Buried Talents and the Kingdom

The Parable of the Talents was read by many churches this morning.  You may remember the story Jesus tells: a rich guy calls three slaves and gives them a certain number of talents.  He then goes on a trip and they are to do something with this talent (or these talents) they’ve been given.

It’s an odd parable, since it ends with a wicked slave being tossed out into the darkness.  If you read the parable quickly and think it’s about God or Jesus, then you get this mean God sort of reading that leaves a bitter aftertaste if you dwell on it.

Anyway, here’s my sermon on this passage about talents, the kingdom, Jesus and buried treasures.

From Matthew 25:14-30.

If you wanted to make a case that Jesus was a capitalist, our text from Matthew would be exhibit A.  The kingdom, he tells his disciples, is like a wealthy man who, when it was time to leave for a long business trip, gathered his workers and gave them huge sums of money.  This rich land owner gives a few talents to them, and we think it’s no big deal because it’s only eight talents all told.  But a talent is valued at about 17 years’ wages.  So even the dude who got just one talent was given a windfall.

This man—a quick reading might have us replace the word “man” with “God” or “Jesus”—hands over the cash to his workers based on their abilities and then goes on his journey.  It’s implied and the workers seem to know that he will return one day.  The first two—the ones getting 85 years’ and 34 years’ wages respectively—take that obscene amount of money and go to do something with it.  The bloke with the single talent, well, he chickens out not wanting to risk it and buries the money in the back yard and waits out his master’s return.

After some time the wealthy chap returns, the first two have doubled their master’s money and present it to him—now 170 and 68 years’ worth of wages if you’re keeping score at home—and they are highly praised by him.  “Well done! You have been trustworthy in a few things, so enter into my joy!”  The third one must be standing there getting a little warm under the collar.  So when he comes before the landowner, he dusts off the talent he was given and tells the master that he buried that treasure.  He digs his own grave when he starts talking: “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow, and harvesting where you didn’t plant.  Because of this, I was fearful and hid your talent in the ground.  I present it to you now, a bit dirty, but all of it still here.”

The wealthy man turns on a dime and goes all Jekyll like.  “You knew this about me, did you?  You’re just a lazy and wicked slave who is worthless!  You could have taken my money to the bank, even the meager amount of interest would have been something to give back to me!”  And then he has the talent taken away and given to the one who now has ten, and then has him thrown out into the outer darkness.

“See,” some might say, “Jesus wants us to prosper, to have gobs and gobs of money so that we can be blessed.”  But if you read the parable that way, then God is portrayed as Dr. Jekyll, doing anything to make a buck, not caring about individuals, but rather reaping money from places where he hasn’t even invested his time.  And not only that, God hoards all this money for himself—some 239 year’s wages by the end of the parable and presumably has much more in other investments.

So Jesus must be a capitalist and he wants us to prosper financially too.  (And in case you think I am making this up, you can find an article that was published online earlier this year that makes this very point about this scripture. ).[1]

But that just doesn’t make sense with what Jesus is talking about.  Just before this parable, Jesus talks about being ready for the coming of the Son of Man, and the need to be prepared.  And the story he tells after this one starts the same way.  Jesus is talking not about attributes of God, but of ways to be ready for his second coming.  Jesus zeroes in on how his disciples can be prepared for that time.  What they did with their lives mattered greatly to Jesus.  Each of them had been granted amazing abilities by the Almighty and so how would they use those things—those gifts, talents and abilities—to be ready for Christ’s return?  I don’t think Jesus was telling them they needed to make money—given the fact that Jesus was himself a homeless rabbi, I find that reading very unlikely.  Rather, Jesus says to James and Peter and John and the rest, what will you do with what you have been given, this short time you are on this earth, in order to further the kingdom and be ready for the coming of the Son of Man?

So here’s the question of the hour: what have you been given by God and how are you using it to take part in the kingdom Jesus established here on earth?  What abilities do you have?  What gifts?  What things make you uniquely you?  Is it your artistic ability, or a gift of hospitality?  Is it how you cook, or your green thumb or your ability to bring a group together toward a common goal?  Is it your gentleness with children or the way you can explain new things to a group of students or is it your business smarts and savy or the way you can turn a phrase in writing?

If we read this parable with that lens—and I personally don’t think you can read it any other way—we must take stock of all that God has bestowed on us, and then ask what are we doing with those things.  Or maybe we need to ask if we’re taking those abilities and burying them in the backyard because of a fear that is insidiously making us less and less ourselves.

A few years ago the film “Akeelah and the Bee” addressed this very thing.  Akeelah is an eleven year old Middle Schooler from South LA who has a gift for academics but she doesn’t want to flaunt it for fear of being isolated from her peers.  She takes part in her school’s first ever spelling bee and wins quite easily even though she is hesitant to win.  She is paired up with an English professor, Dr. Larabee—played by Laurence Fishburn—who helps her prepare for contests that lead to the National Spelling Bee.  At one point in the film, Dr. Larabee has Akeelah read a quotation from Marianne Williamson.  She reads:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

“Does that mean anything to you,” Dr. Larabee asks.  “I don’t know,” Akeelah responds.  “It’s written in plain English.  What does it mean?”  “That I’m not supposed to be afraid,” she replies.  “Afraid of what?”  “Afraid of … me?”

It’s a turning point in the film.  Akeelah recognizes that she has this tremendous gift and that she has been hiding it due to fear.  She has been playing small.  She has taken what she has been given by God and run to the back yard and buried it.

We all do this from time to time.  We take the very abilities God has bestowed upon us and high tail it to a field or the flower bed or the place by the back fence, and we bury that ability never to be used by us.  We dig down deep and drop it in and pack the dirt on good and tight.  And then at some point in our life—maybe not till the very end of our lives or when the Son of Man returns—we’ll go back to that secret hiding spot and uncover it and try to dust it off as best we can so we can hand it back over to God.

“Why didn’t you use this?” God may ask us.  “I was scared,” we reply.  “Scared that it wouldn’t be good enough, that it wouldn’t make any difference, that it would make me stand out from the crowd.”  “You were born to shine,” God replies.  “Born to make manifest my glory in you.”

We were born to make a difference in this world for the sake of Christ.  And we can only do that if we take the chance.  We can only do that if we risk it all.  And in so doing, be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man.  May it be so.  Amen.


[1] “Jesus was a capitalist.” By Bryan Fischer, http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/fischer/100517