Parable of the Talents
Life in Christ is abundant life. And with abundant living comes abundant giving.
Abundant Living, Abundant Giving
My first reaction to the Parable of the Talents is to feel sorry for the one-talent guy. We just heard the story, as told by Jesus: a wealthy businessman goes on a long journey. He takes with him all that he needs in the way of finances, and decides to leave the rest of his wealth with his servants. To one he gives five talents, a sum of money roughly equivalent to $5000. To another he gives two talents, and to another he gives just one. The businessman does this because he knows that in a bull market it makes no sense not to put your capital to work--and don't we understand that today! There being no brokerage down the street, the businessman in the parable does the next best thing: he counts on his own servants to make the money go to work and increase while he is gone.
When the master returns, he calls his servants to account and finds that the five talents have doubled to ten. "Well done, good and faithful servant," he says. The two talents have turned into four. "Well done, good and faithful servant," the master intones to the next servant. The third one, however, the one-talent guy--reports that he hid the talent in the ground, and has dug it up, cleaned it off, and now gives it back to the master.
"You lazy rascal!" the master says. "You ought to have deposited my money, and upon my return I should have got it back with interest!" In his anger the master orders, "Fling this useless servant out into the dark, the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth." The servant is judged harshly, and is made to be an example for others.
So I feel sorry for the one-talent guy.
This fearful, single-talent servant is called by one writer a "mouse-minded man". (John B. Meier, Matthew, Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1980, p. 299) But isn't he only being cautious, hiding the sum of money to keep it safe? Have you been reading recently about the elderly pensioners who are doing the same thing, withdrawing their life savings and bringing it home to hide it until Y2K passes and there is no danger? They remember the Great Depression. They want to protect what they have and diminish the risk. As the servant explains to the master, he was afraid, so he played it safe, and simply hid the talent and then gave it back when the coast had cleared.
This teaching of Jesus has been called "a parable on the use of capabilities." (Interpreter's Bible, vol. VII, p. 558.) A "talent," from the Greek talenton, originally was a measure of weight. It later came to be used to refer to a sum of money, the largest single unit of currency in use in the ancient Hellenistic world. "The metaphorical meaning of talent as 'native ability', developed later, precisely because of this parable." (Meier, ibid.) Jesus tells the story as a way to teach proper use of what God has given us.
But there's more to it, I think, than that. Frederich Buechner describes a parable as "a small story with a large point." (Wishful Thinking, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973, p. 66)) This particular parable comes in the Gospel in the midst of a string of rather harsh stories told by Jesus in a last-ditch effort to teach his followers how to live after he is gone. If you read on in Matthew you will find the text moves from today's parable to the scene of the Last Judgment, when the sheep are separated from the goats on the basis of how well they have treated the "least of these." (Mt. 25: 31-46) The "big point" of the Parable of the Talents, I think, is that God expects those who follow Jesus to live with an attitude of abundance. The Good News of Jesus is that God's love not only is unconditional, but also it never stops. "Pressed down, full measure, running over," there is always more. (Luke 6:38) "I have come that you might have life," Jesus says, "and have it in abundance." Not in tiny slivers or little bits, but in abundance.
The problem with the one-talent servant is that he lives with an attitude of scarcity. In interpreting the parable, Jesus tells his disciples, "For those who have will always be given more, till they have enough and to spare."
Abundant living leads to abundant giving.
"Those who have nothing will have to forfeit even that."
The man in Jesus' story who thinks he has very little has fallen prey to what social philosophers and economists call the notion of general scarcity. General scarcity arises when perceived needs grow faster than the means to meet them.
Many of us live with an attitude of scarcity. Take our perception of time, for instance. With all our high-tech, timesaving gadgetry, one might think we could work less and produce more, leaving plenty of time for family, self, church, and community. A recent study by Harvard researchers concludes that even with today's computer technologies and capabilities, companies actually have shown a decrease in productivity. (Cited in Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de Lange, Beyond Poverty and Affluence: Toward an Economy of Care; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986, p. 102)
Time, like money, we view as a scarce commodity. There's never enough of it to go around. I know a person who lives very simply, is quite clear about her focus in life, and paces herself well. I admire her greatly. She always seems to me to have enough time, enough time to live a full, whole life. She lives with an attitude of abundance toward time. And she is extraordinarily generous with her time.
Abundant living leads to abundant giving.
Many of us tend to live with a shriveled spirituality that derives from our theology of scarcity. We imagine that God, like the rest of us, has limited resources and little time. We live in fear of using up our meager assets, whether spiritual or material, and project onto God our own thoroughgoing case of general scarcity in all things. Abundance is not our primary way of viewing the world.
In contrast, the biblical witness--and not only in the Parable of the Talents, but throughout scripture--is that God intends for us full, abundant--even extravagant-life. The question raised in the parable is whether or not we will recognize what we have as good gifts to be used to the fullest extent possible--be it one, two, or five talents. Jesus does not say that to those who have much that more will be given. He says simply to those who have, more will be given. An attitude of abundance leads to full life, and with full life comes deep gratitude. With gratitude comes generosity.
Abundant living, abundant giving.
The Parable of the Talents--although in a deeper way about something much broader than merely financial resources--is, in fact, about money. Money is a subject Jesus returns to again and again. Over a third of the sayings of Jesus are about money--our use of it, our accumulation of it, our willingness to give it away. He knows that "where our treasure is, there our heart is also."
Some years ago my ministry involved raising money. I worked with people to help them financially support the mission of the church beyond the local congregation. Many of those people had the capacity to make large gifts, which they often did. I remember one woman, however, who was not in that category. She was a retired schoolteacher who became interested in the mission work we were trying to fund. She didn't have a lot in the way of resources. While many of our donors were making gifts in the thousands of dollars, this retired schoolteacher sent in the same small check every month, faithfully, year after year. Based on what she had, she was living abundantly--and giving abundantly.
This week we receive in our homes the stewardship brochure and pledge card, sent out by Westminster's stewardship committee. When we open and read it, I want to invite us--all of us--to respond out of an attitude of abundance, not scarcity. An attitude that begins by giving thanks for all God has given us, whatever that might be, and by wanting to multiply that abundance through our support of this great congregation as we move into an exciting future.
The theme for this year's stewardship campaign is "Catch the Wave." Having just moved from California to Minneapolis, I can't help but hear surfer music when I think about the stewardship campaign theme. And I have been pondering what it takes to surf. Surfing is fundamentally about two things, once you are in the water with your board: timing and balance. Catching a wave requires both timing and balance. Frankly, what I appreciate about the stewardship theme this year--"Catch the Wave"--is that it points us in the direction of this moment now, as the time to move. A moment to seize in our life together.
Westminster has been through a lot in the last two years. I know for many that this period has been a painful time. But I sense something of the words of this morning's psalm in our mood at Westminster:
I have waited patiently for the LORD.
God inclined to me and heard my cry.
God drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
God put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
There is a wave rising into us--our own waters of baptism are churning again, lifting us in new directions. There is movement, and hope, and a new day. The timing is right at Westminster for God to stir us up to a renewal of our life together and a reinvigoration of our ministry in the city.
Timing and balance.
We maintain balance in our life as a congregation when we attend to the basics: good worship, strong service and outreach, careful nurture of our minds and hearts and spirits, and building community in Christ. Each of these legs upon which the church stands supports us in our faith, individually and together.
Westminster Presbyterian Church has historically been a generous congregation. Just over one-fifth of our budget goes to benevolent causes. That is a good record, but can't we do better?
At a breakfast meeting earlier this week with the downtown clergy association, we got to talking about the various crises in the city of Minneapolis and how the faith community might take leadership. We heard of a congregation in Seattle that has purchased 12 old downtown hotels and has renovated them for use as low income housing--over 1000 units. We heard about another urban church that has set up an economic development corporation to assist its struggling neighbors in building an economic base for redevelopment in the community.
Another church provides a week's supply of groceries for 400 people every Saturday, tutors dozens of immigrant school children every day, teaches English to adults, and plays a leading role in trying to stop the violence in the city around them. And this is a congregation of 120 members. No one ever told them they had very little and the little they had they should hide. They have what they need--and more--to make God's gospel of justice and hope come alive in the community around them. They are living abundantly as a community of faith. Out of their self-perception as a people with abundance comes a deep and natural generosity.
Abundant living, abundant giving.
I want to be able to tell the other downtown churches--in fact, the whole city--to count us in. I want to be able to tell them that Westminster will be there with them as we work together for the common good. Our faith in the one called Jesus requires nothing less of us. To do that we will need--this week--to respond to the stewardship challenge from a posture of profusion, an attitude of abundance.
There will be bumps in the road ahead. This will not be easy. But we--you and I--have already been given what we need to begin. Pressed down, full measure. Running over. Because life in Christ is abundant life. And with abundant living comes abundant giving.
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Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen has been pastor and head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN since 1999.