July 11, 2004
Byron C. Bangert
Ecclesiastes 11:1-6; Matthew 25:14-28
Last week I spent some time collecting materials for a course in religious ethics that I will be teaching this fall at Indiana University. In the process I came across an article with the intriguing title, "Risk and Religion" [Alan S. Miller & John P. Hoffmann, subtitled "An Explanation of Gender Differences in Religiosity," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1995 34 (1): 63-75]. The authors of this article report on a study showing that people who are risk-averse tend to be more religious than those who are not. Conversely, those who are risk-takers tend to be less religious than others. They also found that women tend to be more risk-averse than men, which may explain why women seem to be more religious than men.
In studies like this, one always has to wonder what is actually being measured. In particular, one may want to question what is meant by religiosity, and how to take its measure. Nonetheless, intuitively, it seems to me that the authors of this study are on to something important and true. The fact is that when we think about people who are religious, the first thing that comes to mind is not that they are big risk-takers. To the contrary, we tend to think of such persons as more conventional, more conforming, or more conservative than the average run-of-the-mill members of our society. We might even think that religious people are people who are "playing it safe." Being religious often seems to be a way of trying to deal with life's uncertainties, of keeping risks at bay, of hedging one's bets--if not with respect to the unforeseeable future, then with respect to the life hereafter.
Now, if Jesus is any authority about these things, it seems pretty clear that he regarded this way of going about being religious to be dead wrong! Consider how Jesus makes his case in the parable we usually call the parable of the talents. It is better, I think, to call it the parable of the life's venture.
Jesus begins by saying, "this is how it is." How what is? Life! Life under God's reign. Life in keeping with God's ways. What the Gospels call the "kingdom of God." It's like a man who, going on a long journey, entrusts his property to three of his servants. To one he gives five talents, to another two, to a third one, "each according to his ability." Then he goes away, and it's up to them to make use of what they have been given.
If you take a narrow view, you might think this parable it is about money and investing. You could turn it into a lesson about economics. You might even say it is about venture capitalism. But in fact, this is a parable, not a morality story. Jesus is using a story about economics to illustrate a much larger lesson about life.
Let's first look at the details. Consider 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 there is nothing trivial about the transaction that the master makes with them.
The three servants are given differing sums, we are told, according to their abilities. This is not favoritism, simply an acknowledgment of the fact abilities are not equally distributed to all. The first servant takes his five talents and trades with them. 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 a different approach. He happens to be very risk-averse! He fears the loss of what has been entrusted to him. He does not engage in trade. He does not venture his master's property. So what does he do? He buries his talent in the ground. That may sound silly, 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 is 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 strikes 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. Moreover, 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. Who can say 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.
Nonetheless, as the parable unfolds we are subtly drawn into the circumstance of the third servant. And, 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, the first two servants 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. You know, "some people have all the luck." If you or I did what those two servants did, we'd probably end up bankrupt. If the third servant had risked his talent, he might not have had their luck, and he might not have had anything to show for himself.
But here's the rub. There really is a difference in the way servants No. 1 and No. 2 respond compared to servant No. 3. It's not just that they are lucky. There is something about their actions that makes a difference. So why do things turn out so well for these two servants, and so poorly for the third? The master calls each of the first two servants "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 tell whether it matters that they were successful in their trading. All 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. Their actions warranted his trust in them.
Poor old servant three. He surely wants to make it sound like he tried to do the right thing. Yet his words give him away. He speaks defensively, in his own 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 hold together. There is something profoundly disingenuous about him. He's making excuses. Yes, he has done all he could do to protect his master's assets. But no, he did nothing at all that might have pleased his master.
"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 judgment. For whom must we decide in this parable, the master or the third servant? Who is the wicked or hard-hearted one? Against whom should the verdict be rendered? 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 it 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 the first two servants, 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.
This is how it is! This is how life is: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Or, as our text from Ecclesiastes puts it, "Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back" [11:1]. This is no 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. Ecclesiastes, being a book of wisdom, suggests we not put all our eggs in one basket: "Divide your means seven ways, or even eight, for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth" [11:2]. Prudence remains a virtue. Nonetheless, we are called to venture, and that means we are called not to hold on too tightly to what we have been given. After all, it has only 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 are, 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 the venture of life, as we try to hold on to what we've got, to preserve our lives, 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.
From what I've seen of religious people, most of us are way too cautious. We're too self-concerned. We want to hang on to our lives too tightly. We're afraid of what might happen if we really risked something important. I'm not talking about taking a roller-coaster ride without a barf bag. I'm talking about things that are really important--like the way we think, the ideas we are willing to entertain, the people with whom we associate, the challenges we are willing to face, the opportunities we are willing to pursue, the uncertainties we are willing to live with, and the willingness to risk failure for the sake of something more, or something greater, than whatever we have already been given.
Think about the things you did when you were young. Or, if you are still young, think about the things you have been doing. Some of these things probably seem pretty stupid. Some of them were pretty stupid. You're lucky you're still alive. But some of the things you've done in your more adventurous moments are precisely the things that have made your life worth living. They are the things you've done because, at some time or other, life got the better of you! At some time or other, you were open, willing, free, or simply didn't know any better than to take a chance on something that deep down in your soul you felt was right and good. At some time or other surely you have felt called to be true to yourself, or to be true to your vision, and to do the thing that really mattered--whether you got rewarded for it or not, whether it earned you any money or status or approval from others or not, whether you turned out to be a success at it or not.
You've got to take a chance on life. "Whoever observes the wind will not sow," says Ecclesiastes, "and whoever regards the clouds will not reap" [11:4]. A lot of church people who read or hear these words probably think the meaning is that we should wait until the wind dies down before we sow. And we should wait until the rain passes before we reap. The weather has to be right, or our seed will scatter when we sow, and our harvest will rot after we reap. We religious people tend not to be very big risk-takers, and so it's easy to read these words as words of caution. But I dare say that is not how to read this text. The point is to go ahead and sow when you can, and go ahead and reap when you have the chance--you mustn't wait on the weather, or you will never sow, and you will never reap. The fact is, nobody knows how things will turn out, but that's God's business. Our business is to go ahead and venture what we have!
The master in Jesus' parable is not upset with the third servant because he failed to double his money. The master is angry with the servant because he did not venture what he had been given. He made no effort to use his master's gift.
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 anxious and cautious to the point of self-concern? But if God is generous and trusting, giving us life and all that we have, 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 suggests that in the very act of venturing what has been given we may hope to receive even more. The world is so constituted that if we act in trust and faith, we may 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 scholar 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.
Copyright 2004 by Byron C. Bangert