Digging Holes: A Sermon on the Parable of the Talents
Sunday November 16, 2014, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
This the parable of Gala the anxious puppy dog: In a town far away known as Boston, a girl and her dog moved into a home with the girl’s older sister. The dog named Gala was an anxious pet, but the owner didn’t know why or what came before. She was adopted from a shelter. When people saw her on the street, they’d ask “what is she?” but none of us really knew. Maybe a little terrier? A mutt, a sweet, anxious mutt. She ate her food too fast, as if afraid that other dogs would steal it from her. She wore her self out chasing the trains, as if she’d never get another chance to be outside. Most of all, she buried her bones. Any time someone would give her a bone, she hid it somewhere in the house. I found a bone in the recycling bin. My sister found one in the bathtub hidden under a bath towel. We found bones in the garden under my blueberry bush and bones in the house wedged between the cushions of the couch. When you gave Gala a bone, she would happily chew it for about 2 minutes, then something changed, like a light went off and she remembered that someone, somewhere, sometime soon might take it. And off she would go to dig a hole in anything she could find to bury her bone. Let us pray…
This Parable is not an easy text. Your pastor is very wise to invite a guest preacher today! Wailing and gnashing of teeth is not a good sign. Whether this story is Good News depends a bit, I think, on how you approach the parable and who you think is playing what role. This parable goes by many names. It depends on whom you ask. For generations it’s been known as “The Parable of the Talents.” Some more modern scholars have thought of this as “The Parable of the Righteous Slave.”
In this parable though, Jesus tells the story of a man going on a journey with the intention of returning. Matthew 25:14 reads, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” We know the property ultimately belongs to the master. The slave entrusted with 5 talents, traded and made 5 more. The slave entrusted with 2 talents, made 2 more. But the third slave, in verse 19 “But the one who received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” The first two are rewarded, the 3rd slave is berated by the master and cast into the darkness.
“You ever get so broke that the bank charges you money for not having enough money? I’m broke, man. Bank calls me up and says “ Hi. We’re calling to tell you you don’t have enough money.” I know. She said, “Sir, you have insufficient funds.” Whoa, that’s a good way to put it too, I agree with that! I find my funds to be grossly insufficient. Thanks for calling. Why are you mad at me? How is it something that’s hurting you? She said, “Sir you only have $20. You can’t just have $20.” They charged me $15, that’s how much it costs to have $20.
Louis CK goes on…
“I was telling the joke in Orange County California before a rich audience all looking at me with their boat tans and their golf shirts and their penny loafers, They’re all looking at me like “Well, yeah. You were financially irresponsible, you have to pay the price. Frankly, don’t see why you’re angry about it. The bank has the right to accrue a fee, clearly.” That’s how different it is to be rich, than it is to be poor, because when you are rich the bank pays you for being rich. If you have a lot of money they give you money because you have a lot of money. You have so much money that we should give you some. Here! Take more money! Take the $15 bucks this broke guy used to have.”
The 1st slave with 5 talents gains 5 more, and also gains the one talent from the 3rd slave. The rich get rich and the broke get broker. If this is the message of the parable, then the Master stands in for an exacting God who will judge us for what we have done with the talents entrusted to us. The parable is a reminder that what we have is not ultimately ours, but like each slave, we will have to account for the ways we spent or expanded the talents God entrusted to us.
Maybe you remember the 1984 David Mamet play or the 1992 film version Glengarry Glen Ross, a cutthroat parable of four real estate agents over two days trying to outsell each other. In the film, Alec Baldwin played Blake, brought in by the office owners to motivate the four real estate agents. In the film version, and again with fair amount of choice words that I won’t quote this morning, Blake tells the real estate agents how the economy of the office works:
“… ’cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is – you’ve got, all of you’ve got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. “Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture? You laughing now?“
I would also like to declare at coffee hour after church that “coffee is for closers” and prevent anyone who didn’t turn in their pledge card from having a cup. // (this is a joke)
We read the Matthew parable as Americans who are deeply immersed in a particular economic system. It’s hard to get outside of that. There are winners who get the Cadillac, and losers who get fired. There are servants who are welcomed into the joy of their master and slaves who get cast into outer darkness. There are investors who double their investment with credit default swaps and short sales and bundled assets, and there are those who hide their meager savings under their mattresses and fall further and further behind. Our distorted economy is so pervasive, our current economy has so clouded our eyes that it’s hard to read the Matthew parable in any other way than as confirmation of solid investment strategies and a systems where in order for there to be winners, there must be losers.
And yet, this is not the economy of Jesus who came to bring good news to the poor and set captives free. The economy of Jesus is a continuation and expansion of the Sabbath economics of the Hebrew prophets, continuing the prophetic declaration of the Jubilee year when debts are forgiven and the enslaved are set free. The economy of Jesus is one where all are fed, and clothed, and welcomed to the banquet table.
We need not have just one interpretation. Parables are designed to be expansive; they invite more interpretation, more meanings, more good news. The Collect from the Book of Common Prayer we prayed at the beginning of the service invites us “to hear [Scripture], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” This one takes some digestion. Perhaps another way to read this parable is to see the context of abundance and focus on the third slave.
It’s not immediately clear from the text alone how much money we are talking about here. What’s a talent anyway? For the ancients, a talent was first a unit of measure for commercial weights. In the Bible, a talent becomes a unit of value, and it’s this parable that gives us the English word “talent,” meaning gift or skill. But for the 1st century economy, a talent was an enormous amount. New Testament professor Carla Works writes, “A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money.” Even the slave who only receives one talent is entrusted with the equivalent of 20 years wages. The context of this story is abundance, not scarcity. To read this parable with the conviction of God’s abundance and Jesus’ then allows us, as author Ched Myers writes, to “read [the parable] as a cautionary tale of realism about the mercenary selfishness of the debt system.”
And therein lies the massive leap of faith for us: to live and work and rest and gather as if we live in the context of abundance and reject the “mercenary selfishness of the debt system.” Each of the servants has more than enough, way more than enough. With this parable, Jesus subverts the economics of self-preservation, of selfish gain, because there is enough, more than enough for all. In the context of abundance and Jesus’ subversion, the third slave becomes “the servant who refused to play the greedy master’s money-market games, (and) the hero who pays a high price for speaking truth to power (Matthew 25:24-30)—just as Jesus himself did.”
But we dig holes; we bury that which has been entrusted to us to share and enjoy. We get small and selfish, and put fences around our stuff and shout like toddlers “mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.” Our eyes are so clouded by our economic system that tells us there is not enough for everyone. But our faith and our tradition offer another way. There is enough if we share. There is enough if we do not compete with one another where some win Cadillacs and others lose their job. There is enough because God promises there is enough. Your church knows that there is enough. You completed a capital campaign! There is more than enough.
But we still need to read cautionary tales of distorted economies and people digging holes to caution us from doing the same. This is the parable of the anxious church in a town far, far away. They buried their congregation in a hole in the ground. They took that mythical, hazy congregation from 1965 when all the Sunday school classrooms were full, the choir was bursting with each section full. Back when the pastor was tall, straight, white, and male and 35 years old with 40 years of pastoral experience with a wife who wanted to lead the women’s luncheons and two children who adored Sunday School, and they buried it in the ground. They dug a hole so wide you could fit in the entire bell choir, the organ, the good silver and all those beloved hymnals that that other pastor tried to get rid of. They dug a hole so deep that you could fit all the pews that that other pastor tried to get rid of. They crammed all of what they remember of being the highpoints of 1965 into that hole. They buried their ideal church in a hole in the ground, forgetting that even at the peak of mainline Protestant membership in 1965, the kingdom of God was not quite at hand, not everyone was thriving. Civil rights protesters were being beaten in Selma, anti-war protests are drawing tens of thousands, the Vietnam war rages, Watts riots, people are dying along the India/Pakistan boarder, Hurricane Betsy kills 76 in New Orleans, women and people of color not fully human in the eyes of many. But somehow, this distorted vision of the good old days that never really were, got thrown in the hole for safe-keeping. What will Jesus think of such perfectly preserved church that only people from 1965 want to attend, if he returned now? This treasure is not ours friends, none of it is ours.
“Uh, no? I didn’t go digging in your garden again. Why do you ask?”
We all dig holes. Our dog would rather hide the bone and forego enjoying it or sharing it, than risk the possibility that someone, somewhere, sometime might take it. She is so scared that she digs holes to bury her treasure. Shelter-dog syndrome, they called it. She was inadvertently trained to believe there’s never enough. It’s a condition of scarcity, but we serve a God who vows abundances. But it is hard! It is hard to believe that there is enough when you can’t pay off your car. It’s hard to believe there is enough when your hours are cut again, when you can’t afford the sports and activities fees for your kid at school, when you are worried you’ll never get out of debt, never own a home, never be able to retire. But there is enough for all. Ched Myers wrote “Discipleship thus means forsaking the seductions and false securities of the debt system for a recommunitized economy of enough for everyone.” Everyone. Even you and me and other anxious people who dig holes and bury that which has been entrusted to us. There is enough. Amen.