The parable of the talents that Jesus tells today is not a story primarily about money. I want to start with that disclaimer because in a season when many congregations are reflecting on financial stewardship, this parable is little bit on the nose. You could hear a preacher break this story down into “This is how God wants us to deal with money.” One of the challenges with a parable that involves money in the story is that we deal with money on a daily basis. When Jesus tells stories about mustard seeds or weeds and wheat; when he tells stories about ancient wedding practices or ancient farming practices, we as moderns can say, “He’s not really talking about mustard seeds or weeds and wheat; he is talking about something larger.” But we deal with money every day and we also have a cultural restriction that says we shouldn’t talk about money, that it is a sensitive subject. So when we hear a parable like this, there is a part of our brains that says, defensively, “Jesus wants my money.” (Now as we go on, I’m going to say that theologically, Jesus already owns your money, but we will get there in a minute). Right now, I want to say that if this is a parable about money we really should be paying attention to how the servants are getting 100% returns on their investments because that’s pretty good.
It also points to the fact that we are in the realm of metaphor and story. The amounts which are entrusted to each servant are inflated. If you were talking about modern money, each servant is entrusted with millions of dollars worth of silver. The return is inflated. You gave me 5 million dollars and here are 10 million dollars. If your financial advisor were to suggest, “I know a way to double your money,” you might think it was a little sketchy. And the punishment is inflated with Matthew’s refrain of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This is not a story about money. Like most of the parables, this is a story about life and about that ever-popular theme in Matthew of being prepared, being ready. It is also a story about God’s hopes for us. Life is a gift from God. Everything about life is a gift from God. We proclaim that life is such a gracious and beautiful gift that God was willing to experience death so that we might have even deeper lives. So every moment; every breath is a gracious gift from God. When I say that to the children, everyone thinks it’s very cute, and we think about the possibilities; the exciting things they have yet to learn. We envy about how their bodies still work, how they can stand up from the children’s time without a grunt or finding a handhold for a little boost, reflecting on our own lives and our own bodies. How true were the words of Indiana Jones, “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage?”
Yet even now, every moment is a gift. We may have moments that we look back upon and say, “That time, that broken relationship, that illness, that pain was not a gift.” I don’t have any easy answers for that, but there are many traditions that look at difficulties as moments for growth, moments that deepen our lives in God, moments that drive us to depend on Christ, and as such, in retrospect, they also can become gifts in the way that they have shaped who we are now. The theologian John of the Cross describes the idea of going through the dark night of the soul in order to find union with God, and that dark night is a gift because it leads to God.
I like using gift language, because it can inspire a sense of gratitude toward the giver, but the Christian vision is a bit more complicated. If I give you a gift, I lose control of the object. If I give you a painting, I can’t control whether you will hang it in an important place in your home, or whether it will go into your attic or closet, or whether you will regift it to someone else. In Christianity the goal of discipleship is to move from simple gratitude for the gift to stewardship of the gift. God’s hope for us is that we will use the gifts of our lives to grow deeper as individuals, to grow deeper in our love for God and to grow deeper in our love for all other human beings and all of creation.
So you are not just the recipient of God’s grace but are also a steward of God’s grace. God’s hope for us is that the gifts that we have received, all of those moments, those breaths, might be used to deepen our lives, our love for God, and our love for others. Now it’s funny that I can talk about each second as a gift or each breath as a gift and it sounds kind of groovy, maybe gives you a warm feeling inside, maybe inspires you to think about how you use your time. But if I say each dollar is a gracious gift, the shields go up. I earned those dollars. Stop talking about it. That’s private. Were you holding your breath when you earned them? Were you using those gifts of time? Each dollar is also a gift to be used to deepen our lives, our love for God, and our love for others.
It’s all right to make a living, to clothe yourselves and feed yourselves. It’s all right to save for your retirement or go on vacation now and then. I’m going to be talking about the virtues of simplicity and contentment as we talk about discipleship, because they might also impact our stewardship. The truth is, you can do some amazing things with those dollars that spread the good news and share the kingdom of God. You can invest them in ways that don’t simply accumulate more dollars. You can invest in the congregation. The reality is, the more we have financially, the more we can do as a community: the better we can reach out, the more creative we can be in worship, the less we have to talk about money in terms of budget instead of talking about money in terms of stewardship. You can invest in the work of the larger church, when our congregation gives to the New England synod (which then also gives to the work of the ELCA), we are supporting the ministries of Camp Calumet, World Hunger Appeal, new church startups, mission work around the world. You can invest in the many organizations that are doing God’s work (whether or not they do it in the name of God): feeding hungry people, teaching literacy, housing the homeless, providing health care for veterans, providing companionship to senior citizens. Those are investments that you can make with those dollars that are the gifts of a gracious God.
Now here is a secret, a connection that we have a hard time making. God doesn’t want your money; God doesn’t need your money. God is doing just fine. God hopes that you will become generous people, not so that you can keep the lights on in a church. Eventually, those lights will go out. Like all things, they will pass. God wants you to be generous people because generosity is part of the nature of the kingdom of God. This gospel of grace we proclaim is a gospel of generosity. God generously gives us life. God gives us Jesus. God gives us the Spirit. If this is the gospel we proclaim, generosity should be a hallmark of God’s people.
The reason that our weekly ritual includes an offering is to train us in generosity. It is to train us to let go. You put it in the plate and it is not yours anymore. We practice it a little bit here so that you can go out into the world and practice it out there. So the world can see that there is joy in generosity, that the reign of God is a place of generosity, a place of sharing, a place of infinite grace. We are the stewards of that grace, whether we are talk about time, or dollars, or food, or breaths.
And I want to close with another disclaimer, because anytime we talk about giving, anytime we talk about acts of discipleship, it is tempting to turn the discussion into an if/then discussion of reward and punishment. If you give, you will make God happy. The prosperity gospel says, if you give, you will get more in return. If you don’t give, then closing the church is your fault. We don’t do these things to change how God feels about us. God is already deeply in love with you and you cannot change it. It’s a constant. We do these things to change who we are in relationship to God. We do them to change the world so the world is a little more like heaven. We are the stewards of God’s grace, empowered to use what God has given us to change the world, and that in itself is also a gift of a loving God.