The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s, Little Rock
November 13, 2011
“For to all 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.” The rich get richer; the poor get poorer. I think I heard that on the news just the other day. Today’s parable sounds a little different with current news stories going on in the background. The 99% percent are Occupying Wall Street. Lines have been drawn in the sand against raising taxes on the rich, while 9% of the population can’t find work, and more and more people are struggling to meet basic needs. With all that going on, who here couldn’t relate to the poor slave with the one talent? At some level, wouldn’t we all like to fearfully bury our wealth in the ground and protect it from this seemingly very risky economy?
Jesus did not live within the same economic systems that we live in today. In fact, Hebrew law forbade usury. It would be a mistake to read this parable as some kind of endorsement for capitalism. In fact, it may be just the opposite. Yet, one thing that we do hold in common with our first-century ancestors is that for them, as for us, money equals power. This is a parable that is not just about money – but about power, and most specifically about the Life (with a capital L) given to us by God, and the way that we will use it.
As the analogy used by Jesus points to, there is a kind of economy of life. Life and all of its parts – time, energy, ability, money, and love – can be given and exchanged. It can be spent or saved. It can be wasted, and it can be multiplied. There is the saying, “You have to spend money to make money.” And something similar can be said of Life – “the more you give, the more you receive.”
The problem is risk. While it’s generally true in business that you have to spend money to make money, spending money is not a guarantee that you will make money. Business owners have to spend their money wisely, making smart choices about investing their money in ways that will increase and multiply their business. Even then, there will still be risk. With a little luck, they might make some money. So, in life, too, there is risk in the choices that we make everyday. Who are we gonna love? Who are we gonna serve? How are we going to contribute to this world? What are our boundaries going to be? With every choice, there is always risk. We risk not being loved by the people we love. When we try to help someone there is risk that we might do more harm than good, or that our efforts will not be appreciated. We take risks that our best efforts will not be good enough, or that we’ll make the wrong choices and waste ourselves in the pursuit of a false endeavor. Life is Risky Business. Whatever can we do about it?
As an amateur observer of economics, I’ve always been fascinated and a little bit confounded by how much our economic prosperity relies on a kind of prosperity of spirit. In other words, people have to feel good in order for the economy to be good. It’s not just about whether business prospects are actually viable, but whether people trust that they are. Without trust, people bury their money in the ground, and everyone suffers. So to me, the scariest thing about living in this current recession is not just the loss of money, but the devastating loss of trust. We do not trust our government; we do not trust lenders not to be greedy; lenders do not trust their consumers to pay back what they borrow. Without trust, it’s hard to see how we will get ourselves out of this situation.
Of course, if we’ve been placing our trust in the economy to work things out, or in the government to fix everything, or in human beings to be without fear or sin, we’ve misplaced our trust. Capitalism cannot be trusted to care for the well-being of humanity. Government cannot be trusted to legislate morality or good values. Humanity – as beautiful as it is, as much potential as it holds, as good as we are and have been created to be – cannot be expected to be without sin. In whom can we trust? Somewhat ironically, the answer is printed on our currency: “In God we Trust”.
God is our source of Life, and as Jesus assures us, he gave it so that we may have Life and have it abundantly. We must place our trust in God in order to really live, and when we place our trust in God, then we really can live. Trust in God is exactly what we need to feel free enough to take the risks that living requires. I’m not one of them, but I think that what investors and gamblers know is that there is actually something fun about risking. When we boldly put ourselves out there, knowing that we might lose, but that we also just might win, then before we’ve even figured out the results we’ve already experienced the joy of living. William Barclay said this about this parable: he said, “There is no religion without adventure.” Our God is a God of adventure and risk – constantly, and even recklessly, sharing the divine love, knowing that that love may or may not be reciprocated. When we place our trust in this God, then we can join in this divine adventure of inclusiveness and generosity. To live this kind of adventure, we must take risks.
There’s actually a funny movie that kind of makes this point. “Along Came Polly” is a 2004 movie with Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston. Ben Stiller played the role of a risk assessment expert. He made his living working for an insurance company assessing risks so that his company wouldn’t lose money. His obsession with risk is not just his job, but really characterizes his life, and in life, he was searching for love. He had been betrayed by his new bride, and finds himself falling in love with a new woman who takes risks as easily as she gets out of bed. She challenges him to do things he would have always considered too risky – like eating Moroccan food, and dancing the salsa. But in the end, he has to do something far riskier – he has to give himself. When given the choice about with whom he’ll spend his life, he discovers that the riskier choice is actually the better choice. Without risking himself, he cannot love.
And there we find perhaps one of the points that Jesus wanted to make with this parable. The point is love. You have received love, but what good is it if you take no risk – if you bury it in the ground? In the Gospel of Matthew, the parable that we read today will be immediately followed by the parable of the sheep and the goats. It is there that we hear this: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And when the righteous ask when they served their Lord in this way, the king responds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
These are the risks that Jesus encourages us to take – feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the captive. This is the economy of Life.
In today’s parable, Jesus uses money as a symbol. It’s not about money, but isn’t NOT about money. The word talent – which was a sum of money for Jesus – came into our language through this parable to mean something more – our special gifts and abilities. The parable is not about talent as we use that word today, but it isn’t NOT about talent either. This is a parable about Life – the Life that God has given us includes our love, our gifts and abilities, our energy and passion, and our time and money and all of our resources. The sum is greater than it’s parts. That is Life. We have received much, and much is expected. Let us stop putting God under the mattress, and trusting in God to guide us, join in the grand adventure. Amen.