Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
16 November 2008
In the name of the God who loves us, trusts us, and takes a risk in us.
This text is a relatively straight-forward, mostly allegorical text. And in the way that the Gospel tends to do, it certainly re-contextualizes itself today. A man – Jesus – summons his slaves, or most trusted servants – followers – while he goes on a journey – post-Ascension. Each of these servants was given a sum of money according to his ability. According to my Bible’s footnotes, a talent was about fifteen years' worth of wages. Some Bibles give a unit of weight, but they don’t say what material was being measured in that weight.
While the Greek word δοῦλος when directly translated means slave, our proximity to the American slave trade does not allow us to hear the fullness of that word; many slaves were quite wealthy and educated, and some were voluntarily in service. For that reason, I will deviate from the NRSV’s “slaves” and use “servants.” It is a different word, but that the slaves in Matthew’s context were extremely trusted helps us to better hear Jesus’s parable.
These servants have different abilities. One is given ten talents, another five, and finally one one. After giving away these talents, the man – Jesus – leaves. The two servants who had been given more than one talent immediately went and doubled what they’d been given. The servant who had only gotten one talent went and buried it. After a long while, the master returns, and he wants to settle accounts with these men, to whom he has entrusted some of his own money.
The two who had taken a risk and made a gain were rewarded. They had been able to take care of a few things, so he is going to put them in charge of more things. When he gets to the servant who had buried the talent, however, things are different. The servant tells of his fear for the master, who reaps where he has not sown, and is a harsh man. The master will have none of it. He tells the servant that if he were so afraid, he should have not buried the funds, but deposited it into some kind of account that would earn some kind of interest. If that had happened, the master would’ve at least gotten something more that was still his.
Rather than rewarding this servant, he takes the one talent from him and gives it to the servant with ten talents, thus putting that servant in charge of even more things. The concluding verses of this passage are a contextual barb that Matthew included in his narrative. The Matthian church was largely Jewish. However, Matthew’s church had been expelled from the synagogues for following the rogue rabbi from Galilee who claimed to be God and human.
Upon first reading, verse twenty-nine appears rather cryptic. What Matthew is saying with “Those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” is that being born Jewish doesn’t get you in. In verse thirty, Matthew is giving a stark warning to the Jews who have expelled the Christians from the synagogues. These two verses are neither the crux of the next, nor are they to be used as a basis for anti-Semitism. Matthew was a very angry writer who was mad about how early Christians were treated by their forbearers in the monotheistic faith.
On November 15, 2008 the Troy Trojans took on the Louisiana State Bayou Bengals. I don’t know that anyone expected Troy to win. It was LSU’s homecoming game, so LSU clearly didn’t expect the Trojans to win. The Trojans, yes, were handsomely rewarded for coming to Baton Rouge with the knowledge that LSU was looking for whipping boys. Both teams played their all. Both teams took a risk: Troy was playing a nationally ranked SEC team that could blow them out of the water. LSU was playing a team that had one before given them a run for their money and consistently performed well against major conference schools.
Early in the first quarter the Trojans scored. LSU worked in a field goal while the Trojans amassed another sevent points by the half. Going into the fourth quarter the score was still 31-10 in Troy’s favor. And in the fourth quarter LSU went on to score another thirty points, with the final being 40-31, LSU. Troy lost. Maybe Troy choked. But Troy took the risk of playing the game, knowing that in order to get better they have to play better people, knowing that playing it safe by just playing schools with smaller programs doesn’t help them at all.
I was at the game. And when the clock read 0:00, I was furious. I had been talked into coming to the game that morning, despite my plans all week to stay in Troy and work on massive term papers. I had just spent three and a half hours of my life freezing; I hadn’t brought enough blankets, and at times my entire upper body would shiver while my teeth chattered as though I were a cartoon character. I felt like I had wasted my time and that I should’ve stayed in the comfort and safety of my dorm room working on my papers. But I decided that being in community with people I knew and didn’t know was more important. But being in community is taking a risk: it can be messy, particularly if there are people you don’t know very well being a part of the community…particularly if there are people who just make you uncomfortable or want to shout at them. I also took a risk about my papers’ getting finished on time.
The crux of this very simple passage from Matthew is the three servants, what is given to them, and what they do with it. The disciples, the members of the Early Church, and those who today submit to the cruciform life of following Jesus represent the servants. God has given us talents for use to glorify God and grow the Kin-dom. More importantly, we have been given the Good News – which far exceeds any measure of weight or monetary value. I think that the message of this text is that rather than keeping what God has given us safe in our naves and pulpits, we are supposed to take risks to live our baptismal vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
And living that vow is a risk. Christ’s teaching were and are countercultural and counterintuitive, but the servants who took the risk are the ones who are rewarded. If we read this passage carefully we notice that the master doesn’t care so much about the amount that the other servants have gained, but that they tried. Had the markets been not so good and they lost money, I think that the master still would’ve been pleased at their efforts to increase his property and possessions. What displeases the Master though, is the slave who doesn’t try and is paralyzed by fear of the master…or is just lazy and doesn’t want to put any effort into making something happen.
I think our master is the same way: God doesn’t care about how much “return” we get on God’s “investment” in us, to use harsh, dehumanized terms. God cares that we take to the world the Good News we’ve heard. And when we take to the world, there will be times that nothing happens, but that’s not why Matthew included this parable about the Kin-dom. Although there will be times we get no response to our proclamation of the Gospel outside the walls of our churches, there will be times that we do. And for us to focus more on the potential bad thus preventing our doing anything is poor stewardship of the life – both now and later – that God has given us. To not take a risk in sharing the Gospel, in all the variety of ways that can happen, is to ignore the risk God is taking in us.
On the ride to LSU that cold Saturday, I wasn’t writing on papers, but I did get to do some research for them. One of my sources was John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart, which I’d read in high school and summarily dismissed once I started taking courses in history that dealt with the societal evolution and changes of gender. While some paragraphs made my eyes pop out of my head, there are some very good things to be taken from the book. I leave you with this paragraph to consider the risk God has taken in us, and the risks we’ve been invited to take as part of following I AM.
It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases. Far from it. Most of the time, he actually lets the odds stack up against him. Against Golaith, a seasoned solder and a trained killer, he sends…a freckle-faced little shepherd kid with a slingshot. Most commanders going into battle want as many infantry as they can get. God cuts Gideon’s army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred. The he equips the ragtag little band that’s left with torches and watering pots. It’s not just a battle or two that God takes changes with, either. Have you thought about his handling of the gospel? God needs to get a message out to the human race, without which they will perish…forever. What’s the plan? First, he starts with the most unlikely group ever: a couple of prostitues, a few fishermen with no better than a second-grade education, a tax collector. Then he passes the ball to us. Unbelievable.
God has passed the ball to us, and it is unbelievable. God has taken a risk in us, the followers of the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life…and God asks us to take risks in sharing God’s love. Amen.