Saturday, November 15, 2008

Called to Risk: Reflections on Proper 28 (RCL)

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

I’ve been pondering the lessons for Proper 28, preparing for my sermon tomorrow (it’s not unusual at all for me to be this late; indeed, it’s more the rule than the exception; but that’s a story for another post.). Central to that consideration has been that story we all know so well, the Parable of the Talents.

We all do know it, of course. The householder is leaving for an extended trip, and wants to set matters in order. He calls his three slaves and gives each of them a large amount of money, different amounts, as Matthew writes, “to each according to his ability.” At the householder’s return, each of the first two slaves had traded with their funds, and each had doubled their funds. The third had instead buried it in the back yard – literally! He lost nothing; but, having gained nothing, he suffered his master’s wrath and was thrown out.

As I looked at what others had written about this story, I found something interesting. Several wrote of the money given to each of the slaves as “gifts.” Perhaps that appeals to our use of the word “talent:” an aptitude, a skill, a capacity, something that we might indeed see as a “charism,” a spiritual gift.

The more I looked at it, though, that idea didn’t make sense. First, these were slaves. Whatever the capacity these huge sums of money might have allowed – and these were huge sums of money! – the slaves remained slaves, not simply responsible to the master but owned by him, body and soul. Second, the money was never the slaves’. It always remained the property of the master, whatever latitude the slaves might have had in using it. After all, when the third slave returned his money the master identified it as “my own,: Third, the master’s clear expectation was that the money would be used. Certainly, he was not at all pleased with the third slave, even though he as master had lost nothing.

No, the money was not, was never a gift. The money was a responsibility, a charge given by the master.

Now, the tasks were not assigned blindly, as it were. The master gave a different sum “to each according to his ability.” So, the master never expected as much of the third slave as he did of the second, much less of the first. The third slave was assessed to have the least capacity from the beginning. We could wonder, then, why the master was so disappointed, when, after all, the third slave hadn’t really failed. He didn’t lose anything, so he didn’t really fail, did he?

But we know that the answer is yes, he did fail. But his failure was not measured by how much money he made, or might have made. His failure was not his failure to profit, but his failure to try. What did the master say? “So, you knew me so well? You found me so frightening? Then you could at least have done something worthwhile, instead of simply sitting on what you had.”

The hard part for the third slave was that he lacked faith. Isn’t that what the master said? Those who succeeded were “good, with faith.” They had the faith to take some risk with their talents. Notably, they had some faith, faith in their master and faith in themselves, recognizing the faith that their master had in them. He had judged them each to have the capacity to manage those large amounts of money. They accepted his assessment, and felt they could take the risks of trading with those large amounts of somebody else’s money. When they took the risk, they had their faith confirmed. The third slave lacked faith in himself, and even in his master’s assessment of his capacity. He felt afraid, unwilling to take any risk; and so he failed in the eyes of his master.

We ourselves do talk about talents that God has given – both talents in the sense of capacities, and for many in the sense of financial resources to live out those capacities. We talk about them as gifts, and express our gratitude. At the same time, we need to remember that these are not really gifts. However great might be the capacities the God gives us, they do not make us God, or even gods. Instead, they are responsibilities. God gives them to us for God’s purposes, however much latitude we might feel in using them. We remain God’s servants, stewards of capacities and resources that remain God’s, to be used for God’s purposes.

And God expects us to take risks with those gifts, those capacities. After all, he has given them to us according to our abilities – that is, God has faith in our abilities to do something good, if we will only take the risk to try. God will certainly expect different things of different ones of us; but of each of us God expects us to take a risk and make an effort. And God will be displeased, not if we try and fail, but rather if we don’t try at all.

Zephaniah brings that home to us. He proclaims the Day of the Lord, and it looks like a difficult day for all. Yet, the target audience, if you will, is really quite specific: “those who rest complacently,… who say, ‘The Lord won’t do either good or ill.’” Those whose homes will be plundered, whose lives will be uprooted and destroyed, are those who simply try to lay low, to try nothing, believing that thus they will lose nothing.

So clearly we are called to take risks with the capacities God gives us, to make efforts to carry out God’s purposes, without knowing whether we will succeed of fail. God has faith in us that we can do it. But, of course, it’s all too easy for us to lose faith in ourselves, to believe that we’re not good enough or strong enough or wise enough or enough of something else. After all, who knows our shortcomings better than we do? And so we lose faith in ourselves, and faith in God’s assessment of us. We can lose faith, too, in God’s promise. Christ has told of us of God’s wonderful promises for us if we walk in faith before him. But there are so many places and so many voices to tell us just how frightening God can be. Like the third servant, we can become immobilized, to afraid of failure, and too afraid of God, to take the very risks God asks of us.

But Paul had a word for us on that. He reminded us, with the Thessalonians, that we are children of the light and the day, not of darkness. He reminded us, with them, that God has destined us not for destruction but for salvation.

So, let us have faith – faith in God and faith in ourselves and faith in the capacities God has given us, however great or small they might seem. God has given to each of us capacities according to our abilities. What God expects of us is that we do something with his capacities, for a while put under our stewardship. And what God expects of us is not a specific measure of success, but a willingness to risk: to take these capacities and use them for God’s purposes. We’re not certain of success if we do; we’ve seen enough history to be aware of that. But we’re certain to disappoint God if we don’t.


Anonymous said...

I've always found this story to be unsatisfying. It begs the question: What would have been the master's reaction if one of the slaves had invested the money and lost it all?

The problem with risk is that you can fail. If there's no chance of failure, there's no risk. And if you do constantly risk, you will sometimes fail.

If the master's response to the slave who did NOT lose money was to "throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," I shudder to think what would happen if he LOST money!

Like I said, an unsatisfying story.

Marshall Scott said...

I see your point. I (obviously) would hope that in fact the master would understand from his own business risks that sometimes we fail, and would be prepared to forgive risk that failed. Certainly, I depend on God's readiness to forgive me - and, as we all do, I hope he'll forgive me when I risk and fail, and when I'm also too afraid.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think your last paragraph of your reflection does move towards closing out my concern. God wants us to take the risk.

"It is not what we say or feel that makes us who we are, it is what we do. Or fail to do." J. Austen