Matthew 25: 14-30
In the ancient world, those listening to Jesus would have known that a talent was the approximate value of fifteen years of wages, a substantial sum of money. In the story a man goes on a journey and gives each of his servants a gift. One receives five talents, one two talents, the last servant one talent.
Each is entrusted with something that is significant and each receives a different sum. The distribution is neither even nor fair. Like other stories that Jesus told—the workers in the vineyard, for one, where everyone is paid the same, but for differing amounts of work—this is not about fairness. It is in reference to a gift that we do not deserve or earn.
The gospel, someone has said, is not good advice; it is, literally good news and so we begin with grace, not law; with gift, not obligation. We begin with an appreciative inquiry into our assets, strengths and talents, or to frame it theologically, we reflect on the prevenient grace of God.
The resources belong to the master, who goes away, and the servants are left to work out, for themselves, what they will do with these gifts.
The church that I serve has had the blessing of being in Haiti for the past 30 years in a partnership and friendship. There is a medical clinic. Jesus was a healer. There is a school. Jesus was teacher. There is an emerging microcredit partnership, and Jesus is in that as well.
For two years a young man named Jack, from Haiti, lived with us. He is now a college student. We often talked about Haitian proverbs. One that I came across went this way.
“God gives but does not share.”
“Jack”, I asked, “what do you think this means?” He chose his words carefully, as he always did. Then he spoke: “God gives us everything, but we have to work out how to distribute it for everyone.
God gives, but it is up to us to share.
On a hillside in the Galilee a boy had a basket with five loaves of bread and two fish. These were the gifts of God, amidst a hungry gathering of seekers. “Send them away”, the disciples advised Jesus. “You give them something to eat”, he responds. God gives but does not share; that is up to us. When Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving, with the bread and wine placed on the table, we say these words…
let them be for us the body and blood of Christ for us,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
It helps to remember that the gospel transforms the world, indeed that the gospel, in the language of the Magnificat, has already transformed the world. This is the gift. The wisdom in the beautiful proverb that Haitians tell each other is that everything is a gift from God, and yet God leaves the details of distribution up to us. God gives but does not share.
The gifts belong to the master, and these are God’s to give. I do know this: from the perspective of the world, this planet that we share with six billion people, all of us have received a very generous harvest of talents. Warren Buffett commented recently to someone who had made a fortune, “you’re not a genius, you were just born at the right time and in the right place”. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, notes that most of those who are successful are “grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making [us] who [we] are.”
And so the master gives. Why does one receive five, and one two, and one one? The master gives to each “according to her ability”. Sometimes we are ready to receive a gift, and sometimes we are not. Jesus told other stories about this as well—-some were invited to a party, but they declined—-“We are too busy…please ask us again”. Others were invited—“Please keep us on the guest list… but for now we cannot accept”. Please ask us again. The master gives according to the receptivity and ability of the recipient. As Augustine said,
“God is always giving good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”
The story moves on, and a story does need to move on, and we shift our focus from the master, who has now left the scene, to the servants.
We move from gift to response, from blessing to responsibility. In the same way that the talents are not distributed uniformly, the responses are not all alike. The one who is given five doubles her share; the one who is given two doubles the portion as well. The third servant, the one who receives one talent, buries his in the ground. At some point, a great time later, the master returns, to settle accounts. There will be a judgment, an accounting that we will give to the One who is giver of all things. Call it an audit. Why? Because the talents originally came from the master, who wants to know how it has gone.
To the one whose five talents became ten, the master says, “well done”. To the one whose two talents have become four, the master says, “well done”. To both of these servants the master says, “you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master”.
You have been faithful over a little. It is interesting, in that five talents—seventy five years wages; two talents—thirty years wages—was not really “a little”. It is also significant that two of the servants respond with creativity and faithfulness. In the way the story gets told we do dwell on the third servant, but the first two multiply their gifts. Well done, the master says.
Now, the third servant: He comes before the master, and offers a justification for his behavior, why he has buried his talent in the ground. I knew you were a harsh master, and I was afraid. What we think about the master, what we think about God shapes what we will do our gifts. And what we think about God shapes what we believe about human nature.
Here is the crucial question: Do you think people are basically selfish and stingy, or generous and gracious? If you think we are basically selfish and stingy, then giving is a great
challenge, it is unnatural, it is manipulating us to do something that is against our nature. But we believe that we have been created in the image of God? Which leads to another question: what is God like?
I knew you were a harsh master, the servant blurts out, and I was afraid. The servant’s response is rooted in fear, grounded in a flawed understanding of God (who is love, whose love casts out fear) and an equally flawed vision of neighbor. One of Jesus’ most memorable stories was a parable inspired by a simple question: who is my neighbor?
I mentioned Jack Lamour, a native of Haiti. As we mark the six month anniversary of the earthquake in Port au Prince, Jack is a reminder to me that the Haitian people are our neighbors.
Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, reflected recently the general question of how Haiti is doing and what needs to happen next, and he focused more specifically on the question of development in the nation of Haiti. He noted that Haiti had been plagued by a development policy that had not matched the aspirations of the people and for this reason it had failed. Factories were built in one major city, Port au Prince, and when the capital markets shifted the resources would dry up, the jobs would disappear and the people had become destitute.
He noted that Haiti is in need of a development policy that matches the aspirations of her people. What are those aspirations? Education. Food. Health. I would add: the gospel.
In prior centuries, when missionaries went into the countries of the world, they were often allowed in because of these skills. A medical doctor or a nurse. A teacher. An agricultural specialist. On a mission field, these resources would often make the difference between life and death.
A development worker in Haiti, interviewed last Sunday by the New York Times, commented, “I wish all of those aspirational plans would become operational.”
Brothers and sisters, we who live in North America in the 21st century have been planted in a mission field. Many do not have access to a basic education, really. Or to food on the weekends, if they are poor students. Or to health care, increasingly. And many find themselves spiritually hungry, and our response echoes the disciples of Jesus’ day, in so many words, to anyone who will listen: “you give them something to eat!”
As we enter into the parable of Jesus, we reflect on our own gifts, talents, abilities….and we are more aware that we are grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances.
I came across a sociological study in which 50 people over the age of 95 were asked a question: If you had your life to live over again, what you would do differently? There were three primary responses.
“I would reflect more.
I would do more things that would live on after my death.
I would take more risks.”
What would you do differently? That is almost the question the master asks the three servants when he returns.
To share our gifts is to take a risk. As Christians, we know that our sharing is grounded in relation to One who has shared deeply and profoundly with us, in fellowship with One who loved the world so much his Son became our Savior. That is the risk of the incarnation. The aspirations that our creator has for us, in the word made flesh, have become operational.
At a basic level, our identification with this God implies that we take the name Christian, in baptism, which says less about our own merit or goodness and more about our awareness that all that we are and have and aspire to be is a gift; it is grace.
And our identification with this God implies a risk that we take for the sake of others. We open our baskets and share the bread and the fish, we open our homes and welcome the stranger, we open our table to welcome all who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness. As followers of Jesus we take our web of advantages and inheritances and extend them, Howard Thurman would insist, to the “disinherited”.
The parable does end on something of a downer, in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would be possible to gloss over that, to ignore it, such a stark ending, and yet it may be the storyteller’s way of getting our attention, keeping us awake: there is much at stake, it is a question of life and death—our gifts, our talents, our financial resources, our abilities have the power to bless or curse. They can be instruments of light or darkness.
God gives—this is the good news.
But God does not share. God leaves that up to us, to you and me.
Let us respond, let us give, and let us enter into the joy of our master. Amen.
Providence United Methodist Church,
Charlotte, North Carolina