"As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Mat 25:30 NRS)
This is how the reading this past Sunday ended and as is our custom in the Episcopal Church, the Gospel reader said, "the Word of the Lord," and the congregation responded, "thanks be to God."
Thanks be to God? Really? Seems a bit odd to thank God that a worthless slave is tossed into the outer darkness (presumably a metaphor for hell). At the very least it seems very un-Episcopalian. I also have to say that I'm not the kind of preacher who looks forward to delivering a "fire and brimstone" sermon. It just doesn't fit who I am or my theology, or way I think about God.
In the Middle Ages the English word talent came to be associated with one's natural ability or a gift committed to one for use and improvement (source). If I had to wager a guess, I would say there were a lot of medieval Anglican priests connecting this Matthean parable with the "talents" God blesses each of us. Things like a talent for music or a talent for administration or teaching or whatever you are naturally gifted at doing. Yes I'm afraid the stewardship sermon has probably been with us for a very long time!
Of course there is the quite literal tie to the treasure of "time, talent and treasure" in the parable as well. A talent was a measure of precious metal like silver and was probably worth about 20 years of earnings. Let's say for ease of calculation a year's wages is $50,000. That means handing someone a talent is like handing them a $1 million dollar bill. So in the Parable of the Talents we have man giving giving three of his slaves enormous sums of money--$5 million to one, $2 million to another and $1 million to the last one.
The first two invest the owners millions and double it. I'd love to be able to do that but as we know that takes time. Depending on the rate of return, in today's market that could take nearly nine years. I'm guessing the man's journey wasn't for that long and it is more likely these "good and trustworthy slaves" double their master's money in, shall we say, more creative ways.
So is that what this parable is about? Go take your money and double it by whatever means necessary? That doesn't seem like a good stewardship model to me. It seems a bit exploitative. Perhaps it involves lending out money at outrageous interest rates or getting involved in a "get rich quick scheme." Neither of these seems consistent with a Christian ethic and I cannot see Jesus condoning such behavior.
In 2008 I had the privilege of serving as a steward a the Lambeth Conference in England (the blog of my experience can be found here). This is the once every decade gathering of all the bishops in the Anglican Communion for fellowship, prayer and conversation. As a steward I was part of almost everything the bishops did with a few exceptions. One experience that has stuck with me particularly is hearing the Jonathan Saks who at the time was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.
In his address to the Anglican Bishops (you can read or watch it here), Rabbi Saks described three modes in which we as humans organize ourselves. This first way is political. Politics is about power. In our American system we exercise this power in the voting booth by electing people to various offices--Congress, Statehouses, local governmental agencies. By doing so, we are giving up some of our individual power to these elected officials. They then make decisions for us about how much revenue we need and how to spend it as well as what laws we need and how to enforce them. Politics is always a win-lose system. Someone gives up power in order that someone else can have more of it.
Another way we organize ourselves is economically. Economics is about wealth. If I have $100 and I give you $75, I now have $25 left. I can keep giving out money but eventually I will run out or I will have to get more. Like politics, its a win-lose system. In order for me to have more wealth, someone else has to have less.
God's kingdom is not organized around power or wealth. Does that well beloved bible verse say, "God so desired power that he gave his only Son?" Does John 3:16 say "God so desired silver that he gave his only Son?" No. It says "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son."
And what about Jesus? What's his way of summarizing the Law and Prophets, meaning the sacred writings of his Jewish contemporaries? He says it all comes down to this: Love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself. Clearly God's way of organizing relationships with us is not through power or wealth but through love.
Every parable has what's a parabolic twist. That is to say something in the parable turns conventional wisdom upside down. To understand a parable, it is important to "get" this parabolic twist. Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The twist is that everyone knew Samaritans were not good people. Yet the Samaritan is the one embodying God's love for neighbor. The Samaritan is the one that helps the one in need.
So what's the parabolic twist in the Parable of the Talents? The rabbinic tradition of the time of Christ taught a person to bury unexpected wealth when one received it. The final servant in burying the Talent given to him is doing exactly what is expected. Yet he is the one who is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So what if we look at the Parable of the Talents with love instead of wealth or power? What is this thing, this talent of immeasurable worth that God gives us that we can rightly expect to double? That Talent of immeasurable value is love.
We see the "good and trustworthy" servants accepting God's love, and multiplying it in the world. These servants understand that God's love is transformative and desires to be shared with the word and grow in the process.
And what does the last slave do with the love God gives him? He buries it. Buried love can so easily become twisted into jealousy, lust or any other form of distorted love. Love then becomes something else. Something God did not intend. Something twisted for our purposes.
So what about this weeping and gnashing of teeth? Well if we live our lives in a way where we are never sharing God's love with the world eventually we find ourselves not seeing a loving master who is generously sharing a Talent of immeasurable worth with us but a master who is harsh. A master who makes us afraid to even be in his presence.
In other words we distance ourselves from God and find it difficult to see the Light of his Love, Jesus our Savior, calling us to turn around and experience the loving embrace of our joyful Creator. It not that God ever quits loving us but its as if we no longer are able to recognize that love and find ourselves stumbling about in darkness.
And that's the closest I will ever get to preaching a "fire and brimstone" sermon.