The Risk-Free Option

The Risk-Free Option

Matthew 25:14-30

Stephen Hollaway

Sunday, November 15, 2020

This story used to frighten me more than all the other judgment parables combined. When I was in college and a young adult, I read this story strictly in terms of individual abilities. A fine book from The Church of the Savior in D.C. called Eighth Day of Creation was based on this parable. The author was encouraging Christians to discover what their hidden gifts are and argued that God’s will for us could be found written into our being in the form of our gifts. But too many of us bury our gifts out of fear.

The only problem was that this just made me more afraid—afraid that somehow I had missed what my real gift was—that I had the wrong major or the wrong career. At least since high school I had been told that I had gifts as a writer and a poet. What was I doing with it? Why wasn’t I publishing? Why wasn’t I on track for a Nobel Prize?

I took two semesters of Milton, exploring the great Christian poet who wrote Paradise Lost. His lines that most stuck with me were those of his sonnet, “On His Blindness,” a blindness that struck him at age 35. You may remember the opening: “When I consider that my light is spent/Ere half my days in this dark world and wide.” But the next line refers to this parable: “And that one Talent which is death to hide/Lodged with me useless.”

Maybe you’ve had the same kind of fear, maybe even as you’ve come to the end of your career, that you still have a hidden talent that you have never really used or developed. In my retirement I’m trying to focus on developing my poetry and writing other than sermons, which I kept simmering but kept on the back burner all my adult life. It’s not a bad thing to consider what your gifts are, even late in life, but that’s not actually the point of this story Jesus tells.

My most obvious mistake in reading the parable was to think that the term “talent” meant—or at least stood for—a personal ability. That’s the way we use the word when we talk about a talent show or a talent search. But that meaning for “talent” in English, Latin, and Greek derives from this parable and a particular interpretation of it. The original meaning of the word “talent” for Jesus and his listeners would have been a large unit of money. While the NRSV retains the word “talent” from the King James, the NIV renders the word “bags of gold.” Other translation use “valuable coins” or “bags of silver.”

If you calculate how much these coins would be worth in today’s economy, you get some very large numbers. The story would then say that the master went away to another country and left his financial affairs in the hands of three slaves. You probably know that slaves in that world could serve as teachers, doctors, and accountants. But the amount the master left is so large as to border on the absurd, as in the story of the servant who is forgiven $18 million dollars and refuses to forgive a debt of $100. Roughly speaking, the first slave is given $5 million to handle; the second is given $2 million; the third is given only $1 million. It’s not a measly amount, so he can say “Poor me, I was only given one talent. I’m offended.” As in most of Jesus’ stories, this all takes stretching your imagination. “Just suppose,” he says, “that a rich man went on a very long trip and gave his three servants the responsibility for managing millions of dollars.”

The question becomes much broader than what have we done with the ability to play piano that we have hidden since junior high. The question is more broadly: What have we done with what has been entrusted to us? It’s the stewardship parable par excellence.

It seems to me that the contrast between the first two slaves and the third one, who gets most of the attention, is in their willingness to risk. Over the period that the master was away—which we are told was “a long time”—the first two servants somehow got a return of 100% on their investment. If your target for your 401(k) is a 10% a year return on stocks, you’ll get to 100% in seven years. But we have no idea what these servants did—loan to a business, buy seed for a farmer, expand an olive grove. But there is no way to get that kind of return without assuming some risk. The first two servants must have known that their master would not freak out if they lost some of the principal as long as he had gained something by the time he got back. Their implied view of the master was that he was fair and generous and would reward their efforts.

The third servant, on the other hand, is afraid of the master the way some of us are afraid of God. He explains his caution by saying that he knew the master was a harsh man who had unfair expectations of return. We have no reason to think that his assessment of the master is accurate—although some scholars take it at face value, arguing that the master is a bad guy, along with the first two servants, and the third servant is the good guy. I think turning the interpretation on its head for the sake of scholarly novelty is a mistake even though it may get you published. The straightforward reading is to say that the third servant was unnecessarily afraid of the master, as Jesus believed that many of his Jewish listeners were unnecessarily afraid of his heavenly Father.

The third servant buries a million bucks in the ground. To us, that sounds ridiculous, but it would have seemed sensible to Jesus’ listeners. Burying things was a legal and normal way to hide things, as we see in Jesus’ other parable about finding treasure buried in a field. In the Talmud, compiled by rabbis a few centuries later, it is said that when a master gives money to a subordinate over whom he has power, the subordinate should “take no risks. Bury the cash in the ground.”

This was the risk-free option. When you buy a mutual fund or set up your retirement, they give you a little questionnaire about your “risk tolerance.” It has something to do with personality, with safety nets you have in place, and how much you can afford to lose. This third servant is clearly risk-averse. But people hearing this story would not have thought that he did anything wrong. He was just being careful. To his mind, it was better to conserve what he was given rather than risk losing it in any kind of investment scheme. He was simply conservative, in a literal sense, focused on conserving.

So when the master returns and condemns the third servant for being so careful, the people hearing the story must have been surprised. He only did what they might do in the same situation. We might put the cash in a safe or a safety deposit box. But what Jesus seems to be saying by this twist in the story is that when the Son of Man returns, he’s going to ask “Why were you so darn careful? Why didn’t you take any risks for me?”

You probably know that the Hippocratic oath begins, “First, do no harm.” But when we go to see a doctor, we hope that’s not all the doctor is going to do. It’s not enough for the doctor to say, well, I don’t want to expose myself to a malpractice suit, so I’m not going to do anything about your cancer. We have plenty of “do no harm” Christians, but they also do no good. The point of the Christian life is not simply to avoid hurting people; you have to take some risks to help people. John Wesley, commenting on this parable 250 years ago, concluded, “So mere harmlessness, on which many build their hope of salvation, was the cause of his damnation!” The careful servant is not charged with harming anyone. He is charged with a lack of courage.

The parable that follows this one in Matthew 25 is the one about “whatever you have done for the least of these.” In that story, too, the ones who are judged by the Son of Man are not people who have done evil, but people who have done nothing. They may have been harmless and squeaky clean, but they did not pour themselves out for the poor as the Lord asks us to do.

I think we make a mistake reading the parable of the talents as if it was only meant to speak to individuals about how they use their gifts. It speaks to the entire community—to the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, to the early church of Matthew’s day, and to the church of the 21st century, even to First and Franklin in particular.

Most of Jesus’ teaching is directed not only to his disciples but also to the scribes and Pharisees, the righteous who opposed him. Often he points out that they are unduly concerned with what not to do, a list of rules, rather than mercy and forgiveness. Have I told you that when I was in seminary, the Presbyterian students used to call the Baptist students “Dunkin’ Do-nots”? That wasn’t fair, but there have been a few Baptists in our time focused on rules.

But think about the Pharisees hearing this story. What was the biggest treasure they had been given? It was the Torah, the record of God’s instruction. You might say the Bible is the great treasure given to us. What do we do with scripture? One option is to try to protect it, to make sure that it is not harmed, to bury it in the ground. That is the risk-free option, and it was people who had that view of the Bible that drove me out of the Southern Baptist Convention. They thought arguing about the nonexistent original scriptures being theoretically “inerrant” was more important than doing what they said. An option to burying them is to try to put the scriptures to work in the world, to use them to make a difference, to interpret them in a way that applies to today—but of course that involves some risk and some courage.

The most valuable thing we have been entrusted with is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul referred to himself and his fellow workers as “stewards of the mysteries of God” or “trustees of God’s secrets.” If you have been given the faith to receive the gospel into your life, you have been entrusted with something precious—not so that you can bury it or hide it away in a book you never read, but so that it can change your life and be shared with other people who can be changed as well.

This church has been entrusted with the Gospel. How would you evaluate this congregation’s stewardship of that Gospel? Do we each have a warm little ember of it in our own hearts? Or have we joined our embers together, so they become a bright fire? Have we lost the sense that we exist in order to spread that warmth and light to others, not just to our church family but to a community of people who need not only food and medicine but hope and meaning?

It is not wrong for First and Franklin to be thinking about the stewardship of our building and property. Maybe we are wasting them. Maybe we are not taking care of them. I say this as one who loves this sanctuary and our spire and sees them as powerful witnesses which need to be “sold” to our potential members more effectively. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile exercise—if a frightening one–to ask who would be if we had to give up the building.

But the question that comes before that is our stewardship of the Gospel. How is everything we do tied to the Gospel? How might we use our real estate to spread the Gospel now and over the 21st century? But those questions are premised on the assumption that the people of our church actually have a deep love for Jesus and his mission in the world.

Every period that comes when a church is without a pastor is a time for reassessment and renewal, a time for explaining to ourselves what we are here for, so that we can explain it to candidates for pastor. Here’s the deal, as a certain politician would say: Most congregations today are anxious congregations; they are fearful like the third servant. They just don’t want to lose anything else. They want to hold on to what they have left.

When a church’s focus is no longer the adventure of risking for the sake of the Gospel but the survival of the church as an institution, the Spirit has no chance to work. Maintaining the status quo so that we can say to the Lord, “See, nothing has changed! Here, I give it back to you just as you gave it to me” is not what being the body of Christ on mission in this world is about. To be honest, most churches eventually choose the no-risk option and just try to survive. The result is a slow, lingering death. That is not what Jesus wants for us. He wants us to take risks, to thrive, to be invested in our neighbors’ lives so that they experience what God’s love is like. Let us ask God for the wisdom and courage to change the things we can, and to be the church that Jesus dreams of for the corner of Franklin and Park. Amen.