USING OUR TALENTS
Rev.Dr.Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
August 13, 2017
Text: Matthew 25:14-30
One of the problems with reading and hearing the parables is that they are familiar to us—or so we suppose.We hear a parable and think, oh, yes, I know that one. It’s about forgiveness, or redemption, or, as in the case of this morning’s parable, using our talents. The parables to us seem so obvious, but they were not always that obvious to Jesus’ listeners.
Traditional Christian exegesis or interpretation of this story and the similar one in Luke 19:11-27 is that God has given each of us various gifts and in various proportions. In Romans 12 Paul wrote of the “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,” and the writer of Ephesians urges us to use our gifts for the building up of the body of Christ. Strictly speaking, of course, the talents were not gifts but money entrusted to the servants/slaves for a particular purpose.
What is sometimes troubling for readers is the punishment meted out to the one servant who seems to be prudent and careful to the point of being protective because that servant speaks the truth to the man who has gone on this trip and entrusted his servants with these funds. “Master,” he says, “I knew you were harsh, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not gather.” No matter is the reply. No wonder we try to domesticate the parables.
Using our gifts or talents sounds great until we realize that there are inherent risks in doing so. Now, we are all taught to be prudent, careful, and thinking about consequences of our actions. We are not taught to be risk-takers. In fact, we often consider people who are risk-takers as foolish beyond unwise.
The third servant was not a risk-taker; in fact, his response indicates that he was prudent out of fear. The word prudence finds its origin in the Latin prudential, which means the ability to govern oneself by the use of reason.Over this past week, we have seen a flurry of words that many of us would consider imprudent, not governed by reason but by the opposite, recklessness.
Be that as it may, the idea of prudence has a long history in our religious thinking.In the Middle Ages, it was considered as one of the seven virtues. It was considered a model of moral virtues since it was supposed to govern ethical behavior. Prudent behavior included several characteristics according to medieval scholastics, such as memory or the ability to learn from experience, intelligence and the ability to consider a situation and make a wise decision as to the course of action, open-mindedness and the ability to take all relevant circumstances into account, and caution or considering the consequences of our actions.
Prudent behavior is normally considered to be intrinsically cautious, always looking at the consequences of an action before taking the action. Sometimes this is called a prudent risk because every action involves some degree of uncertainty.
The very phrase “prudent risk” may make some of us wonder how it is possible to be both prudent and risk-taking. The question becomes what is the level of uncertainty versus the possible anticipated result. In fact, this is an area of management training particularly in the area of finances.
We ask ourselves: Is this what we are called to do as Christians? As a church, a worshiping community? This parable in Matthew seems to argue against being prudent, squirreling our treasures to protect them since the poor third servant who did that was cast into, as the text puts it, “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
However, the parable does not say that the one who had five talents and the other who had two went off and recklessly traded, invested, or used other such means to increase the amounts given them by the master. In spite of the recent abrogation of fiduciary rules stating that financial planners and investors must make their decisions based on their clients’ best interests rather than their own, the first two servants realized that there was no difference between their own best interests and those of their master. We could learn something here.
The first two servants had to take some risks in their trading in order to obtain the results they did. The parable doesn’t tell us what those risks might have been. We can only surmise just as we can only consider what risks we as a church, a community of faith must take in order to gain the rewards we want.
The risks that we are willing to take, of course, depend largely on the goals and objectives we wish to achieve. That only makes sense.It makes sense for us as a congregation, as a community, or as a nation. Setting the goals, determining the objectives are preliminary to deciding the risks we are willing to take. This is not a parable about throwing caution to the wind.
It does, however, tell us that we must be willing to take some risks, to make some decisions in the hope that they will yield fruit—the fruit of our goals, of our purpose in the larger community. The parable also tells us that we cannot just squirrel away our resources figuring that the nuts will be there when we need them.
So what are some of the risks we need to consider? What are the goals that are important to us as Christians seeking to serve God in this community? For that is the essential question. It is and must be more than simply self-preser-vation. If Jesus had only worried about self-preservation, he would have stopped preaching and healing and trying to bring hope to a disheartened world.
Because he is the One we follow, we should take his example. And we actually do in many ways: we feed the poor, we support organizations committed to alleviating poverty and homelessness, we welcome all into our community, and we work to be good stewards of God’s creation. Some of these actions have entailed taking risks and this congregation has taken them. The question for us is whether there are other areas where we need to take risks.
Again, that depends on how we define our vision and see our mission, essential before we can even outline goals and objectives. Our vision as a worshiping and serving inclusive community is fundamental to who we are. That vision frames our mission to be welcoming and open, not just in a passive way but in an active one.
If we are actively welcoming, then we must take on the issues that result in the exclusion of others based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income or economic status, immigration status, just to name a few. If we are actively open, then we work for a just, humane, and peaceful society that respects people and the environment. We agree with this in general terms. The crunch begins when we need to adopt and act on specifics, as it always does for any of us.
As a congregation, we have undertaken some specific steps to reflect our vision and mission. It may not sound like much, but changing our church’s bank in support of the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline took time and effort. We should urge other churches to do the same. We can do that through our state UCC and Baptist Associations, the Ministerium, or the local clergy association.
That would require some time to bring the issue before such bodies. I have already contacted the Social Issues Task Force of the New Jersey UCC to discuss this issue as well as other issues facing us. There are many communities of people here in New Jersey who need to see churches acting as environmental stewards.
This year we have an election for both governor and members of the state legislature. The issues of poverty and homelessness must be addressed by the candidates and as followers of the One who calls us to build a realm of justice, we should hold the candidates’ feet to the fire on these issues. Summertime is usually a quiet time, but it is a time to think and plan how best to address these important issues in New Jersey. This election should be about more than property taxes.
As we examine our goals and objectives for this year and the ones that follow, we should look at the areas where we are called to take risks and decide how those risks should be measured in light of the call of discipleship. The resources given us by prior generations are not to be squirreled away lest we be called to task as was the overly cautious servant, but should be used to help build the realm of justice and peace called for by Jesus of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord.
Let us come to God in prayer: You, O God, who has called us to be faithful to the vision of Jesus, to share his mission with all, guide us in our deliberations as we seek to reflect the work begun by Jesus of Nazareth, the One who is our model and guide. Amen.