Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church in Iowa on November 15, 2020:
Here we are, almost at the end of the Church Year, with Advent fast approaching. Jesus has one more parable for us—and it’s a doozy. That’s because the Parable of the Talents is both easy and hard to understand. This morning let’s see if we can dig into the story to find some of its meanings.
The easy-to-understand lesson from the parable is this: we need to make good use of what God gives us. That’s what the first two servants did in the parable. Each was given a large sum of money by their master.
A talent was one of the largest units of money in the ancient world. It was a piece of precious metal, usually silver or gold, weighing more than fifty pounds. A single talent was the amount of money an ordinary worker could earn in twenty years of labor—so getting several of them, as the first two servants do, is an astounding sum. What’s more, these two men double their master’s money through their shrewdness. For this they earn high praise from their master.
But then there’s the third servant, who’s so worried that he’s going to botch the whole thing that he buries his talent in the ground. At least that way he won’t lose it. But when the master returns, he’s so angry with this timid servant that he casts him into outer darkness.
And then comes this line, which is one of the most perplexing passages in the Gospels:
For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
Now we know that this is the way of the world, because we can see it with our own eyes. The rich become richer and poor poorer. The privileged get even more advantages, and those at the bottom of the rung get their hands kicked off as they try to climb higher. But that’s not the message we expect from Jesus. What in the world is he trying to say here?
Here’s the consensus of Biblical scholars: there is no consensus. Most of the time they just focus on the larger message, the one about using our gifts from God wisely. That said, it does seem significant that this story is told only to the disciples, not to a larger audience, and that it happened just before Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. The Parable of the Talents is one of a series of parables at the very end of Jesus’ ministry that divide the world between the wise and the foolish, the compassionate and the indifferent, the faithful and the fearful. All are cautionary tales with a sense of urgency about them.
So maybe Jesus was exaggerating to make a point here, the way storytellers do when they feel like they aren’t connecting with their audience. This is very important, Jesus is telling them, and so I’m using a story that is so vivid you will never forget it.
Another interpretation of those problematic words is that Jesus wasn’t describing a cruel God who rewards the wealthy and the privileged, but was instead recognizing a universal spiritual law—energy attracts energy. Those people who send out positive things into the world attract positive things to them. It may not be fair, but we see it happening over and over again.
In other words, the divine gift—let’s call it grace—must move. When we try to play it safe, to hedge our bets, to hoard what we have, grace can’t do its work in the world.
The servant was chastised, in other words, because he didn’t understand the true nature of what he’d been given.
All of this makes me think of a story told about Winston Churchill. During the darkest days of World War II there was a severe shortage of silver. When Churchill was told that some churches and cathedrals had sterling silver statues of saints, he said, “Well, it’s time to put the saints into circulation.”
That gets to the heart of what this parable is about, I think—putting the saints into circulation. The silver, as beautiful as those statues were, was needed elsewhere.
This parable makes me realize, too, something about myself these days: I want a change of direction. Perhaps you’re feeling something similar. The strain of Covid, of the election, of waiting and worrying and fretting, is getting really old. The parable makes me realize how much I’ve overlooked and neglected in the past months, how I’ve been distracted and anxious, surfing a wave of mostly bad news.
But with Advent fast approaching, a new president-elect, and hopefully a vaccine for Covid on the horizon, it’s not too early to start thinking of beginning again. This is a good time to think about what talents you may have buried in your back yard. What lies dormant within you? What gifts are not being used?
The parable we heard this morning is a reminder that none of these gifts truly belong to us. They were lent to us, and it’s our responsibility to pass them on. The parable reminds us, too, that at the end of our lives we will be judged not only by what we have done, but by what we have NOT done.
I remember that at our former church of Trinity I led an annual class on using your gifts and talents. We always talked a lot about energy—sensing where you gain it and where you lose it. That’s a clue from God, I said, a breadcrumb dropped on the path showing where you need to go. Energy follows energy. Or in the words of the Gospel from this morning, “For to all those who have, more will be given.”
Now this doesn’t mean that success will inevitably follow. There’s a wonderful line from the poet Rilke about this: he says that the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things. I love that. I think it means that our reach should exceed our grasp, and that the effort makes us grow into who we’re meant to be. We’re never going to cure all that ails the world, or even our small corner of it. But we can try. We can dig up that talent in the backyard and take it for a spin.
Let me end with one more story from World War II. During the Blitz, London’s Natural History Museum sustained significant damage from bombs. Holes in the roof allowed light and moisture to enter the buildings, including into cases where some old seeds were stored—some mimosa seeds that had been brought from China in 1793. And after sleeping for 150 years, they woke up from their slumber and starting growing.
So let me ask you this: what’s waiting to sprout in your life, after the Blitz of this past year?