When so many of our neighbors are hungry and jobless, lonely and anxious, disconnected and in need of a friend, what talent has God given you for the living of these days? How will you use your talent?
Dig it up, my friends. Dig it up.