Our culture is full of sayings and images for keeping money put away, in a safe place. We encourage people to “save for a rainy day,” or, we might reassure a frightened relative or friend by saying, “don’t worry, I’ve got some money socked away.” Saving money is generally accepted to be a wise thing to do. Financial advisors and advertisers are consistent and insistent with their message to save for retirement or your children’s education. Common financial advice is that we should have enough money saved, in an accessible account, to meet our expenses for 6 months, just in case our source of income suddenly disappears. Though most people in our country probably have not managed to save that much, it is considered unwise, imprudent, not to have any savings. We teach our children to save money beginning at an early age. The motivating force behind this exhortation and need to save seems to be fear—fear that we won’t have enough, fear that we might lose everything, fear that our money will run out if we live to a very old age, fear that we will not be able to support ourselves or our families, that we will be on the street. In our society, saving is a good thing, and if you don’t save money, you can find yourself in significant trouble.
So what are we to make of this parable, where the slave who played it safe, who buried the treasure and returned it intact to the master is the one condemned to the outer darkness? Sure, the other two doubled what their master entrusted to them, but they also took risks. They could have lost money rather than made money. But they are praised, given even more talents to manage, and welcomed into the master’s presence. It really doesn’t seem fair. And what about the way Jesus sums up this parable, “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.” What??? Isn’t that just the opposite of everything Jesus has ever taught about caring for the poor and serving others? In fact, if you read ahead to the next passage, that parable is all about serving “the least of these.” Jesus says there that you don’t get to be with God in the end if you haven’t fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick and visited the prisoners.
So what is this parable about? Surely, Jesus isn’t telling us that we should not save for a rainy day? Surely he isn’t condoning the way of our society where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? What IS he saying in this parable? Perhaps the place to start is by figuring out what he means by “talents.” If we look at the literal meaning, then, yes, this passage is about what we do with money. And for Stewardship Dedication Sunday, it is appropriate to talk about how we use, or steward, our money. A talent was a huge amount of money--more money than a slave would ever have at any one time in their life. They wouldn’t be a slave if they had that kind of money of their own. A talent was worth more than 15 years of a day-laborer’s wages. A laborer would have to work more than 75 years to earn 5 talents. The master is entrusting his slaves with vast sums of his estate while he goes on his long journey.
And here, we need to look at the allegorical meaning of this parable. You have to be careful interpreting parables as allegories—they aren’t all allegorical, and even if they are in part, you can’t always make a direct comparison about every aspect of a parable—but Jesus does use allegory here. This parable is part of a larger unit in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is talking about the end times, his going away and his coming again, and what the in-between time is going to be like for his followers—how they are to live until he returns. So Jesus is the master in this parable who is going away for a while. His followers, particularly the disciples, are the slaves, and he is entrusting his treasure to them to use and be good stewards of in his absence. That treasure was not money, it was the gospel—the good news of salvation, of life and hope, the promise of the kingdom and all of Jesus’ teachings about what it means to live according to God’s kingdom. The treasure was everything Jesus had taught and given them, a new way of life, and the promise of eternal life, entering into the “joy of the master” as the parable says—joy that is theirs in this life and in the life to come.
Tom Long, who was my professor of preaching in seminary, in his commentary on Matthew writes that this parable is “about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel as they wait for the coming of the kingdom of heaven.”[i] He continues, “the treasure is the gospel…Living out the gospel truth of mercy, peace, and forgiveness is wise because the future belongs to God and those are the values of the future. The master will return, the promised kingdom is coming, and its advent will render all the false values of this age obsolete.”[ii] The gospel is the treasure Jesus has entrusted to us. We are still living in that in-between time, awaiting his return and the fulfillment of God’s realm. While we wait, we are to be using and trading in and expanding, growing, multiplying the gospel message.
How do we do that? With everything we have and every talent and resource God has given us. That is where we can expand this understanding of talent, see it on many levels. In this parable, it is a vast sum of money. Over the centuries, “talent” has come to mean whatever ability God has given us. Too often, this parable has been watered down into a self-help message to fully develop all our gifts, and not bury or waste them. There is nothing wrong with that message, but it short-changes the message of this parable. As Tom Long writes, “Routinely, this parable is taken as an encouragement to discover what gifts and talents we all have and to use them for God. . . but that idea alone is too tame for this parable. The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians do with their individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be, but a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel.”[iii]
So, to understand talents on many levels, this parable is about how we use all our talents—our money, our time, our energy and our abilities—to multiply the talent Jesus has entrusted to us, nothing less than the gospel itself. That is what stewardship is really about, being good stewards of the gospel. Yes, on this Stewardship Sunday we focus particularly on how we use our money to further the gospel. But if our money and all it supports: our buildings, our staff, our programs and ministries are not ultimately spreading the gospel, then we have missed the point. If our stewardship of our material and non-material resources is not spreading the good news of truth, hope, peace and life, then we might as well just bury them.
And in Jesus’ eyes, buried treasure is not treasure, it is wasted. Are we burying the treasure of the gospel, or are we using it, multiplying it? Are we keeping it to ourselves, as if it was only for our own benefit and comfort, our own salvation? We are fed and nurtured every time we come here—by this space, by our worship, by our music, by our fellowship, by our learning. Being fed and nurtured by our faith and by our church is necessary in order to live a life of faith, but it is not the end goal. God has not called us here strictly for our own benefit and comfort, we are here to multiply the treasure of the gospel, to share what we have so that others may know the love of Christ, so that others may have light in the darkness, a source of truth in the midst of the falsehoods swirling around us, a heart of compassion in a culture of self-centered greed. This time when we focus on stewardship is all about re-dedicating ourselves to multiplying the only treasure that ultimately matters, the love of Christ and the life we have in God. Our world desperately needs us to share that treasure. And the way we use our material treasure, our money, and all the other talents God has given us is what makes it possible for us to share treasure of the gospel.
When I was first reflecting on this passage earlier in the week, one of the things that struck me was that what motivated the third slave to safely bury the one talent the master had entrusted to him was fear. And because he let fear control what he did with the treasure, he lost everything. It is easy in this day for us to be overcome with fear, and to want to pull in, circle the wagons, or crawl into our safe shell. But that is the opposite of what Christ calls us to do, and it is the opposite of what this world needs. More than ever, our world needs us to take the risk of sharing our treasure—the gospel message that there is another way to live in this world, a way of love, of sharing, of compassion, of doing what is right and speaking up for what is right, of challenging, like Jesus did, those who abuse their power. We have been given a vast treasure to use and share, not to bury in the ground. The other thing to remember about this passage, is that what the slaves used was not their own. Everything came from the master and was returned to the master. If we think in literal terms, that is not a societal model we can support. But in terms of this allegory, it reminds us that what we have is not our own. Everything belongs to God, and is for the work of God’s kingdom. And it ceases to be treasure if we keep it to ourselves and bury it.
The slaves who used and multiplied the talents entrusted to them entered into the joy of their master. The one who didn’t was consigned to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sharing and multiplying the gospel brings joy; it brings us into God’s presence. And indeed, if we share the gospel, we will know abundance. Love and compassion breed more love and compassion. Just look at what happens on the subway. If one person gives to someone asking for money, regardless of whether we are “supposed to” or not, then other people start reaching into their pockets and bags and give as well. Love, giving, and sharing are contagious. They grow and expand. That’s what it means, when Jesus says “to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance.” He wasn’t talking about worldly, material wealth, he was talking about the treasure of the gospel.
As you pledge your financial support of the church for the coming year, do so with joy, knowing that you are using your earthly talents to multiply the treasure of the gospel. Everything we have belongs to God. God has entrusted all our talents to us that we may share and multiply the gospel, the good news of love, hope, truth, righteousness and life. The gospel is not a treasure that we can sock away for a rainy day. It is absolutely useless if we bury it. If it is buried, we lose it and end up knowing only the darkness. If we use it and share it, we know joy and abundance that will only increase. May we give of our talents, today and every day, in joy and gratitude for the treasure of the gospel that God has given us.
[i] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 281.
[ii] Long, p. 282.
[iii] Long, p. 281.