IN THE MEANTIME
All summer, we have been living out the parable of the talents that I just read. On June 1, 163 of you took ten dollars out of a basket, accepting the challenge to try to grow the money by the end of the summer. It’s been fun. Some of you have discovered new abilities that you didn’t know you had. We’ve enjoyed the homemade ice cream, the cucumbers, the dinners, the iced tea. We are enjoying the jewelry, the cards, the crafts, and the other works of your hands. We benefited from your workshops and services, and some projects are still ongoing. We will be publishing a list of the projects people did in the next couple of weeks.
We adopted this project as a fun way to try to address a significant budget shortfall…to help move the mountain that has been standing in the way of fully engaging the ministries of the church. When Jesus told the parable, however, he was not offering a fund-raising gimmick. He was making a significant point about our role as stewards in the world and God’s expectation of us. This parable is about money, but it is not only about money.
Here’s a bit of Bible trivia. Did you know that the word “talent” in English came to have its current meaning because of this parable? Early on it was recognized that while a “talent” represented a monetary amount equal to about three month’s wages, Jesus was not just talking about how we should invest coins. He was talking about how we should use all of our resources, including the abilities, intelligence, and opportunities that God has given to us. So, because that interpretation was so roundly accepted, the word “talent” shifted from referring to an amount of money to a broader concept of our given resources.
When Jesus tells this parable in Luke 25, he is in Jerusalem for the last time. Palm Sunday happened back in chapter 21 and chapter 26 begins the last two days of Jesus’ life. That is why chapters 24 and 25 are full of parables and instructions for how Jesus’ disciples should behave in-between the time of his death and the time of the end of the age.
In these chapters we find two major themes. One is the theme of watchfulness. God should not come and find us asleep at the wheel. The second theme is found in the sayings and parables that tell us what the content of our work should be. You can see both of these issues evident in a school classroom…or at least you could in the days when I was in school.
Sometimes it happened that the teacher had to leave the room, and the students got instructions about what they were to do while the teacher is gone. There were usually at least one or two kids who understood about watchfulness. They were the ones who said in a loud whisper… “Here she comes!” as the teacher was returning, so that everyone could quit talking and look busy. There were always also a few others who actually did what the teacher said to do while she was gone. The bulk of the class relied on those two groups…the watchers to keep them out of immediate trouble, and the workers to supply the answers later.
The parable of the talents is not ultimately a parable about investing money. It is a parable that tells us the same thing that the mountaintop experiences we looked at this summer told us. If you want to be a part of the people of God, you have to pull your own weight. God isn’t just up there like a giant tooth fairy waiting to dole out blessings when something painful happens. God does do that, but that is not the point. Even in earthly jobs you will find that employers are not keen on giving you all the job benefits when day after day you don’t do the work you were hired to perform. God gives us way more extensions and grace and understanding than any earthly employer, but that doesn’t mean that God is not interested in the job actually getting done at some point.
We see in the parable of the talents that there is not extra praise for the one who brings in the most money. Anybody who gave the job the good old college try was rewarded. The one who gets in trouble is the slacker. He buries his talent in the ground, and then goes so far as to try to blame the master for the worker’s own laziness. “Well, hey,” he says to his master, “You’re a mean guy, so I was too scared to do anything.” It doesn’t wash. It’s not even good logic. If the master was really so mean, he wouldn’t have dared to do nothing.
These servants in the parable represent all of humanity. God gives us gifts to put to use for the Kingdom of God until such time as God should return and take control. This parable tells us the truth about who we are and what our purpose is on earth. We do not own the stuff that we have…the money, the abilities, the possessions, the people who surround us…we don’t even own the bodies we inhabit. They are all gifts from God and from the time we receive them at birth until the time we see God’s face…either in death or at God’s return…we are to put those gifts to use to benefit God’s kingdom.
Now, in case we are tempted to think that the work of God’s kingdom is only done through things typically labeled “religious,” Jesus goes on to at the end of this chapter to talk about the sort of work God is ultimately interested in. You will notice that the business of organized religion has nothing whatsoever to do with it. The ones who are praised in this last scene are the ones who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those sick and in prison. Jesus goes so far as to say that however you treat these sorts of people is the way you treat him.
You put that together with the parable of talents, as they sit side by side in the Bible, and we see that those who have been given resources are to use those resources for the benefit of those who have none. I’m guessing here, but from what I know of Jesus, I think that if the guy who buried his talent had instead reported, “I am not skilled in the creation of wealth, and I did not know what to do with the talent that you gave me, so I carried it around in my pocket. I passed a wretched beggar at the gate, and knowing that you were a generous man, I simply gave the talent to him.” If the last guy had done that, I believe he would have been elevated above all the others.
The Bible is clear that if we are merely scrambling on this earth to benefit ourselves, we have missed the boat. What God expects…the whole reason God has given us life and breath and the resources at our disposal…is so that we can be a blessing to others…so that we can help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.
We’ve got no business sitting on a huge bank account buried deep in a vault somewhere and then griping to God that the state of the world is a mess. Open the vault and do something about it. We’ve got no business using our intelligence, our talent for music, our teaching gift, our ability to analyze and solve problems only for our own gain and then complaining that those with lesser gifts or abilities are making a mess of the world. We’ve got no business giving our deep compassion and care only to members of our own family and then griping that others are not visiting those sick or in prison.
Each one of us has what we have, either in terms of talents or possessions, for a purpose. Every one of us…young or old, rich or poor…every sort and condition of us has a calling from God, and clues to that calling exist in the talents, resources, and opportunities that we are given each day. We aren’t expected to use all of them in the formal church. But we are expected to use all of them according to God’s will in and for the world.
Every day our prayers should include asking God how we should be using the resources God has given to us. How can I help today to bring the Kingdom of God to earth? How should I invest my talent for you today, God? Sometimes the choices are left up to us. God is not a micromanager, and once you’ve got the hang of using what you have for God’s work, you might not receive exact instructions for how to give of your resources. One of the delights of being in the employment of God is that God wants us to be happy in what we are doing.
Let’s say your gift is compassion. As long as you are using the gift to help others as well as yourself, God may leave it up to you whether that is expressed by going to the homes of others and visiting, by sending cards, by making phone calls, by sending e-mail, or by bringing meals. God may well let you decide whether you are best suited to give compassion to the sick, to the grieving, to those in prison, or to children. Sometimes people sit and do nothing because they have not gotten exact instructions from God. The servants in the parable of the talents were just told “invest the money.” The means for doing that was left to them.
That’s what we did this summer. We gave you ten dollars and set you free to do what you wanted with it. And that is what Jesus left for his disciples and for us as he entered the last few days of his life. We have been given life. We have been given abilities and talents, which have earned us other resources. Some day you will see the face of God and be asked to give an accounting for how you have used God’s resources. How are you going to use them in the meantime?
© 2003, Anne Robertson
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