THE SAD TALE OF THE BURIED GIFT

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

November 19, 2017; 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Matthew 25:14-30

 

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and

trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy

in a few things, I will put you in charge of many

things; enter into the joy of your master.’”

Matthew 25:21

 

Not far from where I lived as a kid, there’s a section of Toms River known as Money Island. It’s adjacent to the little borough of Island Heights, on the north shore of the Toms River.

It’s not really an island — at least, not anymore. It’s a little bulge of land that sticks out into the river. Local lore has it that, long ago, it actually was an island — or, at least, a bit of high ground separated from the rest by a swampy patch.

Local lore — at least, among the kids of our neighborhood — also had an explanation for where the name “Money Island” came from. According to the older kids,  Money Island was where the infamous pirate, Captain Kidd, buried some of his treasure. Despite the resolute efforts of many a treasure hunter over the years — or so the story went — no one had ever dug up so much as a single gold doubloon.

But that didn’t stop them from trying. When my friends and I grew old enough to ride our bikes over to Money Island — about a mile from our neighborhood — we sometimes fantasized about borrowing a shovel or two from the backyard shed and riding over there to seek our fortune.

We never did go so far as to stick a spade into the sandy soil — I don’t think the suburban homeowners over there would have been amused — but oh, what a hold Money Island had on our imagination!

*****

          Tales of buried treasure will do that to you. There’s something intrinsically fascinating, even romantic, about a hoard of gold and silver buried in the ground.

Today’s New Testament passage — Jesus’ famed Parable of the Talents — has, at its very heart, a buried treasure. The man who buried it was no swashbuckling pirate. He was a rather timid and fearful slave. In a surprising twist of the plot, this man’s master berates him for being so consarnedly cautious.

Jesus’ original listeners would have thought it inconceivable that any slaveowner would have done what this man does in the story. The master cashes in some investments and hands over large sums of money to three of his slaves. He instructs them to hold onto it for him while he goes off on a long trip.

If the master gives them any instructions on what to do with the cash, the biblical text doesn’t record it. It just says he handed the money over to them, then went away.

The unit of currency, here — common in the Roman world — is a silver talent. It comes from the Greek word talanton, or talentum in the Latin. It wasn’t a coin, really. It was more like a small bar of silver.

The biblical scholars differ on this, but most of them say a single talent was equivalent to between ten and fifteen years’ wages for a laborer. Let’s take the low-end figure — ten years of wages — say our hypothetical worker’s annual salary was $50,000 a year. (That’s a little high, perhaps, but maybe he belonged to a union.) Multiply that by ten, and the value of the single talent the master handed over to the third slave was half a million dollars. The second slave got two of those silver bars, so his responsibility was a cool million. As for the first slave who got five whole talents, his share was 2.5 million.

What kind of master is this, who hands over such vast sums to mere slaves? It boggles the imagination. But that’s a typical move for one of Jesus’ parables. He wants to grab his readers’ attention — which this multi-million-dollar windfall surely would have done!

As I’ve pointed out, Jesus doesn’t record any instructions from the slave-owner on what to do with the money. It seems clear, though, that everyone understands this not to be an outright gift, but rather a sort of trustee arrangement. The master continues to hold title to the money. It’s up to the slaves to figure out how to manage it wisely.

For two of the slaves, the answer is obvious: invest it! Matthew tells us they “traded with it.” Now, there was no stock market back then, and no FDIC-insured bank accounts, so “trading with it” could have meant a whole lot of things. Maybe those two servants bought a vineyard or two, or flipped some houses, or set themselves up in a pottery shop. Whatever they did, they brought in handsome profits to give their master, when he returned: each of them doubled their money.

Not so, for the third servant. He followed the same path chosen by old Captain Kidd on Money Island. He dug a hole in the ground and buried the single silver talent. When his master finally returned, he dug up the silver bar, handed it over, and said with great pride, “Here it is, Lord, safe and sound!”

Now here’s the big surprise that would have caused Jesus’ original listeners to marvel. Most of those Palestinian peasants would have thought it perfectly acceptable to handle money in that way. This was not an investment-friendly culture. Scholars of the Bible who specialize in economics call it a “limited-goods society.”

People back then believed the economy was only so big, and could never grow any bigger. If you picture the economy as a huge pie, there were only so many slices. You could shift those slices around from one person to another, but you could never increase the overall size of the pie.

Assuming that sort of society, then you can probably figure out what Jesus’ listeners would have assumed about the first two servants. They were crooks! For them to increase the size of their pie-pieces by a factor of two, they had to swindle a similar amount of money from somebody else. Having heard the set-up of the story, Jesus’ listeners would have concluded that, when the master returned, there would have been hell to pay.

But here’s the surprising twist. Exactly the opposite happens! The master commends the guys running the sleazy payday loan company for their high level of financial acumen. As for the third servant, who parks his money in a safe, FDIC-insured savings account — or its equivalent, a hole in the ground — he really lets him have it!

What, on God’s green earth, is Jesus getting at here?

*****

          One thing’s for sure. This parable’s about a whole lot more than money.

The Parable of the Talents comes up reliably, every three years, in the Lectionary: the recommended list of scripture passages preachers like me often turn to. Conveniently, it happens around the time of the fall stewardship campaign — by accident or design, I couldn’t say. That means there have been countless stewardship sermons, over the years, that utilize the Parable of the Talents as a way to boost financial giving to the church.

I’ll even cop to doing it myself. Old-timers around here may recall the time I got a whole slew of Susan B. Anthony one-dollar coins and put them in the offering plates. Before the ushers passed the plates through the congregation, I told everyone not to put any money in, but to take a golden coin out. Then, I challenged the congregation to take that dollar into the world in the next week and use it somehow, to the glory of God. Then, we all came back the next week and had a time of sharing, right here in the worship service, when people told their stories of how they put those talents to work.

Somebody gave his coin directly to a panhandler on a city street. Others donated theirs, along with some other money, to a charity. Another person used her coin to buy some baking ingredients and made a batch of chocolate chip cookies to give to the neighbors.

The creativity was endless! I was impressed. But, thinking back on that little stunt all these years later, I’m not sure I was grasping the true meaning of this parable.

The reason I say that is because the story isn’t about the money. It can’t be, because in the estimation of Jesus’ listeners — and possibly Jesus himself — a financial investment was not something that could grow: at least not without causing hardship for somebody else.

But if the parable isn’t really about money, then what could it be about?

*****

          The answer’s obvious. It’s hiding in plain sight. The parable’s about something that can grow. It’s about…talents!

Our English word “talent” — meaning aptitude or ability — traces its origin back to this very parable of Jesus. That’s not a meaning of the word that was common in Jesus’ time. In the Roman empire, the Latin word talentum simply referred to a bar of silver. Over the centuries, another meaning was added to that word. And the way it was added was through centuries of Bible lessons and sermons based on it.

Those biblical interpreters, down through the generations, assumed Jesus was using the word “talent” metaphorically. They thought — correctly, I think — that he was talking about spiritual gifts.

That’s the way it is with talents, when you think about it. Let’s say someone among us has a talent for music. We’ve got a whole lot of them here today, right in front of us: the members of the Choral Bells.

These women and men all have a certain degree of musical talent. They have a decent ear for the notes of the scale, a good sense of rhythm, and somewhere along the line they’ve learned the basics of how to read music.

But that’s not enough. Pure musical aptitude — raw talent — doesn’t issue in a bell anthem that will cause the rest of us to sit back with a smile on our faces. No, something else has got to be added to the mix.

That “something else” is… practice! Musical talent surely is a gift of God, but it’s not good for very much unless it’s deployed under the guidance of a skilled conductor like Bill Shoppell — and unless it’s gradually made to grow through a whole lot of Monday-evening rehearsals.

(Which, by the way, any of you who want to give it a try can sign up for. That’s the shameless plug for today!)

For those of you who don’t have musical talent, take heart: God has handed out a whole lot of other talents as well: spiritual gifts just waiting to be exercised in service to the Lord!

Notice I’m speaking here of “service to the Lord.” I’m being very deliberate about that, because our theology says that — just like the silver bars of the same name, in the parable — the spiritual gifts God hands out do not belong to any of us. The gifts are not our own. They’re entrusted to us for safekeeping. At the end of the day, the master will return, and you and I will be called upon to offer them back. As we hand them back over, our Lord will be waiting with great eagerness to hear us explain what we managed to do with them.

So, what are these spiritual gifts? The letters of Paul, in the New Testament, contain several lists of them. Romans 12:6-9 goes like this: “prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity (there’s our stewardship theme!), the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine…”

There’s a slightly longer list in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” All the things you’d possibly need, in the early church, to do what the church does.

Now, here’s the thing about spiritual gifts — about God-given talents — that’s so easy for us to lose track of. Much as you and I would love to sit back and take credit for all the things we do well in life — to bask in the appreciation of the common herd — at the end of the day those talents don’t belong to us. They never did! They belong to God. You and I are but the caretakers — and, when our life here on earth is ended, our Lord will call upon us to offer them back, along with a full accounting of what we’ve done with them.

In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey has a little saying that’s at the same time both very, very simple and so complex we could spend a lifetime living into it. The saying goes like this: “God dispenses gifts, not wages.”

Take a moment and reflect on the full implication of that little statement — because, if you get it, you also get the full meaning of this parable. “God dispenses gifts, not wages.”

When the master in the parable calls those three slaves together and places weighty bars of silver in their open palms, he’s not paying them for work they’ve already done. He’s not rewarding them for being good people. He’s not giving them something that will puff them up with pride. No, the master’s handing out gifts, beyond their deserving. And the master expects just one thing: that these servants will not hoard them in a dark hole in the ground, but will take them out into the sunlight and use them as the master intends!

What are your God-given talents? What are those things you know full well you’re able to do, things you’ve thought one day you may want to offer to God, but are not at the present time doing anything with?

These are your talents. These are your sacred trust. The problem with this church — as with most gatherings of Christians, if the truth be told — is that a very large number of these gifts are still hidden from the community of the faithful. Sadly, they will remain hidden until those of us who have stewardship of them cross over into the next life.

What will you say, then, when you meet your maker? How will you explain the choices you have made?

Will you say, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed?” Or, will you say, “Here are your gifts, Lord: just look at what you and I have done, together, with them?”

Then, may you hear your master’s affirmation ring out clear: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Let us pray.

Generous God,

          we don’t know why it is,

          but the transaction that ought to be so simple —

          our grateful acceptance of the spiritual gifts you give,

          and our joyful response of using them in your service —

          can become so complicated.

          Help us keep it simple.

          Help us keep our hearts grateful.

          Help us keep our love flowing freely:

          from you to us,

          and thence to all the world in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.