The Talent for Spiritual Entrepreneurship
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
[Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30]
Tell me: Where does your attention immediately go once the “Parable of the Talents” ends? I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I am fairly confident that most of us (if not all of us) stumbled over what happened to that poor guy who only had one talent. I suspect that many felt uneasy (if not appalled) at the portrayal of God in the character of the “Master” as such a harsh, unsympathetic presence. On the surface it looks pretty much like a test among three individuals over who would do the most with what they were given. After all, this is the way a system of merit works: You get good grades for good work. And woe to those who fall short. This is surely how the world works, but is this the nature of God’s life? More to the point, what is this familiar parable saying to us about our life with God? I will give you a hint: next Thursday is Thanksgiving Day.
The answer to this and all the other questions we might have about the “Parable of the Talents” comes with a close reading of the story itself and not allowing it to be turned into a morality tale or a “Horatio Alger-pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps” mythology. As the Collect of the Day reminds us, the Bible is written “for our learning”, to the extent that we might “hear [the scriptures], read, mark, and inwardly digest them”, not to get a good grade but to know how to recognize and receive a gift -- God’s gift. So, here are what I regard as the two clues that open up this parable and its meaning.
The first stems from what the Collect of the Day implies: namely, what does it take to “learn” from the scriptures enough to live them, to “inwardly digest them” (without burping too noisily)? And if this is a story about talents and what we do with talents, perhaps it would be useful to ask what a talent is?
As we all know, in English, a talent is the same as possessing a skill. She has a “talent” for picking out colors. He has a talent for playing “Name that Tune”. Yet, in the biblical context – and clearly in this parable -- a “talent” refers to a certain sum of money. Tellingly, a talent is what a laborer could earn in fifteen years of laboring. And now, realizing this fact, we are at the point of cracking open this parable and to seeing God represented as an extremely (almost foolishly) generous individual who gives to those who serve him amazing amounts of money. He in fact fronts his servants a life-time of income: to one, seventy-five years of earned income; to another thirty years of income; and to another a full year’s income – all of it is advanced, given to them according to their abilities – their talents, their skills. Ironically, the essential “talent” or skill that is hidden in the folds of the story is to live thankfully. Perhaps, then, the parable’s issue is to ask what it means to live “thankfully”.
Tell me: What would you say and do with such a no-strings-attached advance? I hope your response is guided by our parish three-part, theological template because the first words out of all the servants’ mouths needs to be “thank you” – thank you for advancing me my life in ways that I cannot provide myself – or (for that matter) even imagine. Then, after acknowledging the gift, what would you do with it? Again, our three-part, theological template directs us to the next question: Does one share a gift or keep it to oneself? Does one perceive what is given as a possession or an endowment?
The tension and the problem in the parable arrive as a result of the one who received the one talent. (Remember that one talent was worth 15 years of his labor). So, why was he afraid? In those incidences when I am that servant, I am fearful of losing what has been given. So, as the story goes, he (and all those of us who occasionally imitate this fearful servant) buried the talent, the advance of one full year’s wages. Another example of the truth that the opposite of faith is not doubt but fear.
This point of being able (that is, having the “talent”) to receive what is given, especially from God but also from one another, always hits me as we celebrate Communion by asking the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine and also to sanctify us. Here are those familiar and revealing words: “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace…”1
In a very real sense, at this point in our Sacramental worship, we have been reminded in the Liturgy of the Word of what we are and Whose we are. Now, in the Communion prayer we ask for the “talent” to receive what we need and cannot provide for ourselves: namely, God’s gift of life beyond fear and death.
So, we pray for the Spirit’s help in receiving – in receiving such a preeminent gift. For as in the “Parable of the Talents”, we receive as servants who are given an advance -- an advance on our baptisms: Vows that confirm us as God’s people and members of Christ’s Body. And my point is that it is easier to exercise good manners and say “thank you” than it is actually to receive faithfully – to take into ourselves (“inwardly digest”) -- what is given. It is hard for many of us to receive because the truth is, we are what we eat.
I close this sermon with a hope. I hope that our time together, especially our time together this past liturgical year, helps each of us to receive – to receive what God-in-Christ gives; that we assist one another in saying “thank you” for “the gifts of God for the people of God”; and that in receiving God’s gifts we may have the grace increasingly to become what we dare inwardly to digest; that we might become spiritual entrepreneurs: that is, risk takers who proclaim and demonstrate in the investment of our lives what life on God’s terms is like.
One of the things that this means is that for us every Sunday of every week is Thanksgiving Day. Amen.
1. Book of Common Prayer: Eucharistic Prayer A, p. 363