November 19, Here...hold this

Here…hold this

Matthew 25:14-30

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

So, in the story, the man, this master, gave money to each of his slaves. It would seem that he just handed it over to them. No instructions, no warnings, he just gave them each some money and off he went. “Here,” he said, “hold this,” and away he went.

And I am thinking that if I am imagining myself as one of the slaves in this story, I’m right away wondering what this means. What am I supposed to do with this money? Here…says the master…hold this…and then what? Because hey, I didn’t ask for the money, I didn’t ask for the responsibility. I’m just a slave and what’s a slave supposed to do with a windfall like this?

Or is it a windfall? Maybe it’s not a windfall. Maybe it’s a test. Or, maybe it’s a trap. So, let’s think about this: someone gives you something to hold on to, with no explanation and no instructions. What do you do? What’s the best, the wisest thing to do? Employ some risk? Use extreme caution? Put it in the stock market? Buy Certificates of the Deposit at the local bank? Go play the slot machines at the casino? Hide it under your mattress? When someone gives you something of value – just gives it to you, trusts you with it -- what are you supposed to do?

And then there is this: What if you don’t even want it? What if someone says, “Here, hold this,” and you don’t want it? You expect there will be a price to be paid, so you don’t want any part of it? Can you refuse?

That reminds me of my friend John, one of the people in the group I travelled with to Israel and Palestine last summer. John is an experienced traveler and every now then he had a good piece of advice to share. This picture I want to show you is something that happened at the Mount of Temptation not far from Jericho. We had stopped there on our way back to Jerusalem to take some pictures – just a quick stop. None of us went into the gift shop, which was aptly named “The Temptation Gallery,” but that didn’t stop the roving vendors from approaching us there at the overlook.

One boy was selling the traditional black and white checkerboard patterned keffiyeh (the sort that Yasser Arafat was known to wear). He approached John and tried to hand one to him. John refused. John looked over at me and said, “As soon as you hold it, it’s almost impossible to give it back.” The boy persisted and John still refused. “No,” he said, “I don’t want it.” “You hold it,” the boy insisted. John refused.

Finally, the boy went ahead and wrapped it around John’s head. John just stood there as if it hadn’t happened, until finally the boy gave up and took it back. I had a similar experience later in Jerusalem in a small shop. The young man wanted to sell me a necklace. “Here, you hold it,” he said. I refused; he pressed. Eventually I bought something.

But you get the point: it feels like most of the time that when someone hands something over, you have to take it. And when you take it, you have to decide. The time for saying, “I don’t want this,” or “What will it cost me?” has slipped away. Like it or not, now you must decide: “What will I do with this?” This is the situation of the slaves in the story.

“Here…hold this.” And like it or not, one is given five talents, another is given two, and another receives one.

The story moves on from there, as the master leaves the stage. And then we find out that the ones who have more talents seem to have more initiative. They trade with their resources, invest, figure out how to increase the value, and lo and behold, they each double the initial investment. The five talents become ten and the two talents become four.

The third slave, however, is not so ambitious. Or is it that he is just more cautious? Or is he more prudent? He takes his one talent and digs a hole and hides it. At least, he reasons, he won’t lose what has been handed over to him.

You know the rest of the story. After a long time, the master comes back and the servants have to hand over what had been entrusted to them. The first two slaves step forward and give an accounting; they’ve doubled the money. “You are good and trustworthy” is what the master says. “Now I will reward you.” But the third slave only has the original one talent to hand over. He pleads fearfulness: “I knew you were a harsh man,” he says, “so I was afraid. Here is the talent you gave me.”

The master blows up – calls the third slave “wicked” and “lazy.” At the very least, he says, you could have put it in the bank – in that certificate of deposit – and at least collected a little bit of interest. Then he orders the others who work for him to expel the “worthless slave.” And his one talent? It will be given to the one who now already has ten talents to manage.

Now, you’ve heard the story often enough. You know that sometimes the word “talent” is interpreted to mean abilities or resources – kind of like a “time and talent” thing – the list of what you are good at, your skills, your God-given abilities. But, you also know that talents in the time of Jesus were a monetary designation. You realize that a talent is actually a weight and measure – 1 talent equals six thousand drachmas, and a drachma is essentially the same as a denarius, which is one silver coin.

So, don’t think of a talent as any little thing. If one talent is 6000 silver coins, then two talents is 12,000 silver coins and 5 talents is 30,000 silver coins. So, it turns out, even one talent is a lot – a lot of value and a lot of responsibility!

Some years ago, I did something with you that involved giving fifty of you each an envelope during the worship service. I didn’t tell you in advance what I was going to do or what was in each envelope – I just asked for volunteers to come forward and take one. Fifty of you came and each one who came forward received an envelope with $100 in it; $100 to take out into the world to make a difference. It was $5000 in total, but divided among fifty of you. I did not specify what you should do. I left that up to you.

And, you did all kinds of interesting and wonderful things with that money and many of you told me about your adventures later – how you helped neighbors and strangers and organizations doing good work. Some of you plotted and planned for weeks and even months; some of you were much more impulsive, and a few of you felt like it was a heavy responsibility – you wanted to be sure you did “the right thing.”

Now imagine if instead of giving $100 to fifty people that Sunday morning, I had asked for one volunteer, and I have given all $5000 dollars to that one person – no forewarning, just one day in worship I asked for one volunteer and gave that one person $5000. “Go and do what you think is best,” I would have said, “Make a difference in the world; share some good news.” Or how about this: what if it had been $12,000 or $30,000 or $100,000? “Here…hold this. You’ll figure it out,” I might have said. What then?

Do you get a sense of what is at stake? I think that’s kind of the way it is in the parable. The talent that the master hands over is no small thing. This isn’t a $100 here and a $100 there. No, the master gives a huge resource – a huge responsibility and a huge opportunity to each of these slaves. And remember, these are people who have had no status and perhaps even no training in such matters, and all of sudden they are in the middle of something huge.

Okay, maybe thinking in terms of money isn’t entirely helpful either. How about thinking in terms of value? What could someone give you (what could God give you) that is of tremendous value and tremendous responsibility and tremendous potential, and how would you react to being entrusted with such a thing?

If we head in that direction, maybe it’s not so hard to imagine where Jesus might be going with a parable like this. It certainly becomes clear that he’s not talking about a headscarf for sale at the Temptation Gallery just down the road from Jericho. And it’s clear that he’s not talking about a few things you might fill out on the church’s time and talent survey. And we can be pretty sure as well that he’s not even talking about fifty envelopes filled with $100 each. No, no. He’s talking about something of tremendous value.

So, what is it? Is it possible that he’s quite simply telling a story about you? Maybe a story about how you are being entrusted with your own life? Is it possible that you are both the slave who receives the talent and you are the talent itself? That when he tells about the five talents, the two talents, even the one talent, he’s not talking about a pile of money; rather, he’s talking about the sum of your life? 

Could this tremendous value that is entrusted to the slave – to you – is another way of talking about your privilege, your intellect, your huge heart, your hands and feet too. Could the parable be about this treasure, this “talent,” of the days and weeks and months and years you’ve been given? Is the talent – this thing of great value and great responsibility and great potential – could it be all your internal and external resources, your spirit, your goodness, your energy? Might the talent, this thing of great value, be the vision and the witness that you have for a life lived in the way and in the Spirit of Christ, and the potential impact such a way of living might have on your neighborhood, your community, the world? Might it be a story about God giving you this immeasurable gift of your life?

Here…(says the master) hold this. This is your life, your created and unfolding life from God: here…hold it. Now that you have it there in your hands, now that you have the power of choice, now that you know that you are worthy of being trusted with something of such tremendous value…what are you going to do with it?

Sometimes we feel powerless. Like life is bumping us along. Like we have no choice in the matter of what we are doing or where we are going. Sometimes we are jealous then of people who seem to tack in a different direction, making a choice about what is ahead for them. We feel left behind when someone says, “This is what I am going to do with my life. This is what it means for me to be a good steward of this gift I have been given right now.”

Sometimes all we can see is what we don’t have, or how it seems we have less – our one talent compared to the five talents of someone else. Sometimes we are regretful and sad when suddenly we realize all the good things that we have let slip by while we were busy complaining about how our expectations were never met. Sometimes we feel that we are poor – lacking in companionship, or lacking in wealth, or lacking in opportunity.

Sometimes we act as if we are trapped in our role. The master is the master, the slave is the slave, and even trust seems more like an obligation than an opportunity. Sometimes we fearful. What if we make the wrong choice? What if we do the wrong thing? Sometimes we are unwilling to take a risk in order to reap a reward. We are lazy or careless or stubbornly disagreeable. 

Sometimes we lose sight of how wondrous, how valuable, this life really is. We forget, or misplace the words of the poet Mary Oliver who asks: “Tell me, what else should I have been doing all day? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (“The Summer Day”)

Some would make this Parable of the Talents to be about industriousness and initiative. Maybe it’s somewhat about that. But it’s also about awareness and willingness. It’s about doing something with what you’ve been given. It’s about more courage and fewer excuses. It’s about receiving what’s been given to you – your very life – and being willing to hold that gift with all manner of trust and awareness.

“Here…hold this,” says the master. And the slaves? They take the talents in hand. And then they decide: Fear or hope? Paralysis or action? “I don’t want to get in trouble,” or “I want to make a difference”?

You see, their choices are your choices as well. You have this “talent” that’s been given to you – or two, or five. You know the master trusts you – not just to hold it, or to hide it, but to doing something with it. You have this wild and precious life.

So, ask yourself: What would a good and faithful servant do? And then do it. Right?

Benediction:

This one wild and precious life, right?

This Christ who calls you forward into wholeheartedness, right?

Good and faithful servants: Go into the week, go into the world,

with courage and trust.

 Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

November 19, 2017