Ordinary 33A; Proper 28
The utterances from Jesus in this week’s parable resonate far too much with a belief I hear expressed in our culture and present in our own thoughts and actions. The twisted theology of capitalism that propagates the myth that the poor are poor because of their own failings claims many adherents.
They haven’t worked hard enough or they’ve squandered their resources or made poor decisions. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the admonition not to give money to someone because they won’t spend it wisely. You know, the mantra about not handing over a dollar to the person with the cardboard sign because, you know, they are only going to buy beer or cigarettes with it. Whereas, those with more, well, they deserve it because they earned it. They worked hard, made good choices. Having little or nothing is a moral failing worthy of judgment.
Studies on poverty and scholars who have conducted and written about those studies consistently debunk the myth that being poor is due to personal failings, yet it persists. No matter how many times the math is shown about a living wage, the cost of housing, the unavailability of affordable childcare, transportation or education, the belief belies the facts, and those with one talent have even that one taken away from them.
Disturbingly enough, Jesus appears to sign on to the fallacy, too. I am tempted to do a Thomas Jefferson on this passage and cut out a few verses. I wrestle with how to make the Jesus of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount – the Jesus who said to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, give the shirt off your back – jive with the one in Matthew 25:28-29 who says: “So take the talent away 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 have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Never mind that it is hard to take something away from nothing. Then comes that lovely refrain of Matthew’s Gospel, “Throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
What word of grace and Good News is there in this story? I suppose if we are among the ones with five or ten talents then we can rejoice, give thanks and sing; but later on in our canon we’re told we can’t rejoice fully when others are weeping and gnashing their teeth. I think, in fact, for preaching and teaching purposes, we should assume we are the worthless one with less than one talent. Assuming our position with the least and last is sort of a Jesusy thing to do and forces us to face the hard word of this final judgment text.
So, what’s the word of grace and Good News for the one with nothing, from whom even what they have will be taken? What’s the word of grace and Good News for us?
Well, to be honest, that word whispers rather than shouts. Lean in close and wait. Brace yourself for something you may not want to hear because this is one of those conversations akin to the ones that begin with, “We need to talk.”
Jesus says to us, to those with ears to hear, “We need to talk.” We need to talk about discipleship, following Jesus, what’s required and what won’t be tolerated. Keep in mind, this parable lives between the ten wise and foolish bridesmaids and the judgment of the nations (you know, that least of these, sheep-and-goats scenario). The parable of the talents speaks to the time when time is up and we are held accountable for our lives – all that we’ve done and left undone. Clearly this, for us, is not going to be a comfortable conversation. BUT, the word of grace and the Good News is that Jesus is inviting us to have it now, while there is still time to make a correction, change our path, repent, go and sin no more.
If we approach this text as the worthless one with less than one talent, but one Jesus loves so much he doesn’t want us to be ignorant of how we are to live if we are to be faithful to the Triune God, then perhaps, just maybe, we can hear it as a word of grace and Good News.
Jesus isn’t endorsing our self-justifying belief that the poor are at fault for their poverty. No. Jesus gives fair warning to those who mistake the call of God as risk-free, fear-based or less than demanding of our best and our all. What, then, are we doing with our God-given talents? We’ve no idea when we will be called upon to settle our accounts, so what are we doing this very day to make sure the Kingdom benefits from what God has given us?
That’s part of the truth of this unnerving tale, too. The return on those five, ten or one talents is not ours. Everything belongs to God. How aware are we of that reality? Such sentiment goes counter to our culture, too. It is the poor’s fault they are poor. I deserve my wealth because I worked hard for it. Both are false statements in God’s economic system. What’s at stake with the talents is our recognition that first and foremost they all belong to God. They, indeed we, are not our own. Secondly, the talents entrusted to us are not to be horded, hidden or squandered. They are to be used. Imagine if the lens used to determine what to do with our resources, monetary and otherwise, was whether or not what we did with them built up the Kingdom. Finally, fear-based decisions do not make for God-pleasing results. A life of faith is a life of radical trust in the Triune God and therefore radical risks of faith.
The word of grace and Good News that can then be shouted and celebrated is this: When we trust our trustworthy God, we are free to lavishly use our God-given talents, knowing when the time comes for our account to be settled, we have nothing to fear.
Are we ready to live that Good News? Thanks be to God, if we are willing to have that difficult conversation with Jesus, there is still time.
- How are you using your God-given talents? How about the church of which you are a part?
- What are the talents, the gifts and the resources God has given you? Make a list. Are there some you need to do more with? Others you have neglected?
- Have you ever made a fear-based decision? What was the result?
- Has someone ever entrusted you with something valuable to care for in their absence? How did you feel about having that responsibility?
- Look at the other places in Matthew’s Gospel where the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is found. What other behaviors merit this harsh response? Do you see any commonalities?
- Why is the sentiment that if someone is in poverty it is somehow their fault so pervasive? How have Christians countered that message? Supported it?
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