Sunday, November 16, 2008

Plant a Tree

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, November 16, 2007: Matthew 25:4-30

Martin Luther was asked once what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming again in a very short time. You would expect him to have answered something about getting ready for the judgment, getting his spiritual house in order. Instead he said, “Plant a tree.”

I think that is the simple message of the parable we just heard, although, granted, it takes a bit of hard thinking to get there.

Scholars and preachers have been known to call this story something like “the terrible tale of the talents.” This is a hard text, pointing out to the extreme that Jesus liked to tell stories that surprise in their choice of heroes, in the actions of the main character. And then there is the perplexing and perhaps outrageous line,

For to all those 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.

That is not a pronouncement we expect to come from Jesus at all. It sounds simply unjust. How could Jesus say such a thing? What could he possibly mean by it? It is a temptation to simply dismiss the whole thing as some kind of weird anomaly, probably having more to do with sentiments in Matthew’s community than with Jesus himself.

Yet there it is in the text and in the lectionary. We just read it, which makes it the elephant in the living room. So we have to deal with it. So here goes.

A talent was a large sum of money. For a slave to be entrusted with it was itself outrageous, so the parable sends up a red flag right from the beginning. Here is Jesus again speaking in one of his favorite devices: hyperbole, exaggeration. It also reminds us that this is a story, not an historical event.

The money was “entrusted.” That’s a stewardship word. The root of the Greek word used her is the word for “gift.” In biblical language, the word “gift” does not imply a transfer of ownership but a giving of stewardship.

The money was entrusted according the “ability” of the receiver. It is a neat play on words in English that the word “talent” has come to mean, literally, an ability. The master has a sense of the talent, as we would say, of each of the slaves.

Then the master only returns “after a long time.” There was this same detail in the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids last week, the first parable of judgment from Matthew 25. There is no sense here of having to “hurry up.”

The master does eventually return, however. The slave who was entrusted with five talents returns an additional five, likewise the one with two returns two. The master has doubled his money. The third slave used the one talent he was given in a different way, he saved it, protected it. He is honest, perhaps brutally so, in explaining his motivation to so.

Master, I knew that you were a harsh man…so I was afraid…and hid your talent in the ground.

The motivation was fear and the result of the fear was the impulse to protect—to hide the talent rather than use it.

We can sympathize with this slave. If, in fact, the master was indeed a harsh man, his fear is understandable and his saving the talent can be seen as prudent. It also may have been wise given his lesser ability. He was, after all, entrusted with only one talent.

The master, however, is angry and the prudent slave is condemned as worthless.

This parable may seem to be about the use of money, but Peter Gomes, the Dean of the Chapel at Harvard and a well-known preacher, says that he thinks the parable is actually about time, that is, how we use the time while we are waiting for the master to return.[1] Last week’s parable admonished us to wait and watch. This week’s tells us that this waiting is to be active, not passive.

We are called to use the gifts that we have been given and to live without fear, be willing to take risks with what we have been given.

Whether our ability is large or small in the eyes of others, we are called to use it. And Jesus is telling us that the consequences of not using it are grave. Abilities must be exercised to be any earthly good. Gomes tells the story of the great pianist Arthur Rubenstein, who was asked why he continued to practice every day. He replied,

If I don’t practice one day, I know it; if I don’t practice two days, the critics know it; and if I don’t practice three days, everybody knows it.[2]

A “talent,” be it money or an ability, is given to do good in the world on God’s behalf. Unused talents are good for nothing. Jesus’ saying about those with talents being given more and those who don’t use them being left with nothing is not about taking away the means of life from the poor and adding to the riches of the rich. As Gomes says,

It is rather to say that those who dream no dreams shall have no vision; this [kind of] poverty is not a virtue; this poverty is the worst kind of impoverishment—the lack and fear of imagination.[3]

In the end, Jesus says, we do not, and cannot, profit from our lack of trust or our lack of action.

These are times of trouble. They are not times of doubling our money; they are times of seeing our resources dwindle. Our impulse in a time like this is to protect. God calls us to continue to risk, to continue to use our money, our talent, and our time, for the good of all, which includes ourselves, although by no means exclusively.

Is there a place for prudence? Yes. Jesus in another place calls us to be “wise as serpents” and “as shrewd as the children of this world.” But caution should never trump the continued use for good of the gifts we have been given. To act with caution is still to act; it is not to hide in fear.

John Wesley once said,

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

Or, in the words of Martin Luther, when faced with a time of crisis, “plant a tree.”

This has been a stewardship sermon. Let those with ears hear.

[1] Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (1998), p. 200.
[2] Gomes, p. 203.
[3] Gomes, p. 203.
[4] Quoted by Gomes, p. 204.

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