There are sermons, and there are Sermons. This was a Sermon. I offer it to you as my take on the parable of the Five Talents (readings are here). And, I offer it as my first step in my repentance process. It was in prepping for this sermon that I truly began to grasp the depth to which slavery is embedded in our Scripture (if you’d like to read some of what I’m reading on slavery and Scripture, see the works of Jennifer Glancy).
Today, in church world, is 5 Talent Sunday. Also known as the “day that all seminarians dread when they are going into their first call because it’s a super difficult parable and none of us know what to do with it.”
I mentioned to a few former classmates that it’s five talent Sunday, and they all said “ohhhhh, good luck with that.” A few asked what’s the Psalm?”
The Psalm, as we just heard, is 5 lines. The Old Testament is a hint of Deborah, who is an incredible figure in Scripture & really fun to preach on, but the hint isn’t really enough to preach on. The reading from Thessalonians is good, but it is clear, on this day, the lectionary people really want today to be 5 Talents day.
And so it will be.
I have to tell you all, the first, I don’t know, 56 times I looked at this parable, I had no idea what to do with it, and, honestly, I didn’t really like it; and if I’m being honest, I still don’t. I don’t like the way the third slave is treated. I don’t understand the relationship between slave and master. And I truly, to the depths of my being struggle with the nonchalance with which Scripture talks about slavery and the punishment of slaves.
But, this is Scripture. And with Scripture, there is no escaping or ignoring things you don’t like. So I did with this parable what I did with the book of Joshua, and the writings of Paul, and everything that I read or hear and don’t like in the Bible – I dove into it with abandon. I approached this story like it’s my job, because it is.
And by the end of the process, I had a new appreciation for this parable despite my struggles with it. Hopefully, by the end of this sermon, you will too.
To begin, I want to discuss what a Talent is. It’s a measure of weight, in this instance it’s silver. Each talent was the equivalent of 10-15 years of wages for a laborer. In modern days, that’s somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 dollars. Each.
This was (and is) an unfathomable amount of money for the slaves. It was more than they would ever have access to in their lives. It was probably more money than they had ever seen.
And each of them, all three of the slaves, received at least 1 talent. All of them were worthy of receiving this incredible amount of money.
And yet, what I’ve come to appreciate about this parable, and what I’m sure many gathered here today already know, is that this parable is NOT about money.
This parable has also been used to say you should fear God.
This parable isn’t about fear.
This parable is NOT a justification for slavery, though it has been used as one for two thousand years.
This parable isn’t even really about the servants who double the money.
This parable is about what we do with what we’re given. Much or little. Unfathomable or reasonable. What motivates us to whatever actions we take. What do we do with the opportunities we are given.
Because in life now as it was in this parable: we are not all given the same opportunities.
When I read this parable, I read it as the only child of a single Mom who grew up poor. We were on government assistance for my first years. We relied on the kindness of neighbors and family to get by. When my house burned down in the 7th grade, we were homeless.
That’s how I read this story. I know, of course, that I grew up with far more privileges and opportunities than many others; but this is my lens. And it’s crucial to understand the lens with which we approach life, and especially when reading Scripture.
When I read this parable, my reaction is “wait. He didn’t do anything wrong!!! The third slave was scared. He had so little. What if he’d lost it, or something had happened? He’d never be able to pay that off. He’d be horribly punished. So he kept it safe.”
If you’ve ever been truly poor you understand the instinct to hold onto the little that you have. You hold onto things that might have any value or purpose in the future. You spend money so cautiously. You fear the repercussions of not having enough.
And, don’t forget, there was no federal insurance for money in a bank. At the time, if you wanted to keep something safe, you buried it.
Also, let’s not forget that this man was a slave. He might have been trusted with a large sum of money, but he is still a slave. Vulnerable, owned, treated as less than human, living under the constant fear of physical violence and retribution. Fear seems reasonable to me in this situation.
It is really hard for me to hear that God was mad. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea of God being mad at someone who is scared. To understand the deeper meaning of this parable through my lens was difficult. And remains troubling.
Though, of course, your lens is different than mine. We are sitting in a rather affluent Episcopal Church, in one of the more affluent parts of this Country.
Some here may have a very different lens than mine. Regardless of our lens, the thing I believe we need to think about in this parable centers around what we do, and why we do it.
This parable, I believe, is about motivation. What motivates us to do what we do, to be who we are, to give what we give?
Do we act out of fear or freedom? Do we act out of scarcity or abundance?
The third slave acted out of fear. A fear that appears to be unfounded when I take a very close look at this text, through my modern lens. There’s nothing to say that the Master is actually cruel or cheats. In fact, this parable is set up with the Master standing as a metaphor for God. Which means that those hearing this parable understood and accepted that God was a slave owner. A kind and generous slave owner, but still a slave owner.
This parable is about those slaves, and what motivated them. Specifically now let’s consider the third slave. The fear he lived under constantly is part of why he would believe the wisest course of action to be to hide what he has, rather than doing something to grow the master’s wealth.
This week, we celebrate a holiday that encourages us to look at, and celebrate, the gifts of this life. We give thanks for what we have. I also think this parable invites us to take an honest look at what we have, and what we do with what we have.
When I was thinking about preaching this week, and preparing for this sermon, I took a few minutes to talk to friends who are Episcopal clergy from Navajo Land. I asked them what, if anything, they celebrate or are thankful for this time of year.
What they told me changed how I look at this parable and at my own relationship with God.
They told me they are thankful they survived.
They are thankful for the resiliency and strength of those who survived.
They are thankful for the lessons learned and passed down.
They are thankful that those lessons could be passed down.
And they celebrate. They celebrate those who survived. They celebrate the lessons passed down. They celebrate the way in which those lessons are passed down.
They are thankful for, and celebrate, all of those who came before, and that they still are.
Our conversation included my offering them my sincere apology for how my ancestors treated theirs. Because I am truly sorry. I did not perpetuate any of these atrocities myself, but I benefit from them today.
I do not celebrate this part of American history. I acknowledge that it is part of our collective history, and our present, as the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrates, and as the two hundred thousand gallons of oil spilling from the Keystone pipeline covers and ruins what little land they have; land which was leftover and unwanted by white Americans.
It is part of our history that in order to accommodate the desires of white people, millions of Native Americans were slaughtered, mistreated, and driven from their land, and their way of life.
I acknowledge that the Native Americans have every right to be angry, to be bitter, to horde and bury what little they have. Because American history and American present says that what little they have will be taken.
And somehow, they have found from within that history things to be celebrated. And they still find the strength of Spirit to share that celebration.
I heard their words in my ears as I read this parable. And it changed the way I think about how and what you do with what you are given. Regardless of how much you endure, or how much you are given.
We, as white Americans have been given a lot. We have so much because we have benefited from a system that was built on the blood, sweat, and land, of others.
Our ancestors were given great opportunities, and they chose to exploit and hurt others in order to gain more economic wealth. We do the same things today. It is in our very DNA as a culture. It is written into our constitution. It is throughout the Bible. It is the lens through which we read Scripture.
And I ask you, today, as we sit in church learning about the 5 talents, are we growing what we’ve been given, or are we burying it to protect it? Are we insulating ourselves in order to protect what is ours? Our way of life? Our customs, our money, our things?
Or, are we using the gifts, our talents, the wealth that we have been given? Are we using what we’ve been given to grow the Kingdom, or is it buried?
Do we fear a thief in the night, as Paul says we do in Thessalonians? Or do we recognize that what is happening in the world today are the birth pains of a new and great movement? We have the safety and security of Christ, and we are finding the strength to stand up and live into the command of actually loving our neighbors. And that maybe the way people are speaking up is a way to use the gifts that Christ has given each of us to truly benefit the kingdom of God?
I hope that why we come to church is at least in part to learn about what it means to be Christian and how to live out these ancient words in our modern context. Part of being Christian is to see and acknowledge our history and our cultures, and to find a way to set ourselves apart.
What this parable, and what so many parables teach us is why it is important to be more than our history, to be more than our culture, to be more than our politics, to be more than what we should be.
We are to be Christian. We are to take risks to grow the Kingdom. We are to use what we have in order to help benefit those who don’t have. We are to look at ourselves and see that even if we have little, we still have been entrusted with something that matters to God.
This week, let’s all take a moment. Let’s take a few moments to look at ourselves and our lives, and appreciate that we have all been entrusted with something that matters to God.
Do we know what those things are? Those talents that God has entrusted us with?
Do we use them, or are they buried in the yard?
How can we identify and use what God has gifted us with?
And what is stopping us?