A sermon preached on November 16, 2008 based upon Matthew 25:14 – 30, entitled “Insights Wrought from a Peculiar Parable”
The parables of Jesus never cease to amaze me. At first glance, they often seem like something we want to reject out of hand. But when we play around with a parable, we find it speaking to us in remarkable ways.
In this case, we’ve got three servants who each are given a very large amount of money to be responsible for while a rich man goes on a journey. For whatever reason, the servants who are given 5 and 2 talents respectively don’t seem to have any hesitation in using the money for what might be called creative investments. Their investments succeed and they double the master’s money.
The third servant, however, is overwhelmed by fear. He views his master as a hard, mean-spirited man who will punish any mistake he makes, and in his terror he figures the best strategy is simply to bury the talent — play it completely safe. God forbid that the master return and he not have the talent to give back to him.
The first two seem to view the master as a good guy, and their interaction at the end simply confirms this; the generosity of the master continues.
The third one views the master as a mean, hard-hearted man, and his interaction at the end confirms this — he ends up with nothing.
Despite the fact that they begin with quite different assumptions regarding the master, at the end of the parable all three servants have their original assumptions confirmed. So here is one thing the parable gets me thinking about — when we approach life with assumptions (which, of course, we do all the time), we tend to interpret our experience in such a way that it confirms what we already assumed to be true.
In other words, assumptions are very powerful. We would do well to step back and examine the assumptions that we are carrying with us, because we can be sure they are shaping our experience.
One example: come at the world with the assumption that there is a loving God who is ultimately in charge, and you will see evidence that supports this assumption. Approach the world with the conviction that the world is nothing more than a meaningless billiard ball table filled with random collisions, and well, that’s what you’ll see as well.
Whether we are aware of it or not, there is a sense in which we are all living out the question: is my life a blessing or a burden? The answers we come up with to this question are filtered through the conclusions we have already come to in the past. If I’m inclined to see my life as a burden, what I will see is plenty of evidence that this is so. I will note every time something goes wrong, every occasion for frustration, every desire that goes unmet.
If, on the other hand, I’m inclined to see life as basically a blessing, then my attention will be drawn to the good stuff, of which there will appear to be no end.
Now hold onto that thought, and let me go on little side tangent in regard to the parable.
One of my assumptions regarding reading the Bible, as you probably know, is that along with divine inspiration we unavoidably get a fair amount of not-so-divine human input as well. For instance, I think the heart of this parable comes to us from the genius of Jesus himself, but I assume that Matthew (and perhaps others along the way) couldn’t resist the temptation to add his two cents. There is this phrase that shows up at the end of this parable that occurs six times in Matthew’s Gospel, only once in Luke, and never at all in Mark or John. It’s the business about how the worthless servant is to thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Charming little sentiment, don’t you think?
So here’s what I think: Matthew throws in his pet phrase as his way of driving home the point he understands Jesus to be making in the parable — as in, pay attention, this is really important. It has, however, the unfortunate effect of forcing things to appear black and white when there is, in fact much gray.
I think it is helpful to pay attention to the parts of one’s own self that are like all the different characters in the parable. We might feel some reluctance to do this, however, when we hear that one of the characters has been consigned to the outer darkness to gnash his teeth for all eternity.
But the fact of the matter is that within my self there are times when I am very much like the one- talent guy assuming the worst, and there are also times when I am the five-talent guy trusting that wonderful, good things are in store for me. In fact, if truth be told, I think that I, as well as most people I know, switch back and forth between these two characters in the course of any given day, maybe in any given hour.
It is important to step back and consider such things, because in doing so it becomes possible to say to myself, hey, I don’t want the doom and gloom guy to run the ship. When he’s in charge, life gets pretty miserable. It is important to recognize the fact that at least to some extent, I have a measure of choice in this matter, and as best I am able, to exercise that choice.
Another place to which this parable leads my thoughts is the whole subject of FEAR. There is this irony in the parable, and that is that the one talent guy could be said to be addressing his fear, taking pre-emptive action so as to keep what he is afraid of happening from happening. And yet in doing so, he brings about the very thing he fears.
Whenever fear takes over our hearts in such a way that fear becomes a way of life, then, in a very real sense, fear has already taken us down.
The one talent man has made a god of his fear; it looms front and center in his life, controlling everything he does. He won’t take a step without first consulting the god of his fear.
But to live is to take risks, and to cease to take any risks is to cease to live.
FDR had it right when he said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
One of the big themes of the Gospels involves Jesus continually challenging his disciples in regard to their fears. “O ye of little faith,” he would say, “why did you doubt?”
The unquestioned place our fear holds in our life can in fact be questioned.
Once again, all the characters are within us. There is the person of faith, and there is the one consumed by fear. The question is, as we move forward, who will we allow to control us?
The parable involves money, and although we can see it as being about more than money, it is useful to consider what the parable says about money itself.
Oftentimes, money is all about fear for us: we look to money to safeguard us against a whole host of scary things that could happen. With money in the bank we won’t end up homeless, or hungry — if we get sick we’ll be able to medical attention. How much is enough money? Our fear tells us, always more than we have.
When our money is threatened, we fall prey to all those lurking fears.
Again, Jesus challenges this way of thinking. It is fear itself — the opposite of faith — which is the real threat to our lives, not the absence of money.
And here’s another thing that the parable leads me to think about in regard to money. Sometimes money in the bank comes to represent a fantasy in our brain regarding an imagined time down the road when we will be able to stop working altogether — permanently put our feet up. The fatigue of our lives makes this understandable — if we aren’t getting enough opportunity to rest, it is natural to long for such a time.
And yet if we ask ourselves, when in our lives have we felt most alive, most fully ourselves, I suspect that our answers would involve some kind of work with which we were creatively engaged. It might or might not have involved a traditional job in a workplace — it could have been some kind of work we were engaged in with our family or the community or the church. There might well have been some rest involved to balance the work — but I suspect the happiness of the memory wasn’t about merely sitting around on our duffs. We were creatively engaged — like the 5 and 2 talent guys in the parable.
There is this quote that I’ve saved that speaks to me in this regard. The words are by a writer named Brenda Ueland: “Why should we use our creative power…?” she asks. “Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.”
When we are creatively engaged in work we aren’t paralyzed by fear, and therefore our natural God-given generosity isn’t blocked. We aren’t fantasizing about getting revenge. We aren’t checking our watches every five minutes wondering when this all will be over.
I suspect, for instance, that those among us this morning who are checking their watches as I preach are those who haven’t gotten their minds creatively engaged with what I’m saying and how it relates to their lives, whether this be from some failure in my preaching or some failure in their listening, or both.
In conclusion, I am reminded of a study made a while back of octogenarians — people who had lived at least 80 years in this world, seeking their wisdom about life They were asked what they would have done differently if they had their lives to live over again. With the thousands of responses, three themes occurred over and over in their answers:
1) They would have taken more risks.
2) They would have spent more time reflecting about their lives. (Notice, reflecting upon one’s life isn’t sitting on your duff; rather, it is creatively engaging your mind to contemplate the meaning of your life.)
3) They have done more things that would live on after them. They would have made a point of using their creativity to make a contribution to the human race.
We would do well to listen to them.