The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
It’s all about money. It’s all about money and nothing is clear.
A rich man called his 3 slaves around him. They were probably close confidants, people bought and chosen to protect the man’s property. He gave one of them 5 talents and one 2 talents and one 1 talent. There is a wide variety of thinking about what a talent was. But most often you read that a talent was worth about 15 years wages. So he gave one, what: at least $2,000,000? Ten million dollars? More? Even the one he gave the least had a lot of money to handle, maybe $600,000. Not probable to us. But Jesus’s listeners would have understood.
The slave with 5 talents invested. The slave with 2 talents invested. The slave with one talent buried. He used the primary method for protecting money in those days of no banks: burial in the earth. He was the wise slave. He was the most certain to return to the owner at least what he had been given.
Because it’s all about the money. Take care of it. Protect it. Give it back. It’s all about the money and all about fear. “’I knew that you were a harsh man.’” The slave was fearful of the owner and therefore did everything he could to protect what had been entrusted to him. But surprisingly, the harsh man proved him correct. He was a very harsh man indeed! “’As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” Because it’s all about the money and the slave did nothing to improve the estate. No boldness in his action. Only fear.
It’s ironic that this reading is our gospel lesson here in the middle of November. Ironic because every November the Church talks about stewardship. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. We should be talking about stewardship 365 days a year. Talking about what we do, how we live with all of the gifts given to us. Ironic because the play on the word talent that exists in English does not exist in the original Greek text.
A talanton is a measure of weight, not a skill, not a gift, not something that issues in creativity. But in English we are faced with the added complexity that a talent is money and it also might be the way we sing or plant a garden or tend the sick. All of them gifts to steward, to shepherd. And we think that the story is all about money, and abilities and mental faculties and anything else that we can use to increase the kingdom of God here and now.
This passage has historically been interpreted that way. Historically. And mistakenly. It’s all about money? Except this: it’s not. It’s not really about money much at all. It’s about the end times. About what will become of us and the earth. About what will happen when the kingdom of God is fully known, fully realized, when God wraps up all of eternity into one moment that never ends. A moment of bliss and joy and peace.
I talked with a member of the congregation this week after I had read at least 9 commentators’ thoughts about this passage, 9 differing understandings, 9 alternate ways of preaching about it, about what God might be saying to us in the words of Jesus here in St. Matthew’s gospel. I talked to him and he had read the passage and he told me that this is the passage in the New Testament that he dislikes most. I liked that comment.
It’s a difficult passage and Jesus pretty much slaps his listeners in the face as he comes near the end of a section written by Matthew about how all that is will end. Maybe this parable is an allegory, with the man equaling Jesus, or maybe God, and the slaves equaling us and the talents equaling our livelihoods. Maybe it’s not an allegory, but rather a story to catch our attention and to give our minds a little twist so that we see reality from a new perspective. Maybe it’s a challenge and maybe it’s even meant to be a comfort.
If that last one surprises you, that’s good. If it’s not all about money, then it is certainly about being thrown into eternal darkness, left to molder or burn or rot. Left with no hope, only eternal damnation.
But try this one: maybe we are the ones thrown into darkness and Jesus comes along with us. Maybe we cannot possibly always do what is right, cannot introduce the kingdom of God to earth, cannot be perfect people. Maybe we too often slip into the darkness of our spirits, casting about for a feeling of fulfillment that seems to be unknowable. Searching for a future that never seems to come. And maybe Jesus, the crucified Son of God, steps out into the darkness with us. Crucified as he was. Buried in a lightless, lifeless tomb as he was. Steps into the darkness with us and ultimately leads us through the gate to heaven that is all light and all hope and all blessing. As we go there with him we learn that he is empowering us to live differently. To live in hope. To live in trust and faith.
I am reading a very dark novel right now, one of those grim Scandinavian murder mysteries that I love. This one has a volunteer worker in the Salvation Army murdered. One who is trying to do good in the midst of his own difficult reality. I had just begun the novel this week when I walked past a woman sitting on the sidewalk and begging. She asked for a few coins. Thinking of the character in the novel who works with drug addicts, I became ashamed of myself and angry at a society that let’s someone like her be hungry, to have unmet basic needs. Ashamed that I walked on pretending not to notice her.
But there was more. I was ashamed of my lack of Christian love. Totally ashamed. No more than a few seconds later a woman standing in front of a supermarket called out to me as I was about to enter the store. I instantaneously counted 2 teeth in her mouth, even though she wasn’t that old. And I instantaneously chose to step out of the darkness that was surrounding my spirit, the darkness of my greed and anger, I instantaneously chose to walk with Jesus into the light. The woman asked for a rotisserie chicken and a green pepper. A strange request, I thought, but one that I could meet. I did.
At first I buried my talent in my pocket. Protecting it. But then my thick skull got the truth: I can invest the cost of a hot meal in this woman and whomever else she might share with, and the light of Christ will shine around all of us.
So I guess that it’s good that November is a month of stewardship talk because stewardship is our response to the incredible mercy of God who walks with us in the person of Jesus. His voice of mercy and grace calling to us to share and to give and to invest in others and in the poor world around us. To bless his Body, the Church, with our talents, in every sense of that word. Because it’s all about the money. Or so it seems. Amen.