For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “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.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 25:14-30)
Talent. Talents. Talented. The dictionaries agree - this word comes into English through a single source: Matthew, chapter twenty-five, the 'Parable of the Talents'. We know from this parable that talents are not to be buried away or kept for our own use. Talents, so Jesus says, are for growing and sharing and using. At least, that is what centuries of stewardship sermons have taught us. This heritage is so formative of our language and assumptions that we lose contact with the original shock of the gospel. Over time the gospel becomes common sense wisdom. Over time it is no longer the daring word of God. But this is no common sense wisdom of the ages. Notice its brief opening: “For it is as if”. Be careful. Don’t go past these words too quickly. If one reads the story without taking seriously its purpose then it can easily sound like one more folk fable. You know, there were once three little pigs who set out to build houses to keep the wolf at bay. The first two built poorly, but the third built wisely. You recognize the pattern? It is still the formula of all those jokes with three characters: three arriving at the Pearly Gates, three jumping out of a plane, three wandering into a bar. It takes a minimum of three in order to get to the punch line. You need two in order to set up the standard response and prepare for the shock of the ending. That’s how this story of the talents intends to move. But to get to the shock that it holds we must pay heed to the beginning: “For it is as if”.
For what is as if? The phrase calls us to begin by reading backwards, back into the text. Back to the last parable, which begins “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” (25:1). Ah, so this parable of talents is like life in the kingdom of heaven: “The kingdom of heaven is as if ...” Reading back we notice more. We notice that the three chapters that precede the ‘Parable of the Talents’ describe at length Jesus’ bitter confrontation with those who are entrusted with the Torah - with the ways of God - and with the keys to the kingdom. Jesus is blunt in denouncing those who abuse the calling of carrying forward the ancient ways in a new time: “Woe to you”, he says, “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves and when others are going in, you stop them.” (23:13-14) When Jesus begins the ‘Parable of the Talents’ with the words “for it is as if” it is abundantly clear that he is talking about those who are called to steward the good news about living in the kingdom of heaven on earth. This story is aimed squarely at the scribes and pharisees. Jesus intends to shock them into waking up to the trouble that is closer than they know.
We are used to imagining that the scribes and pharisees are terribly legalistic, judgmental Jewish leaders. This is our rather convenient way of avoiding the obvious. Namely, that in this story Jesus speaks to the scribes and pharisees - the theologians and ministers, clergy and lay - of his own church. After all, the scribes and pharisees of the 1st Century are Jesus’ own people, Jesus’ fellow worshippers, members of the same religious tradition as Jesus. In the 21st Century the scribes and Pharisees look more like the Christian church than anybody else that I can see. Jesus aims this story squarely at the church. Notice that Jesus takes aim at a group - scribes and pharisees, theologians and ministers, clergy and lay. This parable is not primarily about what any individual scribe or Pharisee or minister or lay-person does with their talents. We are so accustomed to hearing of a man going on a journey and entrusting his property to three slaves that we make the false assumption that each of these slaves represents one of us or each of us. But Jesus intends that each of these slaves represents an entire community of Torah-keepers, of kingdom seekers, of discipled believers. This is a parable aimed at “all y’all” as a single disciple of Jesus. It is about us ... about us as a congregation and about us as a denomination and about us as a tradition of liberal, mainline Christianity in North America. It is about what we as a movement have done and are doing and will do with the huge talent that God has entrusted us with.
Notice not talents (plural) but talent (singular) that God has entrusted us with. Jesus intends that those who he aims the parable at will see themselves as the third slave ... and that slave is given a single talent to manage. Now a single talent is still a lot. When Jesus speaks of a talent he is referring not to God-given gifts of the mind or heart or hands. When Jesus talks about a talent he is talking about cash. A lot of cash. In 1st Century Palestine a talent is a unit of money worth fifteen years pay for a labourer. What is fifteen years pay for a plumber or a construction worker or a truck driver? Let’s say fifteen times fifty thousand dollars, making one talent equivalent to three quarters of a million dollars. The parable intends that we gasp at the size of the property that is entrusted to the three slaves: one is given nearly four million dollars, another receives a million and a half dollars and the third is handed three-quarters of a million. This is a long way from those Stewardship Sundays when the stewards of the church got the daring idea of giving every person leaving church a dollar bill or even a ten dollar bill from the church’s own account, with the summons to go and to use one’s talents to increase that investment and to bring it back doubled. Jesus has in mind something far more precious than a few hundred bucks. He has in mind something other than the abilities that the scribes and pharisees have. When Jesus portrays these talented slaves he says that they all share the same talent - though in differing amounts - and that this talent is the property of the master.
Do you glimpse what I am beginning to see? This is not a parable that is, first and foremost, about what we as individuals do with our “God-given talents.” When the parable becomes a common sense wisdom tale that teaches us not to bury our gifts then the text loses its power to awaken a sleeping church. But when the parable is a glass of ice water thrown in the face of the church the words recover their transforming energy. A church waking from its coma remembers that there is one precious talent that is given to the discipled community that is called into life by Jesus. This church is talented because it is gifted with the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand in the person of Jesus Christ. The gospel - the good news about life in the kingdom of heaven - is the church’s God-given talent . This gospel - not our fine abilities to make music or quilts, to cook or to speak, to make money or to solve complex problems - this gospel is what makes the church a talented people.
And Jesus is blunt. The gospel is not for hiding or burying for fear of getting it wrong. At the very least it is for banking with someone else, who will see that the good news increases at a predictable rate. The gospel is dynamic, it is meant to grow, to increase, to spread, to move. It is not static, not a museum piece, not to be hidden for fear of loss or abandoned as outdated and irrelevant. The gospel is the good news that in Christ we discover that God has power to save and to make new. The gospel increases when congregations learn to live in the kingdom where God makes room for the poor and forgotten and outcast (of every social class). The gospel grows when a congregation knows in its bones that it exists not for its own pleasure but for God’s enjoyment. When a congregation know this it throws itself into delighting God by trusting God. And a people who trust God learn that they no longer need to place their trust in those tempting idols named security and success and ease. This is the exciting adventure that we dare to believe that we are on together in this congregation. We are on a journey of rediscovering the power of the gospel to break open our life together as a church so that all manner of the last and least discover home at last. But we are not there yet. We cling to the ways of security and privacy, of fear and scarcity that we have learned so well.
The challenge is huge. Our presbytery awakes to the reality that, although its eastern border is Boundary Road, there are but four tiny and struggling United Church congregations east of Burrard Street (and north of 16th Ave). We have abandoned whole sections of the city, assuming that growing gospel communities is not possible, not necessary, not wanted. Here in the midst of the campus we know too well our struggle to find the nerve and will and vision to grow the message and spread the news beyond this mustard seed community. Even within our congregation we delight in the children in our midst but find that we are not single-minded in our commitment to raise up a generation of children who know the good news of God deep in their bones and hearts and minds. At each level - in the city, on the campus, with our children - we are shy, we hide the talent for fear, we expect that we do not have talent. But, of course, we have the one talent that is needed: we have the welcome news of great joy that has been entrusted to us. Slowly but surely it is dawning on us that the single-minded focus of our life together is this: that we will not get in the way of those who the God of the gospel intends to save and to liberate and to make new. We will welcome them and make room for them, spend time with them and meet Christ in them here and on this campus and across this city. This is our very reason for being as a church.
But what if it is too late for our congregation or our denomination or for our stream of mainline protestant Christianity in North America? What if the master is at the door and the talent has long since been hidden away in embarrassment? What if the church we know faces a long season of judgement on its habit of burying the God-given talent of the gospel? This may be the season that is now dawning upon us. We may be reaping the fruits of our collective labours. Jesus is a little too clear for our comfort: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (25:30) It is not a pleasant prospect. Which may explain much of the weeping and gnashing of teeth that can be heard throughout churches all over this continent. Folk in many churches are beginning to see that the end of the way we have been living is near at hand. It is a sad sight.
Except for one thing. The story does not end with Matthew chapter twenty-five. The text goes on to Matthew chapter twenty-six and seven and eight. There King Jesus is judged worthless and is thrown into the outer darkness of Golgotha, where weeping and gnashing of teeth accompanies all who are sentenced to the penalty of death. Jesus goes where all failures finally go. He joins them in the defeat of all that they have tried, and failed, to do. Jesus enters their loss. He goes ahead of our loss and failure. There, in the outer darkness, all who cry out for mercy discover that Christ is the first fruit of God’s kingdom come beyond all our failures and loss and grief. There he bears losers through their loss and lifts them up into his new life. The good news of God’s power to begin after all is lost saves us from despair just when we are sure that it has all come to an awful end. This gospel is the God-given talent that we will not hide for fear or forget in shame. We will tell it and we will sing it, we will live in it and we will die in it. Amen. Amen.
- Edwin Searcy
(University Hill Congregation, Vancouver, BC - November 17, 2002)