The Kingdom of God is Not a Talent Show
Mark, a friend of mine who is a priest in Denver, wrote on Facebook this week, “When writing a sermon, it’s not that helpful or productive to keep saying to yourself, “This really isn’t my favorite gospel passage…”.”
And then Bill, a priest in Alabama, wrote back, “I often say exactly that in a sermon. Chances are it’s not the congregation’s favorite either.”
So I don’t know how you feel about the Parable of the Talents, but it pretty much left me cold this week aside from the usual interpretations about how fear limits our potential for ministry.
The traditional interpretation is to see God or Jesus in the role of the Master.
The idea is that the slaves with the two and five talents are good and faithful and did fruitful ministry because they were brave and took risks.
And the last slave who buries his talent is weak and foolish, and has wasted his ministry opportunity because he was afraid.
But we need to call this into question by taking a closer look at the Master on whom we have projected the person of God.
The Master is actually not a very good person.
For one thing, he doesn’t do any work himself.
He forces the slaves to take all the risks, and then when they do work hard and take risks, he takes all the credit and all the profit for himself.
Nor does he ever explain his expectations to the slaves. He gives them the money and then just leaves.
He never tells them he wants them to increase the money. He could have come back and the two talent and five talent slaves could have been the ones in trouble while the master said, “How dare you go out and risk my money on untried investments!”
How were they supposed to know what to do?
And the poor last slave, whose only sin was to be afraid of his harsh and cruel master, is thrown into outer darkness.
That doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.
If there is one thing that I am prepared to proclaim from this pulpit, confusing scripture passage or not, it is that Jesus has not and would not ever exploit someone.
He challenged people, yes, but always to empower and uplift them for ministry.
The true nature of Jesus will shine through any number of layers of dusty, unexamined interpretations.
So if Jesus is not telling this story about himself, who is the Master?
I think we have to wonder if we as the listeners need to ask whether there is not something to learn about ourselves in the Master.
For all his kindness and gentleness, which are always present, Jesus never lets us hide from our own darkness.
He is always calling us to honest self-appraisal.
While we are loved and cherished exactly as we are, which is what the old time theologians called justification, we are also called to strive to better ourselves, what they called sanctification. In Matthew 5, Jesus said, “Be therefore perfect, as your Father is perfect.”
So how then are we like the Master that exploits the slaves?
I think we can find an interesting nugget of wisdom in the very first sentence of the parable. “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”
The key here is in how the Master judges the slaves.
He gave to them differing numbers of talents based on their different abilities.
What does he really know about their potential?
He may think he knows, but maybe that one talent slave is just about to take off in ministry but is limited by the expectations of the Master.
How often do we do that to each other?
I know I am guilty of this and I struggle with it every day. I make assumptions about people around me: family members, friends, colleagues, people in this church.
I think I know who they are and what they are going to do, and I parcel out my trust and my good will according to my judgment.
And that puts me squarely in the camp of the harsh man in this parable and I don’t like that very much.
When we engage in this type of behavior, we are commodifying our relationships.
We are interacting with each other on the basis of judging what the other person can do for us.
It places us in a capitalistic, exploitative framework in all of our human relationships—family, friends, coworkers, church.
Most of the time we’re not doing this consciously, but when we enter every encounter with another person with pre-formed expectations, we’re going to judge that person based on whether he or she lives up to our expectations, and label him or her accordingly.
Did this person help or hinder me from accomplishing my task of the moment?
Sometimes that task is concrete, like a church project or a family chore.
But many times the task is a hidden, subconscious, emotional goal.
Did this person stroke my ego in this conversation, or did this person point out a truth I was a little too comfortable not knowing?
Did this person cooperate in my unstated task I set for them, which was talking me out of my bad mood, or assuring me I wasn’t at fault in another encounter I was describing?
We are constantly setting these emotional expectations on each other and that is inherently exploitative.
The Kingdom of God is not a place where we use each other.
It is a place where we value each other, and it takes conscious effort to undo our habits of relationships based on emotional exchange rates.
I would much rather develop the habit of handing out my trust and good expectations freely and equally to everyone.
I have a friend I meet for coffee from time to time, and she does not want us to go out on the roads if it has snowed anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, and I know that as we enter wintertime, it will, once again, drive me nuts.
But I have locked us into a negative situation by my own expectations.
What if I work under the assumption that not only could anything happen, but that something good will happen?
Instead of assigning five talents or two talents or one talent to my relationship with my friend, I could quit assigning talents at all and just love her and be with her.
To whom have you been assigning talents in your life?
You might be assigning too many talents to someone, piling high the expectations and putting someone on a pedestal that she can never stay atop of.
And you might be assigning too few talents to someone, assuming before you even encounter someone that he is going to be difficult, rude, angry or passive-aggressive.
What would happen if you quit assigning talents at all?
Abdicate the role of the Master parceling out expectations?
There might open up some room for new grace in relationships we thought were stuck forever.
And so we return full circle back to Jesus.
Once we realized he could never be the harsh and cruel Master, we were forced to wonder if perhaps we were better candidates for the role.
And then after asking ourselves how we parcel out talents to people in our lives, burdening our relationships by piling them with good and bad expectations, we must ask ourselves how we do the same thing to God.
What do we think we know about God and what are we assuming about the way God relates to us?
The cruel Master hands out the talents before going on a journey. He passes out the expectations and then goes away.
If we quit passing out the expectations, we don’t have to go away.
We can stay right here with each other, and with God.
We can even stay right here with this parable.
There might be more grace here than we thought.
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