Weekly Preaching: November 19, 2017

November 14th, 2017

I pick the Gospel this week. I mean, Judges 4:1-7 is dark drama, and the lectionary lops off the best part of the story — when Jael drives a tent peg into the temple of Sisera (which is almost as gruesome as the previous chapter, when Ehud plunged his sword into Eglon, who was so fat his belly swallowed up the sword). When I was younger and obsessed with the Second Coming (or lack thereof) I might have chosen 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, which envisions the Lord’s return being “like a thief in the night.” But I’m going Gospel this year.

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Matthew 25:14-30 is a widely known, terribly misused, and yet perfect text for ramping into Thanksgiving and bringing the long, ordinary time of Pentecost near its ending. I preached on this three years ago, if you’d like to watch. I also wrote a lectionary piece on this for Christian Century a couple of cycles back, beginning with Clarence Jordan’s notion that a parable from Jesus is like a Trojan horse: you let it in, and then Bam! It’s got you. But this business about the “talents” has never quite gotten me. Yes, this parable has that marvelous, often-quoted line, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I’ve tried that in a funeral sermon or two, but its emotional impact on the congregation is privately soured for me, as some voice — the ghost of St. Augustine? or Laocoön (the guy who warned the Trojans to be suspicious of that gift of a wooden horse)? — whispers darkly, “You’re doing the works/righteousness scam.”

Plus, it’s November; how many churches have, in their dreaded Fall stewardship campaigns, just used this Trojan horse of the talents? “God has blessed you, don’t be like the wicked servant, pledge to us, it’s an investment in the Kingdom.” So many schemes to get the Church’s work done exploit this theme: time-talent surveys, spiritual gifts inventories... all good and worthy instruments! But was that what Jesus had in mind?

Many churches now are snapping up boxfuls of a little book called The Kingdom Assignment, the story of a pastor, Denny Bellesi, who doled out $10,000 in $100 increments to Church members one Sunday, with three requirements:

  1. The $100 belongs to God. 
  2. You must invest it in God’s work. 
  3. Report your results in 90 days.  

Those reports were startling: people made money hand over fist to contribute to the Church, creative ministries were hatched, lives were transformed, people wept for joy — and it was all covered by NBC’s Dateline. So why did I shudder a little when one of my members brought me the book and said, “Let’s do this”? Does it feel too “American”? In the culture, and now in Church, we’re dealin’, we’re investing, more is better. Why should I give somebody $100 and say “This belongs to God,” implying that the other half million in his investment portfolio is his?

What is Jesus talking about in this parable? “Talents” is a most unfortunate translation of the Greek talanta. A “talent” (in this text) isn’t a special ability I have, my passion in life, this little light of mine I’m gonna let shine, and it certainly isn’t a mere $100.

We should translate talanta as “a huge bucket full of solid gold” or “a bank CEO megabonus” or “winning the Ohio lottery.” Only the muscular could even pick up a talanton, as one might weigh fifty or seventy five pounds.  Each would be worth around 6,000 denarii, which today (by some scholars’ reckoning) would be much more than I have earned in my twenty-five years in the ministry, or twenty of those flasks of pure nard Mary wasted on the feet of Jesus that so mortified the disciples. This largesse is ridiculously gargantuan. So Jesus isn’t saying “Use what is in you, invest what you have for the kingdom.” Five talanta, or even just one, would stagger any recipient, and they would find themselves in utterly uncharted territory.

And if the talanta, a mountain of stock certificates you can’t even lift, then reproduce (as they do in Jesus' parable), then they reproduce out of themselves. A Mediterranean laborer wouldn’t have any more of a clue about how to invest five talanta than the guy who bags my groceries or my plumber or my preacher friends or lawyers and doctors I know would with $74 million. Jesus (who had never personally seen that kind of money) used an outlandish hyperbole to symbolize the Gospel. What value would Jesus attach to the Gospel? It is the pearl of great price, it is like the Torah of old, “more precious than gold”; you sell all you have and don’t notice the door slamming behind you as you sprint after this Jesus.

And the servants? Not individual believers. We get suckered into thinking of my autonomous life with God, God giving me talanta. But these servants, clearly, are the Church, a corporate body to whom the Gospel has been entrusted. The rewards? Not neat progress reports after 90 days, but the joy of the messianic banquet.

What about the dumb, wicked servant? In Jesus’ day, burying money was regarded as prudent, and he no doubt expects to be commended. But he gets a verbal thrashing from the master. If this parable is Jesus’ intimation that an astonishingly ravishing gift has been unloaded upon an unsuspecting Church that has not the faintest notion how to handle it, then might it be that the parable solicits from us not the offering up of our individual abilities, but rather the frank, embarrassing admission of our corporate inability? We populate Church committees with the best people for the task at hand, and in meetings they confidently offer insights from their education and professional experience. But maybe what God needs is people who will huddle up, shake their heads and confess, “We just have no idea; the Treasure is too big, too heavy.” Maybe then, and only then, we can dare something for God. God gives the Gospel not to me so my ability can be put to good use, but to us so our inability might be exposed, and God thereby glorified.

This thought process could ruin a financial campaign. But would it? Does what we do now really work? I wheedle and cajole, we print up catchy mailings, I wheedle and cajole some more, pledges bump up by seven percent, and we celebrate. How pathetic. Isn’t that the equivalent of the burial of the one talanton, and isn’t it the harbinger of the burial of the Church? The Gospel isn’t being unleashed if some percentage of Church members start to think of an extra $100 or so as belonging to God, or even if the most clever stewardship campaign in history magically seduced a majority of mainline Protestants into actually tithing. The Gospel is too big for such trifles. Surely it is only to the dumbfounded, to the clueless, to the overwhelmed, to those who are under no illusion they have ever known quite what to do because of Jesus and don’t pretend it could ever be otherwise — to those alone this crafter of Trojan horses says “Well-done, good and faithful servant.” 

Now for such lavish generosity from God, beyond what we can imagine or handle or manage or even understand, we give thanks. Not for the turkey and comforts. For the talanta.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission. 

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