Thankful People: Gifted and Talented
Two weeks from today, we’ll celebrate Consecration Sunday, and have a Celebration Dinner afterwards, as we gave thanks for all that God has given us, as we offer a commitment of giving for the year ahead out of the abundance which God has given us. You’ve heard Lauren last Sunday, and today Vicky and Steve talk about giving, and thinking about how we give, not because of what the church needs, but because of what our generous God inspires in us. We give as an act of faith, an act of thanksgiving, as a spiritual discipline. For the next few weeks, we’ll be thinking together not so much about budgets and spending plans, as we’ll be thinking together about our generous God, about what God is up to here in Gouverneur and how we can be part of that, and about how we can grow spiritually as we cultivate thankful hearts and lives.
Our gospel lesson today is a parable, one of the stories Jesus uses to talk to us about what the kingdom of God is like, what it’s like when we experience God’s way, God’s reign, on earth. This one we know as the Parable of the Talents. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables, some of the last of Jesus’ teachings before his arrest and trial and crucifixion. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one two, and one five, each according to their ability. Talents were the largest unit of money, and each one was worth a significant amount. It’s hard to calculate in terms of our money today, but even conservative estimates suggest that an individual talent was worth at least a few thousand dollars. (1) Even the slave who receives the one talent is being entrusted with a significant amount of responsibility.
The slaves who receive two and five talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who receives just one talent digs a hole and hides the money. When the master returns, he praises the faithful slaves for their stewardship of his talents, and says, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” But the third slave returns the single talent to his master, explaining that he thinks his Master is harsh, taking what is not rightfully his. So the master rebukes the slave, calling him wicked and lazy. He tells him that at the least he ought to have put the talent in the bank so it could earn some interest. He banishes the slave, and takes the one talent from him and gives it to the slave who already now had ten talents. And so, Jesus concludes with a strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”
There’s a couple of troubling things in this parable. We typically hear these parables and think of the master figure as God. But the one slave describes him as harsh, taking what doesn’t belong to him. Does this sound like God? And then there’s that concluding sentence that’s so hard to process at first. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? So what sense can we make of this parable, and what does it tell us about being generous, thankful people? I think the parable helps us think about how we see God, how we see ourselves and what we have, and how we respond because of what we see.
Is the master in the parable meant to be God? We know what the third slave says about the master: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.” But we have to ask: Why does the slave think this? The other two slaves don’t express any such feelings. Their master praises them and invites them to be part of his “joy,” calling them good and faithful. If the master in the parable tells us something about God, either Jesus is telling us that God is harsh and selfish, which seems unlikely, or the slave has a very skewed picture of the master.
How do you see God? Is God generous? Giving? Does God pour out blessings? Is God loving and kind? In the parable, the master makes the slaves stewards of the things that belong to the master. A steward is someone who cares for something on someone else’s behalf. In biblical times, most homes would be run by the steward of the household, who would manage all the affairs of the house for the owners. God has made us stewards of the earth and all that is in it! So, on the one hand, we remember: everything that we have really belongs to God! We’re caretakers of what God has given us, and that requires our responsibility and attention. But on the other hand, we have to remember: God has let us take care of everything that belongs to God! To put someone else in charge of your household, to give someone else authority for all that is yours – it requires a deep trust. Think of all that God has entrusted to us!
Author and advocate for the poor Shane Claiborne once shared this story: “I will never forget learning one of my best lessons … from a homeless kid in India. Every week we would throw a party for the street kids … 8-10 years old who were homeless, begging … to survive … One week, one of the kids I had grown close to told me it was his birthday. So I got him an ice cream. He was so excited he stared at it mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was brilliant. He yelled at all the other kids and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was: this is so good I can’t keep it for myself.” Claiborne concludes, “That’s what this whole idea of generosity is all about … It’s about realizing the good things in life – like ice cream – are too good to keep for ourselves.” I see God that way – so much goodness that God just had to share it with us!
But the third slave didn’t see things that way. “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.” Author Luther Snow focuses on this particular troubling verse, writing, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compared to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (2) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they’ve been given nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.
How much do you have? Something? Nothing? An abundance? I sometimes like to joke that I’ve never met a rich person – because no one will ever admit to being rich. Rich people are always people who have more than you have. I’ve read that most people say they would be happy if they had about 20% more than they have right now. The only problem is that we always say we’d be happy with just 20% more, so that whatever we have now is never enough. Jesus tells us that he comes so that we might have life and have abundant, full life. Do you feel like you’ve received that gift? How rich are you? What do you see when you look at what God has given you? Are your hands full? Or empty? Are they open to others to give? Or tightly grasping?
Ultimately, the Parable of the Talents inspires a response in us. In two of the slaves, their response to what the master had given them was to work hard, to use their talents well, to make sure they could give back to their master even more than what they’d started with. The slaves could have lost everything they’d been given by the master – but I suspect the master would have been ok with that – as long as they had been using the talents, investing with the talents, trying to make something of what they had responsibility for. One slave’s response to what he received was to do nothing. To bury the talent. To hide and respond in fear. To expect what he’d been given to be taken from him. How about you? How do you respond to what God has given you?
Adam Hamilton shares this story: “[Years ago], our family took a camping trip to the Grand Tetons. We arrived on my birthday and set up our little pop-up camper. After we were settled, we told each of our daughters that they could have $20 spending money for the three days we would be in and around Jackson Hole. We then went to the gift shop before heading out on a walk around a small lake. We had no sooner walked into the gift shop than Rebecca started looking at ball caps. She found one, tried it on, and said, “Dad, what do you think of this hat?” I said, “Becca, it’s really cool. But all you have is $20, and that hat will take all of your money. Why don’t you wait and make your money last for the next few days.” But she said, “Dad, you told me it was my money and I could get whatever I want. And I really want this hat!” As hard as I tried to talk her out of it, and to convince her that she would have other opportunities to buy a cap in town, she would have no part of waiting. Finally, exasperated, I said, “Okay, Becca – but this is it. You’re not getting any more money the next three days.” I gave her her $20, and she bought the hat.
“We went for a walk around the lake, and then came back to watch the sun set from a park bench. That’s when Becca handed me the hat and said, “Daddy, I bought this for you. I love you. Happy birthday.” I sat on the bench, took her in my arms, and started to cry. That hat is among my most treasured possessions, my most often worn hat to this day because every time I wear it, I think of Becca’s sacrifice for me. All these years later it still touches me to think about how my little girl gave up all her spending money because she wanted to tell her daddy that she loved him.
“That’s how God looks at our acts of generosity.” When we share with God, our gifts are a way of saying, “God, I’m returning to you a portion of what I have … to say thank you and I love you.” (3) When we give, we don’t give because God needs what we have. We give out of love, and God who loves us, loves our gifts because of what they tell God about how we feel, because of what they say about our desire to be in relationship with God, because of what they say about how we want to care for others.
We’re preparing for Consecration Sunday. Here’s what that means: The word consecrated means “to make something ordinary into something sacred or holy” – Con means with and sacre means sacred. Make the ordinary into something holy. That’s what we ask God to do with all manner of ordinary things in our lives. And indeed, God makes our ordinary stuff holy – from the bread and grape juice when we celebrate communion, to pieces of colored paper and shiny metal circles that we put into offering plates, even to our very lives. On Consecration Sunday, we’ll ask God to take our commitment of giving and make it holy. We’ll ask God to make our financial contributions into something sacred, so that God can help us bless others through our gifts. And we ask God to take our very lives, and make them holy too. Take our lives God, and make them holy, as we offer them as a gift, as we act as your stewards in the world of all that you have put into our hands.
Please, don’t bury your blessings, your gifts, your talents, all that God has given to you. Don’t live like our generous God has been stingy with you. Instead, offer it to God. Offer it to your neighbors. Offer it to the waiting world around you. And God will consecrate your life, and your cup will run over, and your blessings will be too sweet not to share. Amen.
(1) https://www.facebook.com/ShaneClaiborne, post on 8/7/14
(2) Snow, Luther, The Power of Asset Mapping
(3) Hamilton, Adam, Enough.