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Use It or Lose It

Matthew 25:14-30

· Matthew 25

Matthew 25:14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 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.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 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.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

*****

I was in college, and one morning I’d crossed over I-35 to have breakfast at this little spot downtown. It was one of those leisurely mornings that students sometimes get to have between deadlines. I ate my breakfast and sat reading one of my books while I sipped on a second cup of coffee. As the caffeine kicked in, I decided to walk the five blocks down to the river. It was a clear, chill day in late fall. I was full and content and it was perfect.

About a block away from the river, I heard a gravelly voice. “Excuse me, sir?” I looked over my shoulder to see a man with a face like granite and a long beard, rough as old straw, hanging down to his chest. He wore several layers, all threadbare and dirty, but his eyes were bright and nervous, like crystals in rock. He kept looking over his shoulder. “Excuse me, sir, I was in Vietnam. I have cancer and I’m trying to get some money for a motel room since the nights are getting cold. A friend is gonna lend me money later but I need $20. Can you help me? Anything would help.”

Can you help me? We’ve all been in this situation, and there’s something about that moment, isn’t there? For those of us who’ve never had to beg, it feels like you’re on trial, and maybe we are. There’s something about that moment, when you’re leaving a restaurant, about to get into your car to go back to your home, when all of the sudden you are interrupted by a person who reminds you that the world is not such a nice place for everyone. There’s something about that moment that opens up a crack in our stories about the world and reveals to us the nature of things and who we are.

And in that moment, you have a choice. You have to ask yourself a question. Do I give this person what they’re asking for, or not? We’ve made this a complicated question, probably more complicated than it should be. Jesus tells us very clearly and without qualification to “give to whoever begs of us and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” But when we find ourselves in that moment, face to face with a stranger, we begin to ask a series of questions. Who is this person? Is the story they’re telling me true? Am I going to be taken advantage of? If I give them money are they just going to pick up a 40 at the gas station? Wouldn’t it be better not to give them what they’re asking for so that I’m not enabling them? If I give to everyone won’t I run out and not be able to give anymore?

These questions come from a story we tell ourselves about who we are, who that other person is, and how the world works. They are irresponsible or lazy or stupid; I am responsible and discerning and know what’s best for this stranger. The world is a place of limited resources: scarcity is the order of the day. These are my questions to be asking, and do I really want to be involved with someone like that anyway? After all, I have money and they don’t. I don’t want to just throw my money away, I want to make a good investment. Should I give it or keep it?

I think this situation, this very question, gets at the heart of what Jesus is saying in this morning’s Scripture, which is all about a choice: as disciples of Jesus do we cling to what is ours, or do we risk what we’ve been given? In the Parable of the Talents, there is a Lord who is going on a journey and he leaves some of his stuff with 3 slaves. To one he gives 5 talents, to the next 2, and to the last 1. While he is gone, the first 2 slaves trade their talents and turn them into more talents, doubling the gift they’d received. But the 3rd slave is afraid. He is afraid of making a bad investment and losing the gift that the Lord had given him.

When the Lord returns, the first two come to him and give back to him the abundance they’ve grown with their gifts. And the Lord responds to both of them “You have been faithful with little; now I will put you in charge of much. Enter into the joy of your Lord!” But the 3rd slave comes to him and says, I was afraid. All I could think about was how mad you’d be if I lost your talent. I didn’t want to make a bad investment. I didn’t want to get taken advantage of. So I kept it. It wasn’t worth the risk so I kept it, buried it in the ground so that no one could get at it but me. It’s my precious.” And the Lord looked at him. And he said, “You completely missed the point. It wasn’t yours to keep. I gave you a gift but instead of becoming more giving, you became controlling and greedy. Get out of my sight. That’s not the kind of kingdom I’m making.”

There are a lot of bad readings of this parable out there because we’re always looking for ways that Jesus might justify what we’re already doing. The common reading is that we’re supposed to work as hard as we can to accumulate as much as we can because God wants us to be “good stewards.” And if someone isn’t earning and saving, then they’re wicked like that last servant and don’t deserve good things in their lives. No matter how much you start with, you can accumulate more and then after the fact figure out how to be generous. So this story becomes Jesus’ rubber stamp on Capitalism or the loophole that says actually you can serve both God and Mammon as long as your heart’s in the right place.

But that’s not what’s going on here. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The two who are called “good and faithful” give away their gifts. They don’t cling to the talents as though they are their property. They lose their lives and find them. It is the last one who believes he has to protect his possession, and in clinging to it, he loses it. As one commentator puts it, this is because “the one who received the one talent feared the giver. He did so because he assumed that the giver had given a gift that could only be lost or used up.”⁠1 He’s got it, but in his mind he’s constantly losing it. This is why as soon as you have property you have locks and vaults and walls and barbed wire and guns to protect it. As soon as God’s gifts become our property, we know we’ve taken something that isn’t ours and so with a guilty conscience we’re always looking out for someone to steal it back.

The way these three servants use the money they’ve been given turns them into certain kinds of people. There is no way any of them could have known that they would receive back twice as much as they gave, or that the Lord would reward them with even more in the end. They each had their talents, and they each had a choice to make: risk what they’ve received, knowing that it’s not theirs to begin with, or hoard it, hide it behind lock and key, bury it in the ground. Turn the gift into property and use it to get as much control over our world as we can for as long as we can. The first two treated their talents as gifts to be given away, even risked. The third closed in on himself, and in his fear, he clung to what he’d been given and treated it as his own possession.

This parable is about economics, but it’s also about what kind of people we want to be (because economics is itself a parable for what kind of people we are). What kind of people do we want to be? While the Lord is away will we be people who risk or people who cower in fear? Will we be people who recognize that no matter how hard we’ve worked our money is not really ours to keep or will we cling to it? Will we serve God or mammon? That’s what’s at stake in this parable, and it’s also what’s at stake when the poor ask those of us who have money for some of it.

When we say, “they’ll just spend it on beer,” we assume omniscience, that we know what another person is going to do, and so we can control the situation. When we say, “We need to accumulate so that we can give generously,” we assume that we are playing a zero-sum game where we have to take what we can (and then pretend not to know why my neighbor needs my charity in the first place). We must not be taken advantage of, we must maintain our position of control, we must not lose even a single dollar that won’t be spent the way we want it. (It’s an odd phrase, “being taken advantage of.” If you give someone a dollar and they use it to buy beer or cigarettes, what “advantage” have they gotten over you? In that moment, the one with money has every possible advantage and nothing about that changes in that brief interaction.)

So it’s not just about the dollar, but the way in which our dollars make us into certain kinds of people, even kinds of societies. Do we treat our money as something we’ve been given to use for a time, and so it can and probably should be shared, or do we treat it as property that must be buried, hoarded away? Do our communities? Does our economy? What is at stake here is our very humanity.

Caitlin and I have a friend in Durham who goes by Crete, short for Concrete. He lived on the streets downtown for a long time and was room mates with some of my friends in seminary. Crete spends some time every day panhandling. I’m sure that a lot of people look at him and say, “Oh he’ll just spend our money on beer” (which I don’t think is an unreasonable purchase if you have to live outside). But if you spend much time with the homeless community in downtown Durham, you’ll find that everyone has a story about Crete. A guy would be sleeping outside for their first winter, and they’d wake up in the morning to find that someone had covered them with a blanket while the slept. Another person would come back to their camp to find a hot bowl of grits from Elmo’s steaming next to their pack. Someone would get kicked out of Whole Foods trying to get bus money and this man would pull them aside and give them a couple dollars. You give Crete a couple dollars, he turns it into a dozen necessities for his friends on the street. You have been faithful with a little, Crete turns it into a lot. Maybe not by Wells Fargo’s books, but there are other ways of accounting.

What kind of people is God calling us to be? What kind of community? What kind of society? Right now I think common wisdom says get yours and give out of your reserves. Anyone who can’t get theirs is lazy or uneducated (i.e. stupid). But Jesus says if you want to find your life, you have to lose it. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. You have been entrusted with a little. Hold it in common so that everyone “gives according to their ability and receives according to their need.” I am thankful for the generosity that our congregation already shows with the things we’ve been given. As we move forward, I hope that we can build on that and seek out new ways of using it.

The Lord is coming, and we will be judged by the kind of world we have made for ourselves now. If we let fear set the agenda, if we hold onto what is ours in suspicion of our neighbor, we will be given exactly that kind of world: a world of alienation and darkness. But if by grace we make a world of generosity, where I give my neighbor the benefit of the doubt in order to risk them getting what they need, we might just find that generosity multiplied in unexpected ways and that in so doing we are participating in the Joy of the Lord. Amen.

1 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, 210.

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