“RECKONING WITH GOD’S GRACE”
Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
November 21, 1999
Ecclesiastes 11:1-6; Matthew 25:14-28
Jesus tells a parable about a man who, going on a long journey, entrusts his property to three of his servants. Upon his return, he settles accounts with them, rewarding the two who have been given the most, depriving the third even of what he has preserved by safe-keeping. It is traditionally called the parable of the talents. But what is this parable really about?
Is it about money? Is it about economics? Could it even be about venture capitalism? Or is the parable about stewardship? Is it about the three stewards? Is it about being a good and faithful steward? Or is the parable about the master? Then what sort of master is this, who seems to treat his servants so unequally? Is the master the “harsh man” whom the third servant describes? Or is the master the generous benefactor who rewards to first two servants handsomely? Perhaps the parable is about all of these things. But what is the parable really about?
Consider first the money. It would have been a lot! A talent was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world. In silver, it might have weighed between 57 and 74 pounds. It would have been equal to approximately 20 years of subsistence wages! [cf. Bernard Brandon Scott, HEAR THEN THE PARABLE, 224]. These servants are not being entrusted with the crumbs from their master’s table. They are being entrusted with an awesome sum. The actual amount is not that important, however. We need only see that this is not a trivial or insignificant transaction that the master makes with them.
The three servants are given differing sums, we are told, according to their abilities. There is no favoritism involved here, simply an acknowledgment of the fact abilities are not equally distributed to all. The first servant takes his five talents and trades with them. I suppose that means that he buys and sells. There is no stock market to play, however. He must be dealing in actual goods. He buys wholesale, as we would say, he sells retail, and he does right well. Before long he has doubled his master’s wealth. The same goes for the second servant. Soon he has doubled what he was given as well.
The third servant takes another approach. He does not engage in trade. He does not venture his master’s property. He apparently fears the loss of what has been entrusted to him. So what does he do? He buries his talent in the ground. That may sound silly to us, but in his day there was nothing safer he could do. He is totally prudent in his behavior. In one of the ancient Jewish writings, the Gemara, Rabbi Samuel is quoted as saying, “Money can only be guarded [by placing it] in the earth.” The ancient Jewish historian Josephus remarks how people buried their treasure against the ill fortunes of war [Ibid., 227]. Burying the silver would have been considered a better means of safe-keeping in those days than putting it in the bank. The third servant simply played it safe!
So what do you think? As members of a capitalistic culture, it may be hard for us to appreciate the extent to which the behavior of the third servant would have been regarded as blameless. Burying silver in the ground may strike us as a bit like stuffing money into a mattress. The master seems to have a legitimate complaint when he later points out to servant No. 3 that he could have at least put the money on deposit with the bankers so that it would have earned interest. On the other hand, we’ve got to hand it to servants No. 1 and No. 2. They may have taken some risks, but those risks certainly paid off. It’s not clear how much of their success was luck, and how much was skill. All we can say is that things turned out well for them and their master.
Could it be, then, that this is a parable about taking risks? Life is full of risks, making money is full of risks--could Jesus’ be calling us to live dangerously? Recently the NEW YORK TIMES published a sampling of risks that a typical American encounters in everyday life. The odds that you will crush a finger with a hammer this year are 1 in 3,000. The odds that you will have an operation requiring a hospital stay are 1 in 12. The odds that your doctor is an imposter are 1 in 50. The odds that your television set will catch fire are 1 in 7,500. The odds that you will be driven from your home by flood are 1 in 4,000. The odds that your child dislikes school are 1 in 3. The odds that your next meal will be from McDonald’s are 1 in 8. [”Danger Ahead: The Risks You Really Face on Life’s Highway” by Larry Laudan, August 20, 1999.]
Thinking about these risks, it occurs to me that they are not about living dangerously. They are simply features of living. Ordinary daily existence is full of risks. You don’t have to go looking for them. They are already there. So if Jesus’ parable is really a parable, and therefore less about money and more about life, then it is probably not about speculating in the market. So maybe it is about dealing with the risks of ordinary living.
In any case, it is clear that as the parable unfolds we are drawn into the circumstance of the third servant. And clearly, as we reflect upon his attitude and action, we are forced to make some kind of decision. Did he do the right thing? Or did he not?
For all we know, servants 1 and 2 may have been dumb lucky. They took chances with the master’s property, they were successful, they double his wealth, and obviously he is pleased. He rewards them accordingly. One way to read this parable is to say that “some people have all the luck.” And not only are they lucky, they get rewarded for being lucky! Verse 29, which comes at the end of this parable, and which I did not read earlier, is regarded by most critical scholars as an addition by Matthew. It reads, “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.” You can read this as a law of life. You can read it cynically. You can read it fatalistically or despairingly. It sounds a lot like our saying, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It’s not fair, it’s not just, it’s not good. That’s just how it is. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for it. Some people just have all the luck.
But surely there are reasons why we might not want to read the parable that way! In the first place, if this is a parable about life, that reading of it is not a very heartening one. It’s not like Jesus to be telling us that life is unfair. And in the second place, there is a real difference in the way the first and second servants and the third servant respond to what is entrusted to them. There is something about their actions that makes a difference. It is not just a matter of luck or fate.
So why do things turn out so well for servants 1 and 2, and so poorly for servant 3? The master calls servants 1 and 2 “good and trustworthy.” The words are repeated for each one, the emphasis is clear. These two have done well by their master’s reckoning. Whether they were also lucky seems beside the point. We cannot even be sure that it matters that they were successful in their trading. What we can say is that these servants did what their master thought they should do. What they did confirmed his decision to entrust his property to them. They so responded to warrant his trust in them.
Poor old servant three. He surely seems to have tried to do the right thing. Yet his words give him away. He speaks defensively in his self-justification, and in unmistakable accusation against his master. “Master,” he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours” [25:24-25].
Is this third servant correct? Is the master a “harsh man”? Does his servant have reason to fear him? And if it is true that the master reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he does not scatter, then what sense to bury the silver in the ground? It could have been invested for the interest, and it should have been traded for greater gain. What the third servant says does not quite hold together. There is something profoundly disingenuous about him. Yes, he has done all one could do to protect his master’s assets. But no, he did nothing at all that might have pleased his master. He has nothing to show for himself. He returns only what his master gave him.
“You wicked and lazy servant!” his master retorts. The words are so severe, we are hardly prepared. Maybe the master is as harsh as the servant accuses. “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was mine with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten talents.”
Now we are faced with a choice. For whom must we decide in this parable, the master or servant 3? Who is the wicked or hard-hearted one? Who is the one upon whom judgment should fall? The judgment of the parable is against the third servant. The master merely repeats the servant’s accusation, finding in its inconsistency a fundamental dishonesty. This servant is not good or trustworthy. This servant has tried to blame his master for his own failures. This servant has refused to take responsibility for what was entrusted to him. By burying it in the ground, he simply absolved himself of any possible loss. He shows himself to be concerned not at all for his master, but only for himself.
This is one of my favorite parables, not because of what it says about the third servant--which is rather sobering--but because of what it says about life and God. What is says is that something very precious has been entrusted to us. Call it life. Call it our talents, our abilities, our resources for living. Whatever it is, all that it is, we have been given. It is ours “for the time being.” And God doesn’t want us to hoard it, or hide it, or simply try to preserve it. The master could have buried his silver in the ground. He did not need his servants to do that! The whole point is that what we have been given is an opportunity, a lease on life, an invitation to venture. And we are to do what we can to make the most of it--not for ourselves, but for the sake of the One who has entrusted all things to us. Indeed, if we are like servants 1 and 2, good and trustworthy, we will be the ones to reap beyond what we have sown and to gather beyond what we have scattered.
Sadly, for many people, God remains the Ultimate Accountant, the Bean Counter, the Harsh Judge, who will demand everything back from us and more in spades. The parable implicitly acknowledges that this is how God will be seen by some. But the parable does not accept this idea of God. The third servant is sadly mistaken and ruinously self-concerned. Hardly grateful for what has been entrusted to him, this third servant is to be likened to one who views God with hostility, fear, distrust. He has no gratitude, no joy, no delight in the service of God.
Jesus’ parable draws upon the imagery of economic activity, whose realities we know so well, to make a compelling statement about life itself. One of its lessons would seem to be, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” This is not a call to mindless speculation, or careless risk-taking. We are not being invited here to throw our lives to the wind. We are not being encouraged to put ourselves in needless jeopardy. But we are being called to venture, and that means we are being called not to hold on too tightly to what we have been given. After all, it has been given us in trust. Ultimately, it is not ours.
Years ago John W. Gardner said something to the effect that it gets harder for adults, the older they get, to take risks, to venture what they have. We confine ourselves increasingly to what we do well, and avoid those things we do not do so well or have never tried. And, of course, the older we get the more most of us have to lose. The parable directly challenges that growing resistance we have to try to hold on to our lives, to preserve what we have, to play it safe. Life is not ours to keep! Thus, it really is not ours to lose. Rather, it is ours to use, to invest, to share, and finally to render back, not simply as we have received it but with all that we have been able to yield from our labors.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “The worship of God is not a rule of safety--it is an adventure of the spirit . . .” [SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD, 276]. To this we need to add that it is an adventure born of trust and confidence in a God who is gracious and good. What is really at stake in Jesus’ parable is our understanding of God and our relationship to God. If God is harsh and to be feared, how can we help but be cautious and prudent to the point of self-concern? But if God is generous and trusting, giving us life and all that we have to live it, entrusting to us this most precious of gifts, how can we content ourselves with anything less than the adventure of living? It is a matter of being grateful for what we have been given, and of living out that gratitude in freedom. Jesus’ parable suggests that in the very act of venturing what has been given to us we may hope to receive even more. The world is so constituted that if we act in trust and faith, we will receive yet greater benefactions. But if we act in fear and self-concern, we will end up joyless and bereft. Jesus’ parable effects a reckoning with God’s grace.
As interpreter Bernard Brandon Scott observes, “By burying the property the [third] servant forfeits any future” [op. cit., 233]. The future is not to be claimed by preserving whatever precious gifts we have been given. It is to be claimed by acting in freedom and confidence, in loyalty and gratitude and service, to make the most of all that has been placed within our hearts and hands. We sell God short, and we diminish our own existence, when we choose to play it safe rather than venture all that we have and are. AMEN.
The third servant of Jesus’ parable reminds me a bit of the speaker in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Portraying himself as a aging gentlemen, he says, “‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?’ . . . Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?/ In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse./ . . . I have measured out my life with coffee spoons . . . I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled./ Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”