If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, November 14, 2011

Risky Business: Matthew 25:14-30

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubard, Oregon on Sunday, November 13, 2010.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and redeemer.

Use 'em or lose 'em. That would make a nice title for a sermon based on the traditional interpretation of the Parable of the Talents. God has given each of us talents, like singing, teaching, or juggling. We should use these talents and not hide or hoard them. If we don’t use and develop our talents, we will lose them. The theme of this sermon might be: Don’t waste your talents. That would make a great sermon. But, that interpretation is based upon a misconception of the word "talents" in the biblical text.

In our parable a talent or talanta was a weight measurement that came to designate a monetary unit of gold or silver, like five bucks or a thousand smackeroos. But, the confusion is understandable in that our word “talent,” meaning special abilities, is actually derived from this word for a measurement of money! So, to clear up this confusion we should understand that in Jesus’ parable the master's slaves were given particular amounts of money not the ability to play piano or wiggle their ears. It's what they did with their amount of money, not their gifts or skills, which is the heart of the story. But, we will still need to figure out what the money represents.

Jesus' parable of the talents is nestled among a group of texts about the end of the age. This parable is told right before Jesus walks head on into the cross. It's a word to those who stand in that time before the end and count the cost of following Christ. The end of the age may not be breathing down our necks, but we seek to stand true to Jesus in the apocalyptic times of a worldwide economic crisis, housing market collapse, bank failures, the Occupy Wall Street movement, a staggering 14 trillion dollar deficit, and calls for fiscal conservatism. Standing where we are, the parable of the talents may be heard with new ears.

Listen. Jesus compares the coming reign of God with a well-to-do man who goes off on a journey. Maybe he's going on a long vacation in the Bahamas. With bags packed and ticket in hand, he calls his servants together near the spiral staircase. He opens a briefcase filled with crisp new bills and says to his servants, "I don't trust anyone with my money, except you." So, he gives one servant five million bucks, another servant two million, and the third servant one million in cold, hard cash. The boss says "goodbye," grabs his bags, steps inside his limo, and heads off for the airport.

The servant with the five million hops in his sports car and zooms off to Vegas. With a showgirl on each arm and a big toothy grin on his kisser, he puts five million worth of chips down on number twelve at the roulette wheel. Beads of sweat form on his brow as the ball is dropped in the spinning roulette. Clickety-clack, the ball spins around the numbers. "Number 12!" the caller shots. Five million more is added to his boss' money.

The servant with the two million invests it in the stock market. I think he bought stock in that novelty company which makes whoopee cushions and plastic barf. I'm not sure. Surprise, surprise, she makes another two million smackers.

The third servant immediately runs out, rents a safety deposit box with his own money, bolts it to the floor, tosses in the one mill, shuts the door, twirls the combination, sits on his bed and wipes his brow with a "Whew!"

Sometime later the boss returns from the Bahamas. He kicks his feet up on his large wood desk, lights a fat Cuban cigar, and calls his servants into his office over the intercom. He asks them for an accounting of his money. The guy entrusted with the five million plops down ten million on the hand carved coffee table. His boss says, "Well done, my good servant. I knew I could trust you with my money. So, now I trust you to be in charge of all my investments. Join me at my party later. Dude, we gonna get down tonight!"

The second servant hands over four million, double what she had been given. "Well done, my good servant. You have proven yourself more than trustworthy. You can be in charge of my estate. See you at the partaaay! Booyah!"

The third servant steps forward, hangs his head, and nervously squeeks, "Boss, I knew you were a hard-nosed businessman, a penny-pincher who expects to profit without doing any work. I was scared stiff. So, I went out and rented a sturdy safe, bolted it to the floor, and kept your money safe and sound. Here it is, every last cent." The boss slaps the money out of his hand and growls, "You lazy-good-for-nothin'-so-and-so, if you knew I was a penny pincher, who wants profit without perspiration, then why, in heaven's name, didn't you at least invest my money so it would have gotten some interest? Give your million to my first servant. I guess, the rich are just gonna get richer and the poor are gonna get poorer. You worthless you-know-what, you can get the blankety-blank out of here! You're fired! Throw the bum out in the alley with the other rats, so they can grind their teeth together! No party chance, Mr. Smarty pants!"

Now, ain't that an uplifting parable?! Maybe if you're a free market capitalist, a CEO of a large bank, a Wall Street investor, or a 1 percenter. Then, this parable might be understood to be about the cutthroat world of economics and the virtue of investing over saving. Jesus saves. But, his disciples….they invest! Is that what this parable is all about?

On the surface this parable is a bit troubling. First, the story is drawn from an unjust, exploitive, oppressive socio-economic system. It is a patron-client system that keeps the patron wealthy and the client impoverished. The patron controls the goods and its profits. The client is a steward of the patron’s property and makes money for him, enough money to extract a small wage for their services. This exploitive economic system was not only the system of ancient agrarian societies in the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day, but is still practiced throughout so-called Third World countries today. It is a system whereby the minority rich get richer off the backs of the majority poor, who get poorer. Why in this world would Jesus use this kind of economic system to speak about kingdom values? I’ll let you answer that one for yourselves.

Second, if the parable is an allegory and the wealthy patron in this parable represents God or Jesus, then he is not a very honorable character, to say the least. As a matter of fact, he is downright nasty. In most early Jewish parables references to an authority figure like a master, king, or father represent God. If the wealthy master in this parable is God or Jesus, then we can do without that kind of master. Is this a caricature of the way some Pharisees viewed God, as a harsh taskmaster? Is it the way some of us view God? Why would Jesus tell a parable about a God who not only benefits from an exploitive economic system, but treats his servants unjustly, unequally, and with a nasty demeanor? I’ll also let you answer that one for yourselves.

Even with these difficulties with the parable, we should realize that this parable isn't about money any more than it is about special abilities. What is the wealth God has placed in our hands? What do the talents represent? The talents represent the “cash of the kingdom”----the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, the truths of God’s reign, possibly the teachings of Jesus, the good news of liberation and hope, the message of God's love for all humanity, grace and forgiveness, healing and hope. These are the talents Jesus left with us before going on a long journey. We have been left with his goods. Here we are today, while the master is away, with our different portions of the kingdom's cash in our hands. The crucial question for us to ask ourselves is: What are we going to do with the divine dough we have been entrusted with?

Traditionally in these types of ancient stories with three characters, the last character is the hero, like in the story of the Good Samaritan. Let’s see if this pattern repeats itself. In the parable the third servant went out, dug a hole, and buried his talent, which was not a bad thing to do. It was the same as putting it in a safety deposit box at the bank. There were no banks in the ancient world. Treasures were often buried in clay pots in the ground. The cash was safe and secure, as snug as a bug in a rug. This servant was protecting his master's money from being lost or stolen. It wasn't his money. To lose it would be a crying shame. So, it's better to be safe than sorry. “Safe,” get it?

The last servant, who seemed to have done the right thing with his money, probably represents the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They saw their role as preservers and protectors of the Torah or Law safeguarding Israel’s faith. They were preoccupied with securing and conserving its truths, but forgot to practice grace and mercy. In their inflexibility with the Law they shut others out of the kingdom of heaven.
Even if the last servant represents the Pharisees, don’t you wonder why he earned the label "worthless" and was given such hell by his master? I mean, give the guy a break. He kept his master’s money safe. At least give him that much! I'll bet this guy was dependable and trustworthy. When it came to money he was probably thrifty, prudent, a penny-pincher, a real spend-thrift, a real…. Mennonite. If you loaned him anything you got it back just like you gave it to him. You could have him hold your money and he wouldn't be tempted to buy lottery tickets, that's for sure. The third servant was nothing like the third servant in the Gospel of the Hebrews who squandered his master’s money on “harlots and flute girls.” He must have been very cautious about his life. No going out on a limb. No risk taking, especially with somebody else’s money!

I imagine this third servant was a regular churchgoer. A chairman of the “bored” at the First United Safe and Doctrinally Sound Haven of Rest Church of the Secure Saints. The church of the third servant sees God as a hard-nosed Judge, who will lay down the law on judgment day. So, they're keeping the faith safe and secure for when Jesus comes back. That means burying it within the four walls of the church building. They wouldn't want to share their faith with their neighbors. They might risk embarrassment, being taken for religious kooks, or worse yet, be labeled a…a…Christian!

Missions and outreach ministries are too risky. You take a chance when you invest the cash of the kingdom in the marketplace of the world. Everything out there in the world isn't black and white. If you take your faith into the public arena, it's always a gamble. You risk compromising the faith, diluting it, or getting it mixed up with all those pagan cultures out there and losing it all together. And at First church they're a bit leery of newcomers, particularly those who don't have the right upbringing, family background, or last name. "We wouldn't want to risk our heritage with those outsiders," chant the members of First Church of the Safe and Secure.
"We believe the faith ought to be kept safe and sound," confess the members of the church of the third servant. Their crusade is to conserve and preserve. "Caution" is branded on their wallets and purses. Use your resources only on a sure thing. "Let's do things the way we've always done them," is their motto. They all have bumper stickers that say, “But, we’ve never done it that way before.” There’s is the safe approach. "Take no risks with the treasures God has given us," is engraved on a dusty old plaque hanging in the foyer.

At First Church of the Safe and Secure they're as traditional as a savings account and as orthodox as the day is long. They dot the "i's" and cross the "t's" on their confession of faith. They hold in their hands the faith once and for all times delivered to the saints and will hand it back to God just as they received it. The teachings of Jesus, the treasures of the kingdom are locked up in the safe of their memories with little risk of being spent, invested, or gambled on within this slot machine world. They don’t try anything risky or what might stir up the scrupulous, fault-finding members the Church of the Safe and Secure. For that they should be commended. Right?

We definitely shouldn't commend the first two servants. Should we? Of course not. They gambled with the master's money. There were no guarantees that the investment of their talents in the marketplace was going to double. They could have lost it all. I'll bet those two servants were risk takers, the kind of people who make us feel uneasy. They're always ready to try something new, take a dare, go on some crazy new adventure. Don't they know their foolhardy, devil-may-care approach to life may put them at risk?

I can just imagine the kind of church the first two servants attend; the Church of Risky Business. They recklessly try new ways to communicate the gospel to a new generation. Forms of worship, styles of music, their language about God and faith are viewed as flexible as bungee cords. To them preserving the faith sounds like pickling it, jarring it, freeze-drying it, and putting it on a shelf to collect dust. Their confession is simple: "Love God with everything you are. And while you're at it, love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Everything else will fall in place."

They're willing to drop the ball of their faith into the roulette wheel of a spinning world. Go where the action is. Live where the living is. And let the dead bury their own dead. At this church the members invest themselves and their faith without the surety of reward. Who knows if living faithfully will pay off? They're not out for stars in their crowns. They invest the master’s bucks for the master's benefit.

At this church they avoid investing their resources and energies in the safety and security of their own banks and buildings. Neither do they bury the divine dough in the deep hole of their own personal needs. For some people that can be a mighty deep hole. At the Church of Risky Business, where the first two servants attend, the cash of the kingdom is invested in the uncertain stock market of the world. Joyfully welcoming the outsider. Chancing redemptive resources on those who can't pay back one red cent. Visiting prisoners, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, without requiring a sermon for soup. Forgiving people when they haven’t done a single thing to earn their forgiveness. Banking on the message of a Crucified Criminal. A bright banner hangs in the sanctuary of the Church of Risky Business. Gold letters underneath a rough cross shout, "Those who save their lives will lose them. Those who give their lives away will save them."

So, when the Master returns from a long journey, which servants do you think will be commended? Let's dare a guess. Those who bury the divine dough? Or those who take a chance and bank on the risky business of investing the kingdom's cash in the messy marketplace of the world? Can't you just see the Master behind the banquet table inviting all his dicey disciples to grab a chair and drink a toast. And can't you just hear him saying, "Let’s drink to all my good and faithful servants. Well done. Now, it’s time to partaaaaay!"

There is more light and truth and joy yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word!

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