Of the three synoptic Gospels, Matthew is certainly the more eschatological. Matthew, more than any of the other Gospels, focuses on the actions of the church between the first and second comings of Christ, and warns of the consequences faced by the complacent church. This is likely a reflection on issues that Matthew’s community had at the time of the writing of this gospel. Be that as it may, this group of parables about the return of Jesus in which we find the parable of the talents, presents a tricky navigation for preachers, as we try to reconcile the generous God of grace with the exacting demands of a Messiah who plans to return and take an accounting of our actions. And after all, who wants to talk about wailing and gnashing of teeth?
One way that this gospel has been used (and I have to admit to having done this), is to talk about the talents literally. In such a sermon, we talk about the various gifts and talents that people have, to be generous in giving those gifts back to God through our giving and serving in the church. This is a popular gospel passage on pledging Sundays. While it is certainly not heretical to do so, to look at this gospel only in terms of how much we give is to limit its potential power.
So we are torn between a strident and frightening prediction of what happens to slackers, and a simple acknowledgment of gifts freely given by God used by us. To do either might serve to limit the potential power of this gospel. In reality, God has given us a great deal to work with. In reality, there appears to be an expectation that we do something with what we have been given in the intervening time in which we find ourselves, while we await the fulfillment of the reign of God in the end times.
If we look at the guy who got one talent, I think we can use him to gain a perspective that lends itself well to who we are as the church of today. First of all, keep in mind that a talent (not the best English translation, that word talent), a talent at the time of Jesus represented the earnings from about 15 years of work. Therefore, the one talent that contestant number three of Messiah apprentice receives is no mere pittance. While certainly not entrusted with the large amounts of his fellow slaves, this man has been entrusted with something quite substantial. Secondly, for better or worse, the third slave appears to know, and to describe, his master with quite accurate detail. After all, nothing in his description of his master appears to be an exaggeration, when you consider the reaction of the master upon his return.
It may be best to look at this third slave, and thus ourselves, through a psychological lens. He is paralyzed by fear. Despite knowing his master well, and despite knowing what is expected of him, he cannot move. He is afraid of the master, but more importantly is afraid of failure. He just cannot take the risk of investing the talent at all. If you were to go around to mainline denomination churches and ask for an honest assessment of what motivates them, I would suggest that nowadays, the church is as much motivated by anxiety as mission. Our numbers are dwindling, not only in the pews, but in seminaries that we see closing and merging throughout the country. With some exceptions, the church is aging, and although I relish the idea of being considered relatively young because of it, it does present a challenge.
A fundamental truth about today’s gospel is that Jesus intended that the church continue its work after his departure, in preparation for whatever form his return might take in the future. He acknowledged more than once that this might be difficult, and in this parable, he appears to acknowledge that fear may well be an impediment to our mission.
Faithful living is not static. Hopefully, as a church, we remain on the move, evolving and growing to meet the demands of the world in which we live in the context of the reign of God that we proclaim. Like the third slave, we are all good at knowing most of the time and doing not all of the time. We know what faithful living looks like, but when we are fearful, we hesitate to live it. I daresay that we have all taken our turns burying too much goodness, time, love, treasure, and talent in the ground. What we think about God, and what we do when the master entrusts us with grace, is neither trivial nor incidental. We have real choices, with genuine consequences resulting from the ways we use our freedom. What we do or fail to do shapes this world and our lives. It is not the only factor, but is nonetheless crucial.
As we live in this church in this time in this world, we are given the opportunity to ask together, “What is the greatest talent or treasure that we are given to steward?” Whether we see a talent as a unit of money, a gift, or an ability, we know that we have been given stewardship over something far greater than our own lives; we have been given the Scriptures, the law, the gospel, and good news of relationship with the God whom we know in Christ.
There is something about being a community that stands in the face of fear. One need only look to the hundreds of women who have come forward with their stories of sexual victimization to see that there is less fear in numbers. We are not alone as humans, and we are certainly not alone as God’s people.
Here at Trinity, there has been a fine tradition of using talents and resources for the good of the larger community. It is hard to fathom what would happen today if Lewiston did not have the Jubilee Center, tree Street youth, or the Center for wisdom’s women. And now, as we look to the future, what do we see? I don’t expect to answer that question in this moment, but I do know that this is a community, albeit small, that is huge in its allocation of talents. And even Trinity could be tempted to bury its talents, even with such a stellar history of sharing them and stewarding them so well. We could rest on our past and bury our talents under our sense of accomplishment. But somehow, I don’t see that happening with this plucky group of Christians. Being the church today can be fearful, and we are not immune from that. But working in the field as individuals, and as a community, we are quite capable of putting fear aside, so that we can continue to invest talents in the building up of the reign of God.
The church is changing and evolving rapidly in a world that is doing the same. It is a challenging time to be church. Heck, it’s a challenging time to be a human being. But when we are church and when we are human together, we journey as God’s people, back to the gospel, back to the cross, back to the resurrection, and then once again into a world with unlimited investment opportunities for the talents we have been given. What a privilege. Thanks be to God.