The Parable of the Talents, hauled out by preachers so often in sermons on stewardship, has always made me feel terribly guilty. Over and over again, a certain interpretation of its message has been hammered into my heart, as an inner voice intones: “It is a terrible sin to waste the gifts that God has given to you. If you have received much from God, then you are expected to give back even more.”
I can still remember sitting in the chapel service as a high school senior at my Episcopal prep school and feeling the 100-pound lead weights pile onto my skinny little shoulders, as the well-meaning preacher reminded us all that we were special, and that because of all of the gifts that had been showered upon us by parents, teachers, and even by God, God, in return, expected a great deal from us in our adult lives. God expected us to grow up to be leaders, to be movers and shakers in the community, to be important and influential people. The implication that rang in my ears that day was that, without extraordinary accomplishments, I stood before God as that third wicked, lazy, and worthless slave in our parable, bound for the outer darkness.
It is clearly the third servant with whom Matthew expects us all to identify. The first two servants are quickly commended and dismissed from the story. But the third servant’s surprisingly bold description of his master, as well as the master’s even more surprising condemnation of the third servant to the outer darkness, draw our attention to his plight.
“It’s not fair!” we fume. “The poor guy was afraid to invest the money, because he knew that his master was a greedy, fickle, and harsh absentee landlord, a powerful man who was quick to punish for mistakes and disloyalty. So of course he was careful with the property consigned to him. After all, just the one talent that he received was equal to a huge pot of gold, to a lifetime of earnings for the average worker. That is a lot of money, and a lot of responsibility!”
While we might be tempted to laugh at the poor man for going out into the yard with a shovel to bury the money, it is important to realize that burying money was the accepted financial practice in his day. Historians tell us that the first-century rabbis taught that the best way to guard money for someone was to bury it, and that if buried money was somehow lost, then the one who had buried it was not even liable for it, for he had done the prudent thing with it. So our careful servant, clearly the less brilliant of the three, since he had been confided the least amount of money, “according to his ability,” decides to follow the custom and to bury the small fortune that he has been given, saving himself from the possibility of messing up and losing the property of an obviously strict master. Who among us here today would not have likely done the same? Don’t some of you now wish that you had buried your retirement accounts in the backyard, instead of submitting them to the risks of the stock market? Imagine that tomorrow, in the middle of this financial crisis, your cranky boss gives you a million dollars to keep for her for a few years? Wouldn’t you be tempted to hide it away somewhere safe, or at least to do the conventional, accepted thing with it, rather than trying some risky scheme? Paralyzed by the terrible weight of the high expectations that others place upon us, or that we place upon ourselves, we often shuffle guiltily forward, reluctant to act, and waiting for God’s judgment to fall upon our failures. Our parable, then, is a wake-up call to all of us fearful and carefully hesitating human beings.
Moreover, Matthew places this parable in the middle of Jesus’ “eschatalogical discourse,” his vision of the end times, of his return, and of God’s judgment. In this parable, Jesus is trying to tell us something about how we are to spend the “waiting time” in which we live our lives here on earth. If we interpret the parable as an allegory, however, we end up with the unacceptable conclusion that the absentee landlord stands for God, for a cruel God who is to be feared above all things. In the same way, if we interpret the parable as an allegory in saying that the talents are symbols of our personal God-given gifts, such as friendliness, musical talent, or brains, then we are creating a nice little lesson about sharing and leadership that misses out on the whole “future” aspect of the parable. Instead, Jesus presents us in today’s parable with an image of different ways of claiming our future. Like the third servant, we naturally tend to act in safe, conventional ways, carefully trying to preserve Christ’s Good News to us in the face of uncertainty. Jesus calls us, instead, to act like the first two servants, claiming the future by freedom of action in the present, by venturing into precarious realms unprotected by predictable rules and guidelines.
Instead of looking to successful managers and influential public figures as our models of wise Christian guardianship of the future, we must look to people like Simon Peter and Andrew, who threw down their fishing nets and livelihoods to follow Jesus right on the spot. We must look to the Mary who anointed Jesus with exorbitantly expensive oil and wiped his feet with her hair. We must hold up saints like Joan of Arc, a teenager who confronted kings with her strange and incredible divine visions, and Martin Luther, a monk who let scripture break its bonds and speak in unsettling new ways. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are supposed to believe, not the great things that we can do with our own power, position, and brains, but the love of God that supports us on every side. Instead of holding over my head all of the great things that I was supposed to be in my adult life, the preacher at my high school should have made me tremble in my boots that I might forget to reflect God’s love in my life, or that I might always choose safety over freedom.
We like to pretend that we have some control over our lives, that we can bring about a safe and secure world through our own careful actions. We build strong brick houses on straight, perpendicular streets. We take six kinds of vitamins and set up burglar alarms and purchase piles of insurance. But we can’t protect ourselves from the uncertainties of a future that is beyond our grasp. The future, says our reading from Thessalonians, is like “a thief in the night,” sneaking up quietly upon us, awakening us from sleep like the labor pains of a pregnant woman. The only thing that we can control is how we spend the present moment. Do we clothe ourselves in Christ, acting with the freedom that only Christ can give us? Of do we hide ourselves away under heavy, home-made protective armor? Do we take the love that God showers upon us and spread it around, knowing that it will never dry up or run out? Or do we take that love and dig a hole and bury it in the ground, afraid of losing it?
Frederick Buechner writes of this parable that the third slave buries in the ground not just the pieces of money entrusted to him but the richest treasure that he has—that is, “the most alive part of himself.” By burying the treasure of the divine spark in his soul, the third slave is never able to become what he might have been. Where have we buried the life and freedom in our souls, I wonder? Under a rock of fear or shame? Under a need to conform to what society tells us is important? Under the kind of burdens that pile up so gradually that we don’t even know how heavy they have become? As individuals, and as a parish, it is perhaps time to take a look at what we have buried in the ground and to sweep away the dirt, letting the sunny rays of God’s validation and love shine upon it. That spark that makes us alive—we need to start spreading it around creatively, finding ways to let it grow and multiply and escape our careful, worried control. Do you have a wild idea for sharing our divine spark at St. Thomas? Then tell us about it, and we will finally know how we can grow. Are you longing to reach out to someone that you fear might turn you away? Then take the risk. Brainstorm the Good News! Claim the future!