When I was a little girl, when my Dad came home from work, we’d spend time playing games together. One he introduced me to wasn’t really a game at all. He told me to stand in front of him with my back to him, and be stiff as a board. “Now,” he said, “stay very stiff and fall backwards. I’ll catch you,” he assured me. It took a little encouragement for me to give it a try, but I remember the exhilaration of the fall. As I fell backwards, my stomach lurched, there was that split second of panic, but then all was well. The fear fled, and there was that wonderful secure feeling when Dad caught me before I hit the floor. Of course, being a child, I immediately wanted to do it again.
I didn’t put two and two together back then, but its obvious now. The game is all about trust, about letting go and trusting that when you fall, those who care about you are going to catch you.
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 gospel we heard this morning is known as “The Parable of the Talents.” The word “talent” has a double meaning. Its original meaning in the Greek of the New Testament refers to a huge sum of money. In the ancient world, a talent was worth what an ordinary laborer earned over the course of 15 years. Thus, giving each of his servants one or more talents, the master in this story is entrusting them with a fortune.
The second meaning of the word “talent” results from one interpretation of this very story. As the master entrusts his servants with talents, so God entrusts each of us with abilities. “Talent” has thus come to mean ability or skill. We say that someone has a talent for music or cooking or business.
The story opens with an act of trust. The master is about to leave town on a journey. He entrusts his wealth to three servants. Each is given a different sum of money. Yet each is given a big amount – one talent or two or five. It’s clear that the master trusts each of his servants. He even hands over the money without any instructions.
How many of us have, at one time or another, said something like, “If I had a million dollars …” then gone on to describe what we’d do with the money. Of course, that money would not be a fortune entrusted to us by our employer or some millionaire. When it’s someone else’s money, the situation becomes complicated. The three servants find they each have a fortune in their possession, but not it’s their own money. What to do with it?
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.
I’m not sure, in this day and age, whose actions we would be more likely to condone. The stock market isn’t always reliable, and investing can be tricky. Burying valuables for safe-keeping was a common practice in ancient times, and the third servant probably saw that as far less risky than investing it, which was the course chosen by the other two. We can almost understand and approve of his caution.
After a long time, the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money. The third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly what he received, because this servant has simply buried the money in the ground. Then he reveals the reason for his action: fear of the master.
Fear is something that, like caution, we understand. We live in a frightened society, one where the daily news is filled with stories of violence and terrorism, of brutality and cruelty. Often the caution in our lives springs from our deep seated fears, our training that it’s better to be safe than sorry. This sounds like what the third servant is thinking. His trust in his master is zero, so he reduces his financial risk to zero. Yet, in doing this, he has reduced the possibility of profit so that it, too, is zero.
One might wonder, when hearing today’s parable, how the master would have responded to the first two servants if they had not brought in a profit. What if they had put the money at risk and come back empty handed? Jesus doesn’t tell us the answer to this, because profit and loss isn’t what He’s talking about. It isn’t the profit made by the first two servants that’s really important here.
In the parable what the master commends is not the servants’ profits, but their faithfulness. He does not commend the servant who produced five talents more than the one who produced two. Each receives the same commendation: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.” Each receives the same invitation: “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 in responding to the third servant, the master makes it clear that he would have accepted anything – even rock-bottom, savings-account interest – that was motivated by faith rather than fear. The third servant paints an ugly picture of a grasping master who demands success. Interestingly, what this servant gets for his trouble is exactly the rejection he fears.
Anyone listening to this parable in Jesus’ day would have known immediately who the master and servants represent. We too are each generously gifted, not by an earthly master, but by a loving heavenly Father, and we, too, face the challenge of what to do with all that God has given us.
In our society today, the chief problem is that we think what we have belongs entirely to us. We will tell others that we got what we have through our time, our talents, and our hard work. If we are called on to use any of our gifts in a way that challenges us, that calls on us to stretch ourselves and our boundaries, to take a risk, we are likely to balk. We want assurances, and we want to know, “What’s in it for me?”. We forget that everything we have, including life itself, is on loan to us from God.
And God’s loan to us comes with a demand, that we use what we have been given to His honour and glory. For us to use our gifts this way means we have to face our fears – the fear of accepting that what we have really belongs, not to us, but to God, the fear that if we generously give of ourselves and all that we have, investing in God’s creation, which includes other people, we will be left without anything.
Today’s parable is about trust. The master trusts his servants and acts on this trust. Two of the servants return the favor by acting out of trust rather than fear, and they come back to their master with one fortune stacked on top of another. They recognize generosity when they see it. The piles of money from their master reveal him to be a man who’s generous, who takes a risk, who accepts his servants and even honors them. Finding themselves at the receiving end of such outrageous trust, the servants feel empowered, and are willing to take risks of their own. The love their master has shown them overcomes their fear of failure. They realize that any master who treats his money managers in this open-handed way is more interested in them than in turning a profit.
How do we see God? Do we recognize Him as our loving generous, supportive Creator, or are we stingy with the gifts He has given us, afraid to use them as He wants us to do? We have our fears, the fear of losing control, of losing our material wealth, even of losing our lives, none of which are really ours to begin with. We need to remember we are the children of a gracious, kind, generous and loving Heavenly Father, whose only demand is that we use all He has given us to His honour and glory and the welfare of all people.
Jesus parable today turns upside down the standards and the fears of the world. It announces that, no matter what we think is the worst thing that can happen, which most often turns out to be our fear of losing everything, the truly worst thing is never risking anything, everything, for God. We need to realize that in the eyes of God, the fear that keeps a treasure in the ground is an act of atheism. The freedom that puts that treasure at risk – and may even result in its loss – that is an act of faith.
What happens when we let go of trying to own everything, claim everything, control everything? What happens when we surrender and fall backwards into God’s loving arms? The truth is, sometimes the things God asks of us and expects from us aren’t easy or pleasant, but He trust’s us to do them, and He is always there to help us. Mother Teresa once said, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.”
“The Parable of the Talents” is not about money or abilities. It’s a story about trust, a story about risk. Life is the same way. What turns out to be important is not money or abilities in themselves, but our decision to use them in ways that show our willingness to risk everything for and to trust totally in God. The central question about life is not “What did we accomplish?” but whether we learned to obey, whether we learned to love. God doesn’t call us to be successful. He calls us to be faithful.
Let us pray:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen