Sermon given by Rev. Patrick Crocker at First Christian Church in Las Cruces on November 19, 2023.
How do you and we imagine God when we enter into prayer? What is it that keeps you and us going during times in fear? And what is it that is the greatest treasure that has been entrusted to us?Read more: Harshness and Generosity
This story is one that is familiar to a lot of us that have spent any time in the church. Generally called the Parable of the Talents, in one translation: a parable about investment, and it’s one that the Stewardship Committee usually appreciates that it falls during stewardship time. Just happens that way in the lectionary. Or maybe that’s why we have stewardship drives when we have them, so that this will fit in. But I have to wonder.
Yes, the English word “talent” that we have, meaning an ability or something that we do well, derives directly from this parable. This Greek word talenta, which was roughly the monetary equivalent of 15 years wages. So imagine yourself if you were given 15 times your current salary to do something with, to care for, for an unknown period of time. Or imagine 30 years salary. If your mind is big enough, imagine 75 years worth of your salary. What would you do with it?
From my friends who are better versed in the financial world, you can tell that preachers are not usually in that group, they tell me that this story is confusing for them as well as for anybody else. Because to double your money in a short time involves an awful lot of risk. I sometimes wonder about the stories within the Bible that I wish had a little footnote or an extra version or a reboot. I wouldn’t want Disney to do a reboot of this one, but maybe you know another good director. Could they do a reboot on this one and have a servant who risked and lost it all? Because I’d be interested to see what Jesus said about the response there.
This story is not really about the servants who do well with their investments, the servants who get lucky. As we look at it, this story portrays one servant who was wise according to the financial practices of his day. And as we look at some of the financial shenanigans that we’ve had during our own lives here, it might be a good idea for now too. The old investment practice of the sock in the mattress. And the response from the divine is not, “that was wisdom,” but rather, “that was foolishness.” So hopefully that makes us wonder whether this is not really about money after all.
The version of the Bible that I have used most often with us here sinks very small. He translates the monetary units as $5,000, $2,000, and $1,000. And most of us could blow through that amount within a day or two. Certainly the long weekend that’s coming up, many of us will be blowing through that much money. So I appreciate the larger minded imagination of the First Nations version points us to something larger. But there again I wonder, is that too small? What is the great treasure that has been entrusted to you, to me, to us, together as a community?
What if we were to read this in a little bit different way? After all, we see that at the beginning, we have no indication that the master, the headman, is harsh. We see instead generosity, distributing wages, huge amounts of money, each according to the ability of the one to whom he entrusts it. 75 years worth of salary. 30 years worth of salary. Even 15 boggles my mind. We see generosity. We don’t see harshness until we come to the one who decided that that master was harsh. And so I have to wonder if this story is about something other than money.
It’s perhaps about the way that we approach God. After all, this parable is in a series talking about the end of time, how we are to respond to this long delay, long from our perspective anyway. If a thousand years here are as a day in God’s sight, then Jesus just barely got his boots off. We have to give Him a little time to rest and refresh. And if the Creator is anything like my German grandmother, there is going to be more than enough food to last for two or three days and you got to eat all of it so you don’t make anybody mad.
So what are we to do with this with which we have been entrusted? We see within this, perhaps as one commentator put it, within Matthew at least, perhaps the God that we face is the God that we imagine. I’m reminded of a quote from Joseph Campbell, “the God that we worship is the God that we deserve.” Do we worship, do we imagine a God who is generous, a God who is open arms with all of us, the God who loves us, and…? Or do we imagine someone who is harsh, someone who is exacting, someone who sort of loves us, but…? And how do we live out that? How does that come out in our lives? The God of grace and hope, or a God of vengeance? The God of harshness, a God that is mean in both the meanings, both cruel, and also stingy as all heck?
Admittedly, sometimes the prayers that we pray and the names that we ascribe to God during those prayers are expressions of hope, rather than experience. We pray to a God of peace, even when we see that there ain’t a whole lot of peace in our lives because we hope for more. We pray for a God of grace when sometimes our families and families of faith have not exhibited a whole lot of grace. We pray for what we hope.
How do we approach God? How do we experience that? We see that the ones who lived in a risky way, who lived with hearts open, expectations unimagined, those went from servant to family within the parable here, and the one who expected harshness, god harshness.
Another translation puts the masters response in this way: “The Master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live. It’s criminal to live cautiously like that. If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least?’” What is it that we have been entrusted with? What is it that has been put in our care? If we start to think less about money and indeed start to think less about what God has done with our lives so far, and yet what God is doing with us now, and what God will do with us and for us, we might reimagine this story yet again.
Perhaps instead of reading this as the Master went away and entrusted servants with 75 years worth of wages with 30 years worth of wages, with 15 years worth of wages, what if Master went away and entrusted servants with 75 years? With 30 years, with 15 years? Time is money and money is power, and that leads into some funny jokes over in the math department. But we see here that we have each been given different things within our lives, within our realm, within our touch. What do we do with it? Not just our ability to sing or, in my case, I find a brass bucket in which to carry a tune. But the time, whether it’s a measly 15 years, that I have known some people to eke more out of than some in 75. Or 75 years, or even those who might double it and somehow get 150.
What do we do with it? What has been entrusted to us? What is it that we find great joy interacting with in our lives? Where is it that we find hope? Perhaps that’s what God is asking us to nurture this day, to encourage, to lift up, to live generously with open hearts and open houses and open minds. To risk just as we have to do with our kids, whether it’s kids of blood or kids in the church family. We give them the best that we have, and then we hope as they try it on their own. And the best of us remind them that the House is always open for refuge and security when they need it. A place to come back to, but not a place to live out of, in such a small and cramped life that they never grow beyond it.
What has been entrusted to us? We see all kinds of things, and the trust does shift from day to day. Because the world as it is today is not what was entrusted to us when we woke up yesterday, nor shall it be what we find when we wake up tomorrow, if we wake up. And yet with each day is a new opportunity. A new opportunity to live without the borders that we have put up, out of fear, out of small mindedness and small heartedness. An opportunity to extend our arms in grateful welcome and say to those with whom we find joy, “welcome, be family with me. Let’s build something beautiful together.”