The sermon, Use It or Lose It, begins around the 29 minute mark, with music provided by the Cherub Choir, Voices in Bronze, and Sine Nomine.
Before we get into today’s scripture, I want you to keep three things in mind: This scripture passage in Matthew is a parable. It is part of a collection of parables that Matthew selected and edited and placed in this part of his narrative – right before Jesus faces his death.
Second: Matthew selected and edited these parables for those folks who were reading his gospel 50 to 60 years after the event. When Matthew was writing his gospel Jesus was not present, his spirit was but not in physical form, and the second generation believers were facing the reality that Jesus was not coming back anytime soon.
So all these parables are about keeping faith, not giving up, and keeping oil in the lamp, and investing and growing the church; spreading the gospel in the midst of crises. We are still living in those times and so we need to read these parables again as if for the first time.
Third: We should not read parables literally. A parable is a metaphorical story – it is not describing literal reality. Jesus taught this way to agitate people; to get them to open up and use their imaginations, to think poetically about a larger truth.
As Emily Dickenson wrote in her 1846 poem “I Dwell in Possibility:”
I dwell in Possibility / A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows/ Superior – for Doors –
Of Visitors – the fairest / For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise –
Emily Dickenson gets it – we really have to read more poetry! Jesus wants you to risk bumping into paradise, to have the relationship with God that is expansive and risky and joyful – not fearful!
So, no, you do not have to believe that there really is a place of eternal wailing and gnashing of teeth. Although we know that this is a worldview for some fundamentalists and a reality for some in the here and now – whether of their own or someone else’s making.
That reminds me of a story: A preacher was preaching on this text and he was enjoying the moment to drive home the message of hell and damnation. He exclaimed: “at the judgment some of you will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth!”
The preacher noticed that one man in the front row was broadly smiling. The preacher said to the man: “Sinner, why are you smiling. Didn’t you hear me? “At the judgment some of you will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth!” But the man was still smiling.
“Sinner, why are you smiling?” The man opened his grinning mouth to show that he had no teeth!
To which the preacher said: “In hell, teeth will be provided!”
You see the absurdity of literalism.
A parable is like a prism: hold it to the light and turn it and all the colors of the spectrum are shown – constantly fascinating.
This past Wednesday at Bible and Bagels one participant respected the courage of the third slave to speak her truth to the Master: “You are harsh!”
Another asked if the third slave was like the accusers of Judge Moore – their experience rejected and diminished by an unjust judge or master – who had the power to punish them.
As a white man, I have been able to invest and reap rewards, and this shapes my interpretation. I wonder how a woman, or a person of color, or someone from a developing country of scarcity might interpret this parable?
So don’t be scared of parables; be open and use your imaginations!
I am not looking for you to agree with me. I am hoping that you will engage yourself with this text – be deeply agitated by it, and then go do something with your insight.
A talent is a lot of money. I have heard anything from a year’s wage to $1.25 million dollars. Hence, for this rich man, this “kurios, Lord, Master” to entrust his doulos, his “servants” or “slaves” this amount of money is beyond imagining. That is an important point right there – this story is set in extravagance, over the top affluence.
The fact that one gets five talents, and one gets two talents and one gets one talent seems unfair, but it is a theme in the gospel that we know is true. Some have more, get more because of differing skills and abilities. Yes, some people are better at doing things than others. It is what it is.
Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimmie Hendrix, and Prince are better guitarists than I am – almost anyone is, actually – but that doesn’t mean that I can’t take pride in my rendition of Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay.” What would be stupid is for me to think “because I am not Prince, I should never play!”
The one thing that seems to be contrary to the spirit of the Master, what gets him angry, is “fear” – not using what you have been given, fear that it might be taken away, fear that the “world” or the “Man” might mess with you.
And, yes, this is the experience of so many in our world today. So those of us who are moved by the expression of this third slave had better be about changing the dynamic – by speaking out against unjust masters, unjust systems – and liberating every person, giving everyone access to their own power to invest.
Nevertheless, a message that we have all heard from our parents – do the best you can with what you have been given. Sure some people are smarter, wealthier, more clever – but that doesn’t make them better – more wealth or more talent doesn’t mean that God loves them more.
This is a good lesson and one to live by if you are 5 or 95.
When we bury our gift, we diminish our own selves.
We compare ourselves to others and while that is natural it is an expression of original sin; it ultimately led to Cain killing Abel because at a moment in time God accepted Abel’s offering. It ultimately leads to violence and war. It certainly leads to self-doubt and a worldview that doesn’t help anybody! We spend more time being jealous of what others have then using what we have been given. As Anne Morrow Lindberg once wrote: “Jealousy is the un-lived life in you crying out to be spent.”
This is a parable about extravagance; two risk losing it all in order to make something more. The third servant is stuck in a mindset of fear and scarcity even though one talent is still a lot of money. Perhaps this parable is agitating us to consider our propensity to be tight, fearful, and not very trusting, to see ourselves as victims instead of players.
So I think this parable is about the attitude you bring to life. The quality of your faithfulness is being good stewards of the gifts God has given you; whatever they are. Are you open to risk and willing to fail? Or are you closed and fearful?
It is an issue that is very timely in our world today. With all that is going on do we invest in the kingdom of love, joy, justice and hope? Or do we hunker down, and worry, scared that what we have will be taken from us; seeing ourselves as victims?
I think this parable has everything to say to our current cultural and political climate. So many are mistrusting and fearful – there is no reason, only twitter. The bonds of our humanity as citizens twisted and broken. We bury our heads in the ground – that which we have worked for is being taken away by the government, by China, by “them.”
This third servant is a narrow-minded, fearful man. He is a “hater!” As James Baldwin once wrote: “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law… I imagine that one of the reasons that people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with the pain.”
Marilynne Robinson writes: “Fearfulness assumes a hidden narrative – that we are ill despite our apparent health, vulnerable despite our apparent safety.”
This third servant lives by a narrative of fear. This is his worldview, he projects that onto his situation and it is constricting and ultimately deadly.
Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, said that our perspective towards life is our final and ultimate freedom.
I remember reading in Kathleen Norris book Dakota of two women who had terminal cancer. One was bitter and angry and closed off. The other decided “there are worse things than death.” And so she made sure to love her family and to give things away and not waste a minute.
Both are beloved children of God – but who was caught in the place of wailing and gnashing? Who left a legacy of joyful memory that was healing and restorative?
So as you go forth into this life remember these words attributed to many:
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us: it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Like the servants, your projection of your own stuff onto the world creates the world you live in and how you see God and how you see others. Fear begets suspicion. Likewise, joy and hope begets faith and power. You become what you behold.
Bury yourself in the dirt of mistrust and fear and you will be gnashing your teeth.
Take risks, “spread wide your hands to gather paradise,” use what you have been given! Because according to the Gospel, you can’t fail even if you lose all your money! Fear, not failure, is the issue here.
The Kingdom of Heaven is that like! Use it or lose it!
Thanks be to God.