Bishop Michael Rinehart

November 19, 2017 is Pentecost 24A, Proper 28A

Judges 4:1-7 – Read the whole chapter to get the context. Israel did evil, so God turned them over to Canaan who had 900 chariots with iron-rimmed wheels. They cried out to the Lord. Deborah the prophetess, who sat under her date palm tree settling disputes, summoned Barak, telling him to gather 10,000 troops, for God would deliver General Sisera and his chariots over to them.

OR

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18  – silent before the Lord, for the day of judgment is almost here. I will punish those entrenched in sin. It won’t be pretty. Neither silver nor gold will deliver them from the Lord’s angry judgment. Their blood will be poured out like dirt.

Psalm 123 – Four verses: my eyes look up to you enthroned in heaven, like a servant to a master. Show us favor. We have had our fill of humiliation.

OR

Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12 – Lord you have been our protector through all generations. You make us return to the dust. To you a thousand years is as a day. (The days of our lives are 70, maybe 80. They pass quickly, then we fly away.) Teach us to number our days, consider our mortality that we might live wisely.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – no need to instruct you about the times. You know the Lord will come like a thief in the night. So stay awake, and sober as children of light. Put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope for salvation.

Matthew 25:14-30 – The parable of The Talents. Three slaves steward 1, 2, and 5 talents. When the master returns to settle accounts, two have earned 100%. The one who buried his talent is scorned.

Prayer of the Day
Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Abide in me as I a- | bide in you;
those who abide in me | bear much fruit. Alleluia. (John 15:4, 5)

Life’s ROI: Risk or Paralyzed by Fear?

Last week we heard the first of three great parables from Matthew 25:

  1. November 12, 2017: Matthew 25:1-13 – The Parable of the Virgins
  2. November 19, 2017: Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Talents
  3. November 26, 2017: Matthew 25:31-46 – The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

This Sunday’s gospel is Matthew 25:14-30. Matthew 25 is part of the last of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel. It is sometimes called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25), so called because Jesus delivered it from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3). In last week’s post I opined about the Augusta Victoria Hospital, located on the Mount of Olives where Jesus might have been speaking these parables. There are 800 olive trees on the Lutheran World Federation’s property on the Mount of Olives. Your church can plant a tree on the Mount of Olives. The ELCA is supporting a housing project on the Mount of Olives. Christians have been leaving Jerusalem. The Christian population has fallen from 30,000 to 10,000 since 1946. The dramatic settlement of East Jerusalem combined with the demolition of Palestinian homes has led to a housing crisis. The project has been delayed due to fact that Israeli authorities have not issued building permits, but in time 84 apartments will be built on LWF property, God willing.

In Matthew 24 we have Jesus’ description of the end times, and the persecution/tribulation that Christians will endure before the final victory. Some see this as a prediction of the Roman persecution and the destruction of Jerusalem, while others see this as a cosmic battle at the end of time. The Left Behind series parlayed this into a fictional series playing on the idea of the rapture, a concept that faithful Christians would be preserved from this persecution and taken to heaven before the tribulation. This theology emerged in American evangelicalism after the 17th century and is rejected by traditional Lutheran and Catholic theology.

This week we read the Parable of the Talents. David Garland (Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary), says,

The parable of the wise and the wicked stewards (24: 45-51) and the parable of the talents (25: 14-30) give more precision to what it means to watch and be ready. Vigilance is not a passive waiting and watching but consists of active, responsible service. When Christ returns, he will not ask if one had the date right but “What have you been doing?”

Stanley Hauerwas (Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) points out the intentional connection of this parable to the earlier one in Matthew 25: “It is as if…” makes it clear Matthew intends the second parable to help interpret the first. We’ll get to this at the end of this post.

So the story goes, a man goes on a journey and entrusts his property to three slaves. The word is δούλους (doulous), so it should be translated “slave” and not “servant.” To the first he gave πέντε τάλαντα (pente talanta), five “talents.” To another he gave two, and to the final slave he gave one talent. A talent was a measure of mass or weight. It varied in different times and cultures.

The talent is the largest weight mentioned in the Bible. From Exodus 38:25-26 someone good at math worked out that a talent is about 3,000 shekels. This is the Canaanite system (based on Ugaritic), and not the Mesopotamian system, which divided the talent into 3,600 shekels. I believe both “shekel” and “talent” originally meant “weight,” hearkening back to a time when business was done not with minted coins, but by trading certain weights of grain, wool and the like. 10 gerah made a beka (Gen. 24:22; Ex. 38:26). 2 beka made a shekel (Gen. 23:16, 2 Sam. 14:26). 50 shekelim made a maneh (mina in NRSV translation; Ezekiel. 45:12; Ezra 2:69; Nehemiah. 7:71, 72). Luke uses the maneh (lit. mina) in his parallel to today’s story in Luke 19:12-27. 60 manim made a talent. Eventually weights were made corresponding to these amounts. These weights eventually morphed into coins. In New Testament times, a talent was around 130 pounds. I know, more information than you need (or want, perhaps), but that’s how we roll.

Left: A 1712 woodcut of the Parable of the Talents.

We can’t be sure what this much weight would correspond to American dollars in a November 2017 economy. Some folks estimate a talent would have been considered over 8,000 denarii. Since a denarius was a day’s wage, this means 8,000 days of pay, or something like 22 years. At an average income of $50,000 today, that’s over $1M. 5 talents would then be well over $5M. So, while the details may not be important, the astute reader might like to know that we’re talking about a vast sum of money here, not a pittance. The point here is that it’s an absurd sum of money. As usual, Jesus uses outrageous images to capture his listener’s imagination. Like the image of gouging out your eyes if they cause you to sin, or a camel fitting through the eye of the needle, Jesus is being provocative. One might start a sermon with the question: “What would you do if someone gave you a million dollars to manage?”

So, let us say the master gives one slave $5M, one $2M, and one $1M then takes off. The ones with five and two talents double their investments through trading. Risky but profitable. The one with one talent buries it out of fear of the master. The first two are praised by the master. The third is chastised for being wicked and lazy. The story is designed from the get-go to inspire outrage. It still works today. People hear this story and flinch. What? Those who have much receive more, and those with little have even the smidgeon they have taken away? What? The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer? And the slave who returned the master’s original sum gets thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? What kind of master is this?

Many thoughts bounce around. First of all, on judgment day there will be a weighing of sorts. An accounting. This is a God of accountability.

Second, I recall Henri Nouwen saying there are two ways to live: a safe way with arms folded, and another, risky way, with arms open to embrace. The latter is vulnerable. Life is risk. None of us gets out of this alive. Or as one person put it, ships may be safer in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for. How are you investing what God has given you? What is your life worth? Your body? A million dollars? All of it is on loan to you from God. How will you invest it?

Care must be taken to not use this text to presuppose any economic system as Christian, or to misuse it to promote a particular work ethic. None of the slaves earned the talents for which they were given responsibility. Hauerwas reminds us we must read this text in its apocalyptic context, and in light of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom in Matthew. “After much time,” the master was delayed in returning. The critique of the last slave is that he feared the giver. Hauerwas: “In other words the one with one talent assumed that he or she was part of a zero-sum game.” He has played it safe. Garland: “He buried his silver—the best security against theft (see Mishna Baba Mesi‘a 3: 10).” The master acts generously, but the slave views the master as a petty tyrant. How do our people view God?

Garland (p. 246):

This parable illustrates that the “delay” (24: 48; 25: 5, 19) is not a meaningless interval. It presents a window of opportunity for servants who love their Master to put to good use the resources given them for gain.

I find it interesting that the word “talent” today, meaning “a special aptitude,” originated from this very passage. The traditional interpretation of the passage was that Jesus was talking about the use of the gifts that God has given to us. So the ancient weight “talent” came into Middle English as “special natural ability,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In other words, this word, that originally meant a measure of weight, came to mean a special aptitude because of Jesus’ use of it in this parable. Did you know Jesus was responsible for the creation of an English word?

Another point that is clear is that the master gives a vast amount. We are blessed with immeasurable gifts. They all ultimately belong to the master, but they are ours to use for the time we are on this earth. Like the stories in which Jesus curses the fig tree, we have the sense that the master expects fruit, results. The gifts God has given us are to be used for God’s purposes, and not wasted. This seems to be a theme that Jesus hammered. Consider his words in Luke 12:48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

The poet John Milton seemed to understand it in this sense:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He, returning, chide

Perhaps we are the ones with only one talent.

Joachim Jeremias saw this parable as a critique of the Scribes and Pharisees, who were given charge of the invaluable kingdom of God, and had squandered it. Will Herzog has a completely different interpretation, based on liberation theology. This interpretation requires us to forget everything we’ve ever read on this passage. The master is not analogous to God, but rather a very bad absentee landlord. He’s a slumlord, who praises those who exploit the poor for unrighteous gain. After all, as Calvin pointed out, lending money at interest was strictly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 22:25-27, Deut. 23:19-20). These stories are recorded in Matthew half a century after they were told. Each gospel writer appropriates the story in a way that speaks to the community to whom they’re writing. (We need to do the same. How does this story speak to your people?) It is hard to say, maybe even impossible, what point Jesus might have been making to his original hearers.

Luther noted that a tree is either growing or dying. This is true of our spiritual lives as well. Luther said the Christian life is semper in motu, always in motion. Bernard of Clairveau noticed that people who do not progress in spiritual life tend to regress. There is little stasis. Lange also likes the idea of these talents as spiritual gifts, or the spiritual life. Are you growing spiritually? What is the fruit of that growth?

Here’s what the story does for me. It causes me to ask the question, “What am I doing with what God has given me?” The preacher might want to consider this question for the entire congregation. Luther said that one of the most important qualities of an excellent preacher is boldness. The good news is that God has generously given the world so much: natural resources, our talents, our gifts. The question is now, how will we use them?

What has God given us? How are we using it for God’s glory? Consider our wealth, for starters. Professor of Economics and Finance (University of Michigan, Flint) Mark Perry notes that even the poorest 5% of Americans are richer than most of the world. The poorest 5% of Americans have more wealth than the richest 5% in India. We are the wealthiest people in the world. How are we using those gifts? From a divine perspective, are we using them well? Are you using your wealth for God’s purposes? To wit: Are you using your money for the things God really cares about?

There’s no way to get around it. This is a stewardship text.

What about your gifts, talents, abilities? We know what God cares about. Just read the Bible. Are we leveraging our gifts for God’s purposes? As we step back and look at our congregation, what assets do we have as a body? Is our congregation using its assets for God’s purposes, or are we sitting on our assets? (If you say it that way in a sermon, be very careful to pronounce assets clearly.) A bold preacher might dare to title the sermon, “Are You Sitting on Your Assets?”

Taken as a trilogy the three parables of Matthew 25 might roll like this…

Virgins: Be ready for Christ’s coming. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming. Be ready for the great reckoning at the end of time. What constitutes readiness?

Talents: The equitable use of one’s gifts – using what God has given us for the things that God really cares about. And what does God care about?

Sheep and Goats: When I was hungry you gave me food… Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me… God cares about those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick and imprisoned.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at this third and final parable from Matthew 25.