Sermon for November 16, 2014
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
When I was a curate we would begin Vestry meetings, as we do here, with some reflection on a reading, and at Grace Church it was always a passage from scripture. One Vestry meeting in April the Rector read the parable of the Five Talents that we have just heard. There was some silence, and then one older gentleman said, “er, Michael, I don’t mean to be cheeky, but this is rather hard to hear at tax time.” “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.” Today’s Collect that we prayed today at the beginning of the service asks God to help us with scripture, to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. This is work. And this particular passage needs it.
There’s a conventional reading that makes this a lesson about stewardship. We have this convenient word “talent,” from the Greek, talenta. A “talent” in Jesus’ day was a type of currency, so we can talk about the stewardship of our financial resources. And then we can take the Greek word and spin into the English word “talent” and think of it metaphorically. We’ve been given gifts of time, talent and treasure, skills, and resources, and we’re supposed to use them rather than bury them. So we make this into a metaphor with a moral lesson that is so well timed for parish stewardship.
This is fine as far as it goes, but on its own it is way too small an interpretation and diminishes the power and impact of this passage. And we have another problem with this parable: for many of us it offends our sense of justice. In the face of our present economic reality we wonder why those who have much seem to be getting bailed out while those who are struggling to get by on very little are threatened with losing even that. By one reading this parable would seem to justify such a reality. And the master whom the slave accuses of being a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed, may sound a bit too iconic of some powerful people today for our comfort.
Jesus’ Judgment Parables
We are reminded that we are still in that stretch of Jesus’ teachings to his closest followers that comes right before he enters Jerusalem for the last time. These are known as the Judgment Parables. This is in the same group of parables as the 10 bridesmaids we heard last week, and the sheep and the goats, which we will hear next week. Jesus is in his final days, teaching his closest followers. These parables speak to an in-between time. Last week we heard that the bridegroom was delayed. In today’s parable the master returns “after a long time” to settle accounts. So these parables are about a judgment pronounced on a world in a time where God is not absent, but God is “present in a way so mysterious [that] for all practical purposes, [it feels like] absence.” These parables address themselves to human behavior and human response to this hidden God.
What is the response that the parable is urging? The original hearers of the story would have struggled too. Charging interest violated the law of Moses. A talent was equal to several years’ wages. That all sounds like exploitation. So it would look like the servant who buried the talent was doing the honorable thing, refusing to use the master’s coin to further exploit people.
So once again, we see the work the parable is not to provide answers, but to shake us up to ask more questions. So getting to the heart of the matter, Jesus says “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; bur from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” There is a saying of Jesus very similar to this in the Gospel of Thomas, one of those texts that is part of the treasure trove of early Christian writings that turned up in the Egyptian desert near Nag Hammadi in 1945. The saying is so similar to what we just heard from Matthew that it is worth noting. Logion 41 from the Gospel of Thomas reads: “Jesus says, to the one who has something in hand, more will be given. To the one who is empty-handed, even that little bit will be taken away.”
For me, the appearance of this saying in both the critical time in Jesus’ ministry described in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Thomas reinforces that it is a wisdom teaching of Jesus. Wisdom teaching – in all faith traditions — is not moralizing. Rather, wisdom teaching seeks inner transformation. We are invited to see things differently, so that we can live into the fullness of God’s kingdom in the midst of our reality. Jesus offers a lesson that is so far off the tracks of what his hearers would identify as right and wrong that it blows the fuses on rational, linear thinking. It must be an invitation into a different way of seeing. It pushes us to ask: where is God and how do we feel God is at work in our world? It drives us to a spiritual awaking by upending the resources we’ve relied on. Conventional thinking won’t work.
In ancient wisdom that we come into this world with the seed of a soul, and our human life is the soil in which it will germinate and bear fruit. Cynthia Bourgeault, in her comments on the Gospel of Thomas, writes: “To the extent that we live courageously, consciously, and compassionately, we leave this earthly plane having brought forth that which is within us.. A seed that fails to germinate is useless. We are here to bear fruit! We are urgently requested to enter the dance of transformation — not just to save ourselves, but because creation itself is a force of energy of divine love, and our own human participation is required. “In bringing forth what is within us, we also allow Love to bring forth itself, its own essence.”
This is not just about where we place our money, or even our talents as we understand them. We have said many times that God doesn’t just use what we think of as our gifts; often what God can most work with is the offering of our weaknesses, our sorrows, and our failures. We can then enter into another person’s suffering in solidarity and compassion. It is about changing our thinking to invest our whole life, not just the parts we like best.
The key is living faithfully
The text tells us that this weenie servant who buried the talent had no faith in God, had decided this God was harsh, unfair, and unforgiving. He acted out of fear for what he thought God was like rather than what he trusted him to be. So he is judged out of his own mouth. He was entrusted with something, invited into a relationship of trust. He chooses instead to be more afraid of the master than he is of the risks.
In this is the in-between time, when God can often feel absent, the key is to live faithfully. “Faithfully,” is not the mental assent to a set of ideas. It doesn’t even mean to engage in good works. Faith is not a punishments-and-rewards exercise. Faith means to entrust our lives to God as God has entrusted us with what God has given us. All of it. Think of it this way. The master leaves and entrusts something – here called a “talent,” to the servants. While he is away, that talent is a manifestation of God. It is a piece of the divine. It is you. You are divine revelation. We are meant to live and give abundantly. If instead we hold onto our way too small idea of God, and tuck it away in a drawer, take it out and polish it from time to time, and put it away again, it is utterly useless.
God trusts us to break lose and rethink how we are to live together. We are invited to “live out of a trust relationship.” This goodness of God and love of God, however mysterious, is here in the midst of all that is happening in this very imperfect world, and we are here to reveal it, to embody it, to give our lives over to it. While we know that God comforts us in times of trouble, we are reminded that the life of faith is not meant to be a comfort zone. We are challenged to see through the eyes of the heart, to live our life as fully as possible by investing it, to venture something new as disciples seeking to live the Good News courageously, consciously, and compassionately. So I’d like to leave you a variation of the question “how would you live your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” And ask this: How will you live your life fully trusting in the love of God?”
- Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2002).
- Cynthia Bourgeault, on-line course on the Gospel of Thomas through www.SpiritualityandPractice.com