The Life or Death Talent Show
[Jesus said:] “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.'”
What do we believe about God? It’s a tricky question. We could answer it by reciting a creed, like the Apostles Creed and say, “That’s what I believe.” But perhaps the question, “What do we believe about God?” asks us what we really believe to be true at a deep level.
We can use that word “believe” in vastly different ways. I can say I believe in the benefits of diet and exercise, but if you see that I’m eating in an unhealthy way and not working-out regularly, then you would be right to question whether I truly did believe in the benefits of diet and exercise as I claimed to.
Perhaps the true test of all belief is behavior. Don’t ask me what I believe; watch me. It’s not what I say I believe about God that matters, it’s how I live which tells the truth about what I believe.
Two Radically Different Beliefs
The parable we just read is about belief in God; in fact it is about two radically different beliefs. There are three servants who are given money in this story. The first two are given different amounts, but they do the exact same thing with it and they get the exact same praise from the master for the exact same accomplishment.
The third is the one who acts differently and gets a different reaction. So, since the first two are the same, we can talk about this parable as an alternative between two ways of believing about God; the way of the first two servants, and the way of the third.
Which way got it right about God? What difference did it make? Those are the questions the parable explores. Maybe those are crucial questions for us, as well.
All three are given money by the master. A “talent” here is not an ability, the way we speak of talents, but rather it’s a term for currency. It’s like how some people call a $100 note, a “Benjamin” because it pictures Franklin. A normal day’s wages was one denarius, a talent is worth 6-10 thousand denarii. It’s a huge pile of cash, equivalent to years and years of income, if not a whole lifetime’s income.
Who would put that much money into the hands of his servants and then walk away, trusting them? Could this be the first clue in this parable about who God is?
Actions show Belief
The first two servants do the exact same thing with the huge piles of cash they are given. They both go off “at once” and put the money to use in some kind of business trade. That is, they at once invest the money.
Wasn’t that risky? What if they simply made poor investments and lost money? What if there was a global recession and the market collapsed? What if they invested in stocks that were way over-leveraged and the bubble burst before the master returned?
What allowed these two servants to risk investing their master’s resources with such light heartedness?
Don’t their actions tell us about what they believed about the master? They must have believed that they were doing exactly what he wanted them to do. They totally embraced his goals and values. The bundles of bills that he put into their hands, he expected to be put back into the community through investment.
They knew that the master’s perspective was not “survival mode” thinking, but rather “growth mode.” The two servants put their money down on the belief that the master himself wanted to accomplish something positive by taking a few risks and putting himself out there in the fray.
But still, it’s a risk; what if they failed and lost the money? They didn’t give it a moment’s worry. They both went out “at once.” Does’t that clearly show what they believed about the master? Were they right to be so confident? Did they have any evidence?
They must have imagined that the kind of person who would put piles of cash into their hands and walk away would also understand if they had done their best, and it turned out badly. They simply didn’t believe they had any reason to fear. What does that tell us about the master?
Results and Reactions
What was the result for these two? They reaped fantastic results. Even Petro-China cannot promise to double your investment. They both lived in the world of abundance that they believed in.
How did the master react? Remember that we are talking about the slave-owning world of the first century. Masters did not need to thank slaves. Slaves did not expect praise. If they did their job perfectly, they were only doing their duty. For doing anything less, they could expect to feel the lash.
But what does this master do? He praises them extravagantly.
“‘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.’”
Amazing: they get praise, plus the honor of increased trust; he is going to be giving them so much more that it will make the first pile of cash seem like just “a few things”!
And on top of increased trust, the slaves are both going to be welcomed into “the joy” of their master! Is the master making them members of the family? If so, does this mean they are going to get to keep what they has been given? That is the implication – it’s grandiose! It’s utterly unprecedented!
The two slaves showed by their carefree investments that they believed in a master who was good, and generous, risk-taking and involved. And that is the world they got to live in – far beyond their expectations.
The Other One, the other outcome
What a different story for the third slave. He showed by his actions what he thought of his master. Then he actually said it in words. He thought of his master like you would think of Pharaoh – greedy, ruthless, self-interested, dangerous. He lived in a world of scarcity where risk was impossible, and helping the community to prosper had nothing to do with it. He says:
“‘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.”
He too got the world he believed in. It begins in the location of fear, it moves to a hole in the ground, and ends in darkness and misery.
Joy versus weeping; the two outcomes of the two different beliefs could not be more opposite.
What do we believe about God? We recite the creed. Probably all three of these good Jewish servants could have recited the Jewish creed. Their actions, however, showed what they truly believed.
Talents and Talents
I told you that the word “talents” in this parable means something like a “Benjamin” – meaning a $100 dollar note. True enough, but the way we use “talent” to mean an ability may be a happy coincidence.
This parable is about money, but not only about money: it’s about what we truly believe about God. People who truly believe that God is good, generous, involved for the good of his people are the kind who show it in all kinds of ways.
They are people, like Barbara, whom we celebrate today. She showed us and still today shows us with her life what she truly believes about God. She has invested herself in us, the church, and in this community, week after week, year in and year out.
You may think I’m talking about her organ playing. Yes I am, but that’s only the beginning. I’m talking about her faithful Sunday School teaching. I’m talking about her faithful stewardship. I’m talking about the heart and soul that she is putting into the tutoring program. Don’t ask Barbara what she thinks about God; watch her life!
If you do, will you see a person who is fear-based? Will you see a person who is risk-adverse? Will you see a person in misery? Or will you see just the opposite? A person of confidence, a person who puts herself out there on behalf of others, and a person of great joy?
Show and Tell
Next Sunday is Stewardship Dedication Sunday. It is the time we come with our Time and Talent surveys and our financial pledges. It is a hugely important moment for all of us. What we bring as an offering to the Lord next Sunday will be the best index of what we really believe about God.
It’s not about the amount – some can do much, others are able to do much less. God looks at the two talent servant in the exact same way as the five talent person. The amount is not the issue, the issue is that what we choose to do with the “talents” of money, time, and “talent” that God give us shows what we truly believe about God.
Getting what we Believe
What if, like the servants in the parable, we get the kind of God we believe in? What if we get the kind of world we believe in? What if we get the kind of church we believe in? What kind of God, or world, or church would we have? What do we really believe? We shall see, right?.
This is the time in which we can put our faith into action. This is the time we can affirm our trust in a God who cares, a God of generosity, and a God of radical welcome into extravagant joy. This is the time we can live in such a way that we will one day hear:
‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; enter into the joy of your master.’