Abundant Possibilities

Sunday, November 13
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Abundant Possibilities

Weekly Prayer
God of the covenant, even when we fall into sin, your Spirit invites us to remember that chose us to be your servant people. Awaken us to the power and gifts you pour into us for the good of creation, and grant that we may be trustworthy in all things, producing abundantly as we work to build your realm.  Amen.

Focus Reading
Matthew 25:14-30

[And Jesus said:] “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 one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘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.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘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.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will

All Readings For This Sunday
Judges 4:1-7 with Psalms 123 or
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 with Psalms 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Focus Questions

1. What do you think the foolish bridesmaid (from last week’s reading) would say to the “worthless” servant?

2. How does our image of God affect the way we live?

3. What would it look like to “become totally fire”?

4. Do you think of risk-taking as a virtue?

5. How could you be part of letting the gospel loose in the world?

by Kate Huey

This week’s parable, the second of three in a row in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, is as challenging as last week’s story about the foolish virgins who weren’t prepared for the bridegroom’s delayed arrival. To those of us who have grown up with capitalism, a story about servants giving an accounting to their master could sound like a warning from Jesus to invest our money well, or at the very least to deposit it in the bank for interest! However, the story isn’t about money, of course: money is the illustration Jesus uses, but as always the meaning is surely much deeper than mere cash or bank balances. The setting of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel helps: as Jesus nears his death, would he really be exhorting his disciples to invest their money well? We suspect he would not, so the story must be about something “more.”

We sometimes interpret the story to be about “talents” in the sense of personal gifts and abilities that God expects us to use well–for the sake of the Reign of God, of course. (Several scholars point out that the word “talent,” which was a unit of money in the ancient world, came into the English language from this very parable, because of this interpretation.) Use our talents, and good things happen, including amazing growth (in us as well as in the Reign of God). Bury them, leave them unexercised, and we end up out in the cold. The parable, it seems, is about things like responsibility and accountability, then: putting our resources and our talents to good use.

Certainly, that reading does not exhaust the story’s meaning. Again, it helps to read this parable with the other two, and to read all three in light of where Jesus is on his journey. He’s preparing to leave his disciples, knowing that there will be a long “meantime” before he returns. In the Gospels, there are passages where Jesus speaks with great love and reassurance when he’s leaving the disciples. We love to hear the words, “Do not fear,” in the Bible. But then there are these parables that challenge us and even warn us. In last week’s reflection, Fred Craddock described two types of parables, “those that offer a surprise of grace at the end…and those that follow the direct course from cause to effect as surely as the harvest comes from what is sown. There are no gifts and parties. Together the two types present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other.” All three of our parables in this chapter seem to be about justice and consequences, including this story about talents, enterprising or lazy servants, and an anticipated reckoning when the One we await returns.

As Jesus leaves his parting instructions, Charles Cousar says, he uses these stories to “direct the hearers’ attention to the issues at hand, to faithfulness, preparedness, and risk.” Oil is the image in last week’s story, and money is used this week. If hyperbole is exaggeration for effect, Jesus’ story certainly makes his point by using sums of money that would have been fantastic to his hearers. How much, we wonder, would it take to impress us today, when even “a trillion dollars” has lost its impact? Many years, many generations could have lived off the talents in this story. And “the man” gives them not equally to the three servants but to each “according to his ability.” The word translated as “ability” is dynamis, or “power.” We’re intrigued to think about the power within each servant, within each of us, and how we use it, or how we bury it.  Not just talent, but power.

Andrew Warner, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, has written a thoughtful reflection on this text, beginning with a question that’s perhaps a bit whimsical: “Did the ‘worthless slave’ know the story of the foolish bridesmaids?” It’s an imaginative approach, because characters in parables are not historical figures; in fact, Warner calls the servant a “caricature, a foil for you and for me, someone who shows our own potential for folly.” But wouldn’t it be interesting if a foolish bridesmaid and the unwise servant could have a conversation? Warner observes that it’s understandable that the servant would “focus on preserving his money.” However, “[i]t turns out that preservation is not the same as preparation, and endurance is not simply ending up where you started.” (Warner’s reflection is in the 11-04-08 issue of The Christian Century.)

Was he lazy, or stupid, or immobilized by fear?

One layer of meaning in the story addresses what’s going on inside the third servant, his commitment, courage and worldview. Is he lazy, or stupid, or immobilized by fear? (Some might say yes to all three.) The lesson we can learn from the story about money and loans is to put our gifts into circulation: this parable, Richard Bauckham writes, “compares the use of all God has given one–not just specific ‘talents,’ but all that one has and is–in God’s service, with the use of a financial loan in order to make a profit for the investor.” If we hoard and hide money, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Just as ‘for a businessman, the whole point of money is to be used and spent and circulated in order to make more money…what God has given us–our selves, our lives, our faith, our abilities, our gifts, our possessions–is given in order to be spent and put into circulation. Our lives are to be expended in God’s service, becoming thereby the source of further blessings for others and for ourselves.” 

Could the story be about courage, then? The third servant’s fear prevented him from taking the risks of a life fully lived, a faithful life that follows Jesus no matter what may lie ahead (remembering that what lay ahead for Jesus was suffering and death, but resurrection, too). Bauckham writes, “All that God gives us is given to be risked in new ventures in God’s service. Every new step in living for God is a risk.” Connecting courage with the theme of the stewardship of money, Warner creatively uses the example of church endowments, and the tension between preservation (of the money) and preparation (for the master’s return). He sees the money entrusted to the servants as “amazing–a reckless, unearned, unheard-of trust.” The first two “responded with daring, courageously doubling both the principal of the bequest and the principle behind it. The worthless slave did not understand what he’d been given.” Warner’s challenge might unnerve many a church leader and longtime member: “When we are called to account, the question will not be how it is that we preserved the balance sheet or the bricks and mortar, but whether we emulated others’ daring and doubled it, taking audacious action to preserve principle over principal.”

How did the “worthless” servant see things?

Thomas Long dependably provides a slightly different angle of approach, focusing on the way the third servant sees others, in this case, his master. We might say his worldview produces exactly the results he expects, that is, “he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see.” Like Cousar, Long speaks of consequences, in this case, the consequences of one’s faith. His reflection is as chilling as the final verse of the parable: “[T]o be a child of the generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, nonetheless, to insist up on viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear provoking is to live a life that is tragically impoverished….For those who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed along, quivering in endless fear.”

As valuable as all of these insights are, I think we could also read in this parable a very important lesson about how to live, again, “in the meantime,” before Jesus returns. Yes, courage and generosity and good stewardship of our resources are all part of the picture, but the big picture is one of a transformed life, as individuals and as a church. When Matthew wrote his Gospel, Cousar reminds us, he wasn’t necessarily talking about the risk of losing money or being hurt in a relationship, but “the risk of the public expression of the gospel, whether they would keep it safely tucked away in a secure context or let it loose in the broader world among the nations. Anticipating Jesus’ return meant rejecting the lure of security, with its logic of fear and intimidation, and taking the risk of discipleship, with its dangers and perils.”  This is stewardship beyond money: a stewardship of the gospel itself. 

Becoming totally fire

Could it be that we bury our faith, our relationship with God, the gospel itself, or at least tuck it away in some hidden place, and just take it out on Sundays and emergency situations? Is our whole life affected, changed, transformed by living out our baptism, by responding every day to the call of the Stillspeaking God? A story always says this sort of thing better, and I remember reading the story long ago about one of the Desert Fathers from early, early Christianity, when people were driven by faith into the wilderness to live with very little material comfort but tremendous spiritual riches. One day a young monk came to Abba Joseph and asked him what more he could do, since he was already doing some fasting, and some praying, and some work, mostly weaving baskets. The holy man responded, the story goes, by raising his hands, and fire shot out from his fingers as he responded to the young man with this great challenge:  “Why not become totally fire?” 

The story stirs our spirits, but how well does it describe the faith of our congregations and the whole church? Are we going along, doing some fasting and praying and basket-weaving, but not catching fire? Is our faith life more about safety and reassurance and security, or is it about risk-taking and openness and courage, and the unimaginable abundance to which these virtues lead? Have we even thought of such things as virtues? Are we willing to let the gospel loose in the world? Are we willing to be a blessing to the world? My sense is that Mission:1 in these first days of November 2011 has been just such a moment of unified, Spirit-filled generosity that not only brought us together in work and giving and prayer, but has helped us to see the unity underneath the giving and receiving, the investment of talents and gifts, the risk-taking and trust-walking. Of course, we work for the transformation of the world, but we are surprised–joyfully surprised–to see that our lives are transformed as well.

For further reflection

John Lubbock, 19th century
If we are ever in doubt about what to do, it is a good rule to ask ourselves what we shall wish on the morrow that we had done.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, 20th century 
When you carry out acts of kindness you get a wonderful feeling inside. It is as though something inside your body responds and says, yes, this is how I ought to feel.

James Russell Lowell, 19th century
All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.

Michael W. Smith, 21st century
I think if the church did what they were supposed to do we wouldn’t have anyone sleeping on the streets.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, 21st century
The children of the world do not need more missiles.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 19th century
Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.