Use It or Lose It

Passage: Matthew 25:14-30
Date: November 19, 2017
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

Having trouble playing the audio? download the mp3


I grew up listening to my mother practice her strong, high soprano at the piano in our living room. When I was in middle school, we stood side by side in the church pew, singing “It Is Well with My Soul.” She pointed me to the alto line, and I stumbled through it. So began our duets.Sometimes, we even sang for the congregation. It’s one of the reasons I love hymn singing, because of good memories with her. But I also remember the day that she said she wouldn’t sing anymore. I had grown up and moved away, and after a while, she stopped soloing. She explained: “Well, I quit singing, and now, I can’t.It’s just not there anymore.”

Use it or lose it! You’ve heard that one, right? And like me, you may have heard sermons on it.

The story of my mother’s loss of her singing voice seems an illustration of this parable, and a caution about what happens when you don’t use your natural gifts. But, interpretation along those lines would not have been the understanding of the early church. Over centuries, interpretation of this passage shifted. In the sixteenth century, Protestant theologian John Calvin reshaped the meaning of the word “talent”based on this passage in Matthew. “Talent” began to mean our natural, God-given gifts.

But the earlier meaning of “talent” is a unit of weight, a very valuable coin. Actually, in today’s money, a talent would equal about a million dollars! (And would have been at least as much as 20 years’ servant’s wages.) In the ancient world, accumulating that much money would have come only at the expense of others. The first hearers of this story would have recognized the master’s exploitation. Not only is he corrupt and greedy, but he expects his servants to do the same.

Here’s the story of a wealthy man,a fraction of the top 1%, who summons three of his servants and hands over five million dollars to one, two million to another, and one million to the third. Then he goes away for a long time. When he returns, two of the servants have doubled his money, making him even more astoundingly rich. The third servant buried the million dollars he had been given. It was a matter of honor and rabbinic law that borrowed money be full returned. He says something like this: “I knew you were a harsh man, corrupt, making your money on the backs of others, not on your own work.Here’s your million back.”

This truth-telling servant (an ancient-world whistle-blower) is thrown into the outer darkness. Perhaps this servant is the hero of the story. He names the corruption, and he pays dearly for it. Rather than calling this the parable of the talents, maybe we should name it the parable of the brave servant. When greed and corruption are normalized, goodness matters.

“For to all 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.” A wise person said: “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text.” This passage has been used to justify our economics. Commenting on the Lukan version of this story, Tony Perkins, politician and president of the Family Research Council, wrote that this story is proof that Jesus was a free-marketer long before the concept was developed.

(What I’m saying now will be political, and not all will agree with me.) This past week, we saw the House pass tax reform which gives the largest ever tax cuts to wealthy corporations. And in less than a decade, those cuts are financed on burdening the poor and middle class. And we have also recently been shown evidence (as in the Harvey Weinstein scandal) that some people clearly use their power and money to squelch the voices of those they’ve exploited. News on the one hand and Bible in the other—this parable really comes to life, doesn’t it?

This parable shows the way of the world, true in Jesus’ time, and true today: the wealthiest at the top get more, and those with less lose out. Centuries pass, and the names and faces change, but unjust power structures persist. This makes what follows next in Matthew all the more significant.

It is the story of the final judgment of all the nations (the whole world) when the Lord separates sheep from goats. He recognizes those who fed him when he was hungry and thirsty, those who welcomed him, a stranger, and visited him in prison, and those who did not. When the righteous ones ask, “When did we see you, Lord?” He answers:“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”

Let’s imagine that these two parts of the chapter in Matthew are two illustrated panels: This is the way the world works. Greed, power, and exploitation. And here is what God will judge in the end:how do we treat one another? How far out of our comfort zone will we go to try to heal what has been broken?

This week, I was deeply touched to witness ways we are, quite literally, feeding, welcoming, visiting, and caring for one another. It happens through our giving to Northeast Emergency Food Program; through Hands Together, giving rides and food to those who have surgeries and illness; through providing support through memorial receptions;through visits to sing to the dying; through deacon and Stephen Ministry visits; and through welcoming the stranger to the service of healing and wholeness as we did last night. We can sometimes glimpse God’s spirit moving among us in these and many other ways. But I think the brave servant parable challenges us on a deeper level.

He points to the systems of injustice that we have difficulty recognizing when we are the ones with enough money and comfort to feel cushioned from need. But we can’t turn away because we are tired and distracted. When we see the plight of those who are in jeopardy, those who feel the pinch first—those without medical insurance, without home, students with debt, people with jobs that don’t provide a living wage, immigrants, and so many more—then we have to ask ourselves, how do we use what we have? How do we use our attention, our resources, our energy, our voices, our votes, to bring merciful changes for “the least of these”? In times when truth and news are pliable, truth-tellers are worth more than gold.

This parable is difficult. This is not a “feel good” passage in the Bible, and I’m not here to heap on guilt. This parable shows what is broken, and in the context of being the body of Christ, invites healing through our efforts together. We need to press on. When scorn and greed and hatred are normalized, goodness truly matters. Artist Jan Richardson wrote the following poem.I share it, thinking of all the places in our world, our nation, our lives that need healing.

The Healing that Comes

I know how long
you have been waiting
for your story to take
a different turn,
how far
you have gone in search
of what will mend you
and make you whole.

I bear no remedy,
no cure, no miracle
for the easing
of your pain.
But I know
the medicine
that lives in a story
that has been
broken open.

I know
the healing that comes
in ceasing
to hide ourselves away
with fingers clutched
around the fragments
we think are
none but ours.

See how they fit together,
these shards
we have been carrying—
how in their meeting
they make a way
we could not
find alone.

What can the brave servant teach us this Thanksgiving Sunday? What will change for us when we see Jesus in the vulnerable?