Sunday, November 16, 2008

Proper 28

Matthew 25
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.’ 21His 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.’ 22And 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.’ 23His 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.’ 24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Under the mattress
In an old coffee can
On top of the bathroom mirror
Tucked up in the basement ceiling
Hat box in the top of the closet
Inside a hollowed book (please, not the Bible)
In the glove box of the car
Buried in the back yard

This is the best investment advice I can give you under the current economic conditions. If you had followed my advice a year ago, think of where you would be today. If the banks had followed my advice, instead of making the word sub-prime a part of everyone’s lexicon, maybe the world would be a different place.

In response to the whole mess there seem to be three reactions:
1. The hindsighters who say they saw the whole thing coming.
2. The blamers, from the left and from the right, who know in their heart of hearts that the other side caused it.
3. The sub-prime deniers: This is the group best typified by the faculty of my brother’s executive MBA program, who, during the worst period of the crisis spend a full week in the classroom doing their Ivy League best to completely ignore the whole thing. So much for applied learning.

So, if there are more than just socks in your sock drawer, I fully understand. If a shovel has become your best financial tool, I see that too. We won’t however, turn our backs on applied learning because we have a parable, a very prescient parable that seems somehow to work in every investment cycle.


Like all great storytellers, Jesus gives us three servants. Three is what we can remember, even expect in a good story, and so Jesus gives us three servants. Servant one gets five talents, a sum of about a million and a half dollars in our terms, and gets the instruction to make more. Servant two gets $600,000 and told to go and do likewise. Servant three gets a mere $300,000, about 15 years of wages for the nice person who smiles and says “welcome to Wal-Mart.”

“Each according to their ability,” Jesus tells us: and the investors go out to invest. Servants one and two double their money, and the happy master with the happy RRSP (401K for the people inside the camera) rewards the servants with more and better work and everyone is happy. Except servant three: he is a little fearful—and a little dirty—having used that aforementioned financial tool called the shovel.

Servant three presents his lonely talent to the master and his best reason why and endures the anger that we now extended to bad Treasury Secretaries and bad Presidents. “Even a saving account would have been better,” the master says, “even ING Direct is paying 4 percent on an 18 month GIC.” (Save your money!) With that he is banished to the outer darkness (maybe Crawford, Texas) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

To some of you, this may seem entirely unfair. The servant didn’t ask for this job. He knew has master was harsh, and feared making a mistake. He did give him back the original amount. The combination of coercion, serving a bad man and returning the talent (albeit a little soiled) shouldn’t add up to weeping and gnashing: it just seems unfair.


As someone who sees a lot of movies, I have been a witness to the untimely demise of many a movie hero. I have seen celluloid people stabbed, shot, trampled and cut in half with a light saber. I have come to terms with the death of fictional characters, but sometimes I fear that others have not. For them, I propose the Society for the Protection of Fictional Characters.

Under the rules of the Society for the Protection of Fictional Characters, studios would be compelled to reprint films with a better, less traumatic ending. Imagine:

1. Butch and Sundance emerge form their hiding place and are met by the very worst marksmen the Bolivian army has to offer.
2. Little Bonnie runs to Scarlett and Rhett with scratches and damaged pride and the little family hugs and laughs.
3. Rolfe accidentally swallows his whistle and decides to run off with the Von Trapps instead. Thankfully he replaces the Captain as lead male singer.

You see, if a body such as the Society for the Protection of Fictional Characters existed, we could call them to help the poor servant, and save him from the outer darkness. Sadly the Society does not exist, and while we can react at his harsh fate, I imagine Jesus might want us to take a lesson instead.


So we take a lesson. We listen and we pay attention to the implications of being risk-averse. We take a lesson. We listen and we pay attention to the story of the servant who refused to act for fear that failure might come, that money might go, and some punishment might follow. Rather than saying “what’s the worst thing that could happen” the servant manufactured the worst thing that could happen because he refused to take a risk. So we take a lesson. We pay attention and we take a lesson.

Interesting things, metaphors. I’ve been doing a lot of reading as I prepare to sit down to write a thesis and much of my reading has been in the area of metaphor. It seems we’re surrounded. We’re surrounded by words that live with other words and expand into a whole new meaning, a whole new way of expressing and being in the world.

Case in point: We use a phrase like “pay attention” so often that we begin to forget that it’s a metaphor. Our attention on some matter is or it isn’t, either we extend our attention or we do not. But in metaphorical language, we “pay” attention, which means that it costs us something, that we expend attention in one direction at the expense of another. Attention is costly, we have a scarcity of attention, and when we pay attention we make choices: pay over here and save over there.

So when we are given a parable about three servants and a ruthless master and an unpleasant outcome, Jesus says “pay attention.” Pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves, pay attention to the possible reward that comes with action and ask yourself often “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” If inaction will cause the worst thing that may happen, then for heaven’s sake, do something. Take a lesson.

Another metaphor: Take a lesson. What do we learn from the metaphor “take a lesson?” Unlike attention, lessons are free, you can just take them. So Jesus says “take a lesson” through a parable with three servants and a ruthless master and we get a lesson for free. Risk holds the possibility of limitless reward. Pay attention, take a lesson.


One of my favourite quotes comes from the autobiography of Kirk Douglas, the star of such classics as Sparticus and The Bad and the Beautiful. It seems that Kirk Douglas has the unlikely habit of picking up hitchhikers, a habit that would cause no end of shock on the part of the person getting into the car. On one such occasion, Douglas writes, a young man got into the car, did a double-take and said “Hey man, do you know who you are?”

“Do you know who you are?” It’s the kind of question we could ask ourselves, or ask collectively of a congregation, say a congregation just like this one. When you are pleasantly surprised with what you find inside a congregation, when you come to realize that important things are happening and faithful work is being done, one is tempted to look to the humble congregation and say “Hey man, do you know who you are?” Do you realize that you are among the best kept secrets in town? Do you know that the people out there don’t know what they ought to know about the things that happen here week by week?

A parable is not an allegory, but if it was, it might go something like this: The first two servants are congregations that make a big splash and get big rewards. The third servant is the humble and maybe a little timid congregation that doesn’t make the fuss the first two make. The buried talent is this church, a talent that when exposed to the light is regarded by many as a great treasure that can grow and multiply with the best of them. And the master is the world out there, a little miffed when they discover that the talent/treasure has been hidden away too long. There is no gnashing of teeth in my allegory, but it’s mine, after all.

A lamp under a basket, a treasure hidden in a field, a talent in one hand and a shovel in other: Jesus is calling us to figure out who we are and tell someone: anyone who will listen. Jesus is telling us that teeth will gnash and tears will fall if we can’t risk the embarrassment of naming our treasure and insisting it can be treasure for others too. The lesson is pay attention to the treasure we have, and tell everyone. This is Good News for us today, thanks be to God. Amen.


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