Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Risky Business

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 19, 2017)
Matthew 25:14-30 – “Risky Business”

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

“Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

“His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them.

Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’ “People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.”

That’s an intense parable, isn’t it? I appreciate what Clarence Jordan—who was the founder of Koinonia Farm, active in the Civil Rights Movement, and took part in the establishment of Habitat for Humanity—had to say about Jesus’ parables:

“When Jesus delivered his parables, he lit a stick of dynamite, covered it with a story about everyday life, and then left it with his audience. By the time his hearers fully unwrapped the parable, Jesus and his disciples were long gone.” [1]

I mentioned at the Worship Committee meeting last Wednesday that this text was coming up and I read it out loud, mainly to get some sympathy, “I’m not sure what in the world I’m going to say about this on Sunday,” I moaned. Someone said, “This sounds a lot like our tax system today!” She wasn’t wrong, especially with this tax plan Congress is considering… “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them.”

The economics of this parable are pretty strange. The economics in many of Matthew’s parables are really strange, for that matter.

But before we get to that, a point of clarification. Other versions of this story use the word “talent” for what the master gives to the servants because of the Greek word for the coin, talanton. Some preachers interpret “talents” like the English word which means our individual gifts and abilities and, because the Lectionary puts this reading on the calendar right around Stewardship season, they preach sermons about giving of our “talents” to God. That’s all well and good, but that’s not what “talent” means here. The version I read from says “valuable coin,” which is putting it lightly. We’re talking about a HUGE sum of money here, with with one talanton being equal to 6,000 denarii and weighing something like 75 pounds!

So this master who’s going on a trip gives 5 valuable coins worth a gazillion dollars to one servant and 2 to another, but he gives only 1 valuable coin to the third. What’s strange is that the master doesn’t lose money on this deal at all; in total he gets 7 more talents than he had in the first place, so he’s got a pile of money either way you shake it. That’s reason number one why it seems excessively cruel to toss the third servant into the outer darkness. Reason number two being the third servant doesn’t lose any money. None! The master gets his money back.

On some level the third servant is justified in burying this coin, like people who, after the stock market crash and run on the banks in the early 1920s, hid money in their mattresses instead of investing them in financial institutions. Caution has its merits, doesn’t it?

The first two servants were even smarter, though, because they doubled the investment. A wise, older friend of mine gave me some investment magazines a while back because I know next to nothing about investments. One concept I picked up on was the relationship between risk and return: if you want your money to increase quickly, like the first two servants did, you have to make some bolder stock picks.

That’s the point Jesus is driving home here: invest wholeheartedly. Hold nothing back.

True, it’s an unusual and dramatic way to make that point. Like a stick of dynamite, Clarence Jordan said.

The third servant’s error, you see, was giving into his fear. “I was afraid,” he told the master. His fear caused him to distrust the master and play it safe with all the master had given him.

This is a parable of what the Reign of God is like (Jesus keeps telling those in Matthew). This is a parable about following Jesus, about what living into discipleship looks like… and what it doesn’t look like.

This parable is a caution against playing it safe.

This is a parable about the role that risk plays in the life of faith.

But we normally don’t think about risk being a crucial aspect of faith, though, do we? Faith can be about so many other things, generally having to do with security and what works best for us—believing the right points of doctrine, or being good people, or finding whatever gives us meaning or a sense of order in the world, or having confidence in our place in the hereafter. Of course it’s deeply a part of our human nature to be risk-averse. We spend so much of our lives playing it safe because that’s what circumstances force us to do to live well and take care of ourselves and those we love. That’s understandable.

But security is not at the heart of the kingdom, Jesus says.

To follow him sometimes entails taking a step outside of our comfort zones or risking life, resources, or reputation for what is right.

Think of about it: how many stories in our lives, or in the lives of people we admire, center around the risks that were taken? The times we stood up for conscience. Or took a chance. Or pushed past barriers. Or loved wastefully, gave lavishly, forgave radically, or dared to hope when the outlook seemed bleak. To exercise faith often requires stepping out there, being obedient to God’s call even when it is costly.

And I have to say that one of the most alarming trends in light of this shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is the tendency of churches first reactions to be, “What do we need to do to keep ourselves safe from a gunman?” rather than “What do we need to do as God’s people to ensure the safety of everyone in our communities, everyone in this world that God so loves?”

When I was looking at the MIF (the Ministry Information Form, the “resume,” if you will, that churches post on the Presbyterian system for matching pastors with churches), I noticed what St. Mark’s MIF said, “We are a faith community that is willing to take risks for progress on social justice.” I can remember exactly where I was when I read that and I can remember thinking, “Wow, it would be really cool to pastor a church like that!” When I think of some of the most consequential work you’ve done in the past and work we’ve done recently on behalf of the kingdom of heaven, what characterizes much of that are risks—not foolhearty risks for risks sake—but risks taken in faith.

Of course we think of big, bold, decisive actions when we think of taking risks, but sometimes it’s the little risks taken in daily life that matter. Jim Wallis, from Sojourners magazine, wrote a piece this past week entitled, “4 Ways to (Successfully) Talk Politics Over the Holidays.” Observing that many people fear going home for Thanksgiving or Christmas because of how politically divided we are and because of how we’re getting siloed into talking about what matters only with those with whom we agree, he offered four strategies for having those crucial conversations. I won’t go into those, but I will say I think Wallis is right: we have to take the risk of talking to one another about what’s important, not just glossing over it with pleasantries.

This is especially true as far as racism is concerned. For those of us who are white, we have to find ways to engage other white people about what’s happening in this country. Taking that risk by investing in the hard work of frank conversation is one of the only ways we can truly make progress on these issues.

As a pastor, I can tell you that out of all the conversations I’ve had at people’s bedsides as they were at the end of their lives, I’ve yet to hear anyone say, “Gee, I really wish I had lived more cautiously.”

To not step out in faith sometimes leaves us in what you could call, in Matthew’s imagination, “the outer darkness.” A place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. A land called “regret.”

One preacher put it this way:

“The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently.” [2]

So… what risks can you take, can we take for the kingdom of heaven?

[1] Back cover of Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation by Clarence Jordan, edited by Bill Lane Doulos (2009).

[2] The Rev. Dr. John M. Buchanan, former Senior Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, in a commentary on this passage in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4 (2008).

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