Sermon Seeds: Investment
Sunday, November 19, 2023
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 28 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Judges 4:1-7 and Psalm 123 • Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 and Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12 • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 • Matthew 25:14-30
Put to the Test (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Early in my career, I worked in financial services and banking. When I served as a financial advisor, I helped individuals and organizations manage their investments. One of the first two things I would determine of a new client was their risk tolerance and their time horizon. The second one was usually easy to quantify: how long were they planning to invest the funds? If they were putting money aside for their child’s college fund, doing the math was very straightforward. Retirement was a similar equation. If they had other investment goals, more conversation, discernment, and analysis would be needed to figure out how long they planned to invest their funds.
Risk tolerance was less science and more art. Markets go up and down. Corporations and entire industries go through life cycles of growth, stability, and decline. Interest rates have been fairly predictable but can change as the Federal Reserve adjusts rates to stimulate or slow economic activity. Some people cannot stomach the daily shifts in the Dow Jones Industrial Average that news media reports so faithfully even though financial planners will tell you not to get caught up in the day to day value of the stock market. Other investors know that the greatest rewards come at the greatest risk. In order to gain the most, you have to subject yourself to the possibility of significant losses. Seasoned investors know you don’t actually lose until you cash out, and they often profit the most from the fears of the risk adverse who buy high and sell low in direct opposition to conventional investment wisdom.
In the gospel text, Jesus tells another parable, which features an investor who gives his servants charge over his funds. Rather than provide them with equal amounts, he employs a diversification strategy and divides the investment according to their ability. He has different expectations for the return he will receive based on each servant. He’s clearly trying to mitigate potential losses. The investor is proven correct as the one who received the most also made the most. The one given a little less matched that expectation as well. The one he gives the smallest portion bitterly disappoints the investor, but surely, it was not a surprise. There had to be a reason that he was given the least.
The one talent servant was clearly the most risk adverse. Rather than attempt to profit from the talent he was given, the servant determines that his responsibility is not to lose anything. Therefore, he refuses to invest. Even the safest investments carry some risk of loss. The property owner’s fury seems out of proportion to his actions; after all the servant did not cause the owner to lose anything. Or did he?
In economics, there is a concept called opportunity cost. It is determined by quantifying the difference between the outcome of what you could have done versus what you actually did. If the pattern of the other two servants was applied to the third, he should have doubled the investment. The cost of doing nothing is the additional talent that could have been gained. It certainly did not help his case that he blamed the owner for causing his fearful actions.
Remember, Jesus shares this parable with his disciples in preparation for his passion and their eventual elevation as carriers of his ministry:
[These] teachings serve to redirect the disciples’ focus of attention. The important thing is not the signs and the times—as preoccupied as the disciples (and we ourselves) may become with such matters. It is far more important to know what to do between now and then. Such a focus of attention delivers the faithful from anxiety on the one hand yet can deliver them from apathy on the other. “While anxiety and apathy are very different dispositions, they both respond to focused attention.” The example and the three parables that follow all reflect the situation of “not knowing” and focus attention on vigilant waiting, faithfulness, preparation, and diligence.
The future is unknown, the owner is going away, and the servants will be entrusted with continuing to build the value of property through their investment. Jesus does not give them details of the future without his physical presence, but he does let them know, through this parable, that he will entrust all that he has built to their care and nurture. What will be their response?
In the parable, there are three servants. Perhaps they each represent different segments of his followers. The first, with the highest expectation, may be his earliest and closest disciples–the twelve have been given the most. Jesus called each of them by name from their former lives. They have witnessed more, and he has revealed more to them than anyone else. The next servant might represent everyone else who was attracted by Jesus’ teaching, miracles, and presence. So who does the third servant represent? Is that one symbolic of a crowd, dazzled by signs and wonders, but fearful of faithful action? Or does the third represent anyone who wants to receive the blessings of Jesus for themselves but refuses to extend them to others?
The real investment in this story is not made in the distribution of the talents. The kindom of God is not about maximizing profits and cannot be quantified in dollars and cents. The kindom is composed of human beings, who the Holy One values deeply and makes their investment.
In this parable Jesus returns to one of his primary themes: the utterly lavish, outlandish generosity of God….According to Jesus, God his Father is better, kinder and more generous than we could ever imagine. So the question becomes: as we wait for this gracious God with us to come again, how will we spend the jackpot he allotted to us? We didn’t earn it. We just got lucky—or, more accurately, we “received” it through sheer grace (see Mt 25:16, 18). And now, through even more sheer grace, God the Father gives us the freedom to manage, spend and increase it. Notice the active, creative, initiative-taking verbs in this story: “The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more” (Mt 25:16). In contrast the third servant, the one-talent guy, proceeds to slink away from any form of hopeful creativity. Instead, he justifies his passivity by blaming the master. He basically says, “I have to escape and hide and it’s your fault. You’re unfair and you might condemn me if I fail.” But throughout this Gospel we’ve seen the disciples fail—big, frequent failures are on almost every page—and yet the mercy of Jesus abounds even more. So there is no excuse for this servant’s cringing lack of courage. The fear of failure is no excuse. Preparing for Jesus’ return implies taking risks and living creatively.
The talents, like all currency, are used to make the investment and to measure the return. In the parable, they represent the faith of the servants. When faith is extended, regardless of measure, it doubles. The return meets the investment. When faith is buried, hidden, and concealed, it does not last. As Jesus prepares his disciples for the horrific events to come, he knows their faith will be tested. For most of his closest disciples, his passion will also foretell their own. The persecution and death they will face will be as momentous a risk as can be imagined. The troubling, violent language that concludes this parable is only matched by the violence of the events to come.
A related issue is the language in which this divine intervention is described. Throughout, the eschatological discourse borrows imperial language (parousia), structures (slavery, absentee landowners), and strategies (punishing violence) to depict divine actions. The ways of Caesar are attributed to God without hesitation. There is no questioning of the violent assertion of cosmic power in 24:27–31 in the defeat of Roman military power (24:28). There is neither critique of slavery in 24:45–51 nor restraint in depicting the horrendous violence of hacking a slave to pieces in 24:51. Violent punishment continues in 25:31–46. How does this strand of violent judgment interact with the depictions of universal divine favor in 5:45 and the elevation of mercy (9:13; 12:7)? And what are we to make of the presentation of judgment by works and the privileging of the poor in the assertion of God’s kingly power in 25:31–46?
I wonder if Judas was there to hear this message. I wonder if the one who would betray Jesus for a few coins would comprehend the cautionary tale. I also wonder if the church today functions more like the third servant, and even Judas, than the first two servants. When we are guided by principles of capitalism and empire more than beloved community and the kindom, are we burying our talent in the ground? When we refuse to give full, public witness to the transformative love of God in fear of upsetting our neighbors or addressing unresolved conflict within our church membership, are we putting our talent in the ground? When we fail to be good news to the poor, the immigrant, the imprisoned, and the marginalized, are we throwing our talent away?
Participating in the reign of God involves risk and potential loss, but as Jesus warns, not participating holds even more dire consequences. On the other hand, when we use all that God has generously given to us for the glory of God, the upside is exponential. There’s truly no better investment.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Above all, we must remember the black worker was the ultimate exploited; that he formed that mass of labor which had neither wish nor power to escape from the labor status, in order to directly exploit other laborers, or indirectly, by alliance with capital, to share in their exploitation. To be sure, the black mass, developed again and again, here and there, capitalistic groups in New Orleans, in Charleston and in Philadelphia; groups willing to join white capital in exploiting labor; but they were driven back into the mass by racial prejudice before they had reached a permanent foothold; and thus became all the more bitter against all organization which by means of race prejudice, or the monopoly of wealth, sought to exclude men from making a living.
It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.
That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world’s raw material and luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather—how shall we end the list and where? All these are gathered up at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed and transported at fabulous gain; and the resultant wealth is distributed and displayed and made the basis of world power and universal dominion and armed arrogance in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro.
Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of Religion and Democracy, of Humanity. Words and futile gestures avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.
—W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America
For Further Reflection
“We don’t choose our talents; but we needn’t hide them in a napkin because they are not just what we want.” ― Louisa May Alcott
“We have different forms assigned to us in the school of life, different gifts imparted. All is not attractive that is good. Iron is useful, though it does not sparkle like the diamond. Gold has not the fragrance of a flower. So different persons have various modes of excellence, and we must have an eye to all.” ― William Wilberforce
“If you invest nothing, the reward is worth little.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Woodley, Matt. The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite your faith community to consider how the concepts of investment and return translate for your ministry.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (firstname.lastname@example.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Judges 4:1-7 and Psalm 123 • Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 and Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12 • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 • Matthew 25:14-30
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=169