November 19, 2017, What Are You Going to Do with That? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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So today we read the story we call “The Parable of the Talents.” And maybe the first thing to say about this story is to explain what a talent is. In English, a talent is an ability, a special ability, like having a beautiful singing voice or an ability to fix things or a head for mathematical ideas. It’s usually something we say about other people – rather than ourselves – because we think of it as something extra, a gift. “I’m not talented,” people say, “I just like to sing, or I just like to noodle around with broken stuff, or I just enjoy playing with numbers. But I’m not really talented.” That’s how we think about the word talent, I think, mostly, so that we might think Jesus’ Parable of the Talents is a story to encourage us not to be shy about using our natural abilities – if we have any.
But actually, that’s not what Jesus was talking about. Our English word, talent, was borrowed from the Greek word talanton, but as words do, the meaning has changed. The original word was actually a measure of weight. A talanton was a big, heavy chunk of something valuable – a talent of gold or silver or copper – that was worth a very large amount. The footnote in my Bible says that one talent would have been worth about 20 years wages for an average working man. Depending on where you were in the ancient world, and what kind of metal you had a talent of, the value of a talent could vary quite a bit, but it was always worth a considerable sum. So clearly, each of the servants in the story was entrusted with something enormously valuable, even servant number three with his one talent. So that’s what a talent is, in the world of this story, a hefty hunk of treasure.
And the second thing we have to know to hear this parable correctly is this – to remember who Jesus was telling the story to. Throughout his ministry, Jesus reached out to everyone, not just Jews but the Canaanite woman whose daughter was sick, the Roman centurion whose servant was dying – anyone in need. But he always directed his ministry primarily to his Jewish brothers and sisters. Remember, he told the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
So when Jesus tells a story about a Master who entrusts his servants with a treasure of immense worth, we can be sure that first of all he is talking about the treasure that was entrusted to the house of Israel. They had been entrusted with the riches of the written word, the writings of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms of King David. They had been entrusted with a Law unlike any of the laws of the surrounding nations, a law of justice tempered with mercy. They had been entrusted with the traditions of their worship and the glory of the Temple, constructed under the guidance of God himself. God had made his servant Israel into a nation for himself, a holy nation, and set them in the land he promised to their ancestor Abraham. And if all that were not enough, he set his own Presence among them, in the Most Holy Place within the Temple. A hefty hunk of treasure. An immeasurable wealth of precious gifts.
And, like the talents given to the servants in the parable, that wealth of gifts was intended from the very beginning to multiply and bear interest. When God first called Abraham, the father of all Jews, and promised him these treasures, he said, “I am going to make you a great nation, and I am going to make your name great, and I am going to pour so many blessings out on you that you will become a blessing, so that all the families of the whole earth will be blessed through you.” The treasures of Israel were intended from the very beginning to pay dividends throughout the whole earth. And yet, when Jesus told a story comparing a Pharisee – an upstanding, righteous, Jew – to a miserable tax collector, here’s the picture he drew of him: standing boldly before the altar of God, saying, “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like other men – not like that miserable tax collector back there, for instance. I thank you that I keep your law perfectly.”
Living lives of religious purity and isolation, with careful and rigorous obedience to the Law, the Pharisees and Chief Priests and scholars had buried the treasure of Israel safely away, so safely that they had kept it out of the reach of the Gentiles, those unclean peoples of the earth – and even out of the reach of their own brothers and sisters, the multitudes of the poor and the sick and the troubled children of Israel. That’s why Jesus cried out to the teachers of the Law, “Woe to you! You load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves don’t even lift a finger to help!” The treasure of God’s chosen nation, the treasure of a God who came to his people in love, to heal and to save; that treasure had been buried away, and the blessing that should have overflowed to the families of the earth was held in fearful trust for a God that many Jews, especially the religious leaders, had come to see as a God of law, not a God of love. “Master, I knew you to be a hard man,” said the third servant, “so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” And in the end, the way of fear only led to judgment, not blessing.
Jesus concludes the story by saying: “To the one who has will more be given, but to the one who has not, even what he has will be taken from him.” And that sounds so horribly unfair, so wrong. But we can see how that is exactly what happened with Israel. They had buried the riches of God’s salvation in self-righteousness and fear and legalism, instead of letting God bless the world through them as he had promised. And because of that, Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” – by which, incidentally, he was not referring to us Christians, because we were so much more righteous and holy and upstanding. He was talking about the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lame and the blind and the deaf and the demon-possessed, the last and the least, who came to Jesus in their utter unworthiness and helplessness, and produced the fruit of love and thankfulness. “Truly I say to you,” Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the law, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
But it’s important, it’s crucial, for us NOT to read this story, in order to pass judgment on our brothers and sisters of Israel, first of all because they are still God’s beloved people, and he has by no means given up on them. But also, we need to hear the Parable of the Talents because as the Church of Jesus Christ we also have been entrusted with great and hefty treasures. We all have a lot to be thankful for in our individual lives – we have family and friends, homes to live in and food to eat, we have all had the blessing of an education, the ability to read and write, we are surrounded by the beauty of creation, I think particularly in our lovely North Country – the list could go on a long, long time.
But even more, as the people of God, as the Church of Jesus Christ, we have been entrusted with immense wealth: with the inspired Word of God; with the Good News of God’s love for the world; with the Sacrament of Baptism that unites us with God and one another; with the Sacrament of the Eucharist in which our God gives himself to us in the tangible elements of bread and wine; and with the indwelling Presence of His Holy Spirit – not in this building as he was present in the Temple but in our hearts, and even more powerfully in our midst as we gather together as his people. Treasures of great weight and unimaginable worth. And I think we could add to these treasures, too, the blessing of living in a country that allows us to worship God openly and freely.
If we hear the Parable of the Talents today, then, as Jesus’ word to us, we are called to ask ourselves how are we investing all these treasures he has entrusted to us? Because sometimes, just like Israel, the Church holds these treasures in fear. Sometimes Christians are so careful to maintain our own purity and self-righteousness, we fill ourselves so full of rules and regulations and condemnation that we fail completely to be what God intended, bearers of his love, “ambassadors of reconciliation” as Paul puts it, purveyors of grace, beacons of hope in a dark world.
Notice what the third servant says when he is called to give an account before the Master. “I knew you were a hard man,” he says, “I knew you reap where you didn’t sow and gather where you hadn’t even scattered any seed. I was afraid, so I went and hid my talent.” We can’t begin to invest the immense wealth God has given us if our image of God is of a hard and demanding Master, ready to condemn us if we put one toe out of line. The Church of that kind of God worships in fear. They obey the letter of the law to maintain the purity their God demands. They taking pride in their self-righteousness. They watch carefully to make sure nobody unworthy gets through their front doors. The Church of that God has buried its treasure pretty deep.
I have quite a few friends on facebook who are very anti-Christian, mostly because they have come in contact with that kind of Church. For them, and for more people than we might like to think, Christians are white people who don’t see racism as a problem, rich people who don’t care about the poor, people who think those who are gay or transgender are an abomination to God, people who hate Muslims, people who care about babies before they’re born but don’t really care if they have health care or adequate food or a chance to get an education after they’re born.
There was a song a few years ago called “Take Me to Church”, about a young man in Russia who was murdered for being gay, and some of the lyrics say, “Take me to church/ I’ll worship like a dog at the throne of your lies/ I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife”. These people, who are mostly decent, caring people, have come in contact with enough Christians who call themselves Christians but don’t look or act or sound anything like Jesus Christ, that they have become very wary of anything that calls itself Christian. A lot of people have become bitter towards the Church. And that is at least in part because the Church has buried, in fear, what was meant to be a blessing.
Because we know that when Jesus came down to make the one true God present and visible and touchable to us, he was nothing like that. Sinners – prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves and murderers, they were drawn to Jesus like starving people drawn to the scent of baking bread. The poor and the unwashed, lepers and the demon-possessed, little children and babies, they all flocked to Jesus by the thousands. Only the self-righteous were uneasy in his presence. If we are to be lights in the world we have to begin by seeing the Light that came into the world for who he really is. As John wrote, “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us.”
A Church that invests the treasures of God in the world and reaps an abundance is a Church that knows that our God is not a hard Master, not a God of condemnation, but a God of love and mercy and grace. We have no excuse for self-righteousness, because we know that there is no earthly or heavenly reason that he should love and approve of us, except that it is his delight to do so. We have no reason for being exclusive, because we know if we only allowed good people in the Church we’d all have to stay home on Sunday morning. We have no reason to fear, because he has taught us to call him our Father. In Jesus we have seen God for who he is. He has entrusted us with wealth beyond imagining. It’s up to us to invest it wisely, for the blessing of his world.
And that’s why we do what we do: not out of the goodness of our hearts, but out of the abundance of God’s goodness entrusted to us. We invite and welcome in anyone who comes, no matter who they are, because God welcomes us, no matter who we have been. We share one another’s burdens in prayer, in our words and in our hearts and knitted into the warmth of shawls, because Christ himself intercedes for us continually. We do what we can to feed and clothe and provide for our neighbors out of the abundance of God’s provision for us. And as we do today, we pledge to God in thanksgiving a portion of what he has given us, for the work of the Church. In all that we do, we invest the great wealth entrusted to us, seeking the dividends of blessing to all the families of the earth, the children beloved by God.
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