“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you–
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,[a] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 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.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 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.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 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; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 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. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Saturday is the day that I sit down to prepare my sermon which means that on Friday night, I often sleep restlessly. My mind and heart churn through the night trying to connect the Biblical stories to our lives. In the early morning hours of Saturday, I had one of those dreams. The ones in which you are trying to get somewhere, or get something done before the time runs out, but all of your efforts are frustrated. You can’t manage to get dressed, you are late for class and there is a test. You finally do get dressed, then realize on the way that you never even attended this class and you know nothing about the subject you are about to be tested on. Ever have a dream like that?
Early Saturday morning I dreamt that I arrived at church without my sermon so was running home to get it. On the way home I remembered that I had decided NOT to write a sermon but to make a sculpture out of wire and stone to use in place of the sermon. It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time, but suddenly I had no idea why I had made this choice or what the sculpture meant, and besides, I hadn’t actually finished it. Time ran out and I wasn’t ready.
For the second week in a row, we have a parable about running out of time and not being ready. Last week it was the five bridesmaids who ran out of oil and had to make a trip to the store which caused them to miss the arrival of the bridegroom who entered the wedding reception and shut the door on them. Time had run out.
This morning Jesus tells the story of three servants who are entrusted with large sums of money, measured in talents. One talent is equal to about 16 years of an average income. If you made $30,000.00 a year, one talent would be worth $480,000.00. Ten talents would be worth 4,800,000.00. These are not trifling sums. Having entrusted each servant with one, five, or ten talents, the master goes away for an indefinite period of time. When he returns, there is an accounting. Time has run out. Two of the servants have done something—we don’t know what—to double the money they were given. They are called “good and faithful” by the master and invited to enter his joy. The servant entrusted with one talent had immediately gone to the tool shed, taken a shovel, dug a hole and buried the master’s treasure for safe-keeping. He has neither gained nor lost. He is called “worthless and lazy” by the master and thrown out into the utter darkness.
We could interpret this parable in so many ways. If we had time and were in a different setting, I would ask you about the interpretations you might have heard in the past. But, this morning, I want to interpret the parable in light of our reading from the prophet Micah. God has brought a complaint against the people because they are not living in the way that God has given them. They are not using their freedom to love their neighbors. And they respond to God’s complaint by being snarky. “What do you want from us God? Endless burnt offerings. What would make you happy? Thousands of rams? How about rivers of oil? Maybe if we gave our first-born children, you’d be satisfied and stop harassing us.” They’re weary of God. They want to be left alone. Just for a while. They just want to do what they want to do.
The prophet Micah says, “don’t play this game. Don’t make God out to be some ridiculous, greedy, insatiable, unfair ogre. You can’t buy God off with small or large quantities of stuff. You know what God desires: Do justice. Practice kindness all the time with everybody. Walk humbly with God.” I’d say that it all starts with this last thing—walking humbly.
To walk humbly is to walk remembering that the earth and its fullness belong to God. You and your life are from and belong to God. Our neighbors are from and belong to God. Whatever you or I have—material things or abilities or time, all if it is from God. To walk humbly is to remember that it is all gift. All flowing from the abundance and generosity of God. All freely given. To walk humbly is to resist the myths that you or anyone else is a self-made person, and that we have, and every person must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. To begin with, it is all gift from the Creator’s hands, including the people who fed, clothed, encouraged, supported and still cheer us on. It is all graciously entrusted by God to human beings, to us. And all this gift comes with operating instructions that if followed really do create the best reality for you and me and our neighbors, and for the earth.
If then we interpret this parable in light of God’s generosity and God’s desire that we do justice and practice kindness, then there is no way that the master in this story can be allegorized to be God. Yes, there is a parallel in that God, like the master entrusts us with phenomenal gifts. But that is where the likeness ends.
The master in the parable is immensely wealthy and intent on getting still more. He doesn’t dispute what the truthful servant says of him: that he is a harsh man, who reaps what he does not sow, and gets rich on the backs of others who do all the work and bear all the risks. He doesn’t care how his servants make more money for him–whether they cheat, or steal, or find loopholes in the tax system, or engage in insider trading, or invest in businesses that don’t pay workers a living wage. The only goal is that they increase his bottom line.
There are wealthy people in the world who are immensely generous and invest heavily in doing justice and seeking the common good. But there are plenty of people today whose extraordinary wealth, though gained through ruthless and immoral practices, have brought them power and the blind adoration of millions. The fact that the stock market has been doing well is great for those who have enough money to invest there, and especially marvelous for those who have millions and millions invested there. But it is in no way an accurate measure of the health of our economy or the well-being of most people who live in this nation.
When Jesus says at the end of this parable: “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” he is not describing the reality of the commonwealth of God. He is exposing and critiquing economic systems in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We live in such a system. And maybe the servant in this parable who refuses to do whatever it takes to please the greedy master, the servant who won’t compete in the free market economy, the servant who dares to speak to the truth to his master’s face, maybe he is the hero. Maybe this truthful, courageous speaking is how we practice kindness in the face of injustice.
Maybe he is the good and faithful servant because he rejects the collective, corporate strategy of burying our heads in the sand, of just going along to get along, of living blind to the injustices of the economic and political systems we are part of. Maybe he is the Christ figure. The one who gets thrown out by the system for critiquing and resisting the status quo. The one who enters the darkness with the light of divine truth shining brilliantly in and through him. Maybe he is the one who doesn’t, for a single moment, forget that his life is a gift that comes from and belongs to this God who through time and eternity is utterly faithful.
And maybe it is always the case that my sermons are never finished because we are together the living word of the living God. We are the embodied proclamation of God’s love and grace. And we woke up this morning to be reminded that all that we are and all that we have is God’s gift. And there is still plenty good time for us to give our humble thanks. To do justice. To practice kindness.