Sermons That Work

This Parable as Reported…, Proper 28 (A) – 1999

November 14, 1999

This parable as reported by Matthew has some powerful images that have influenced our thinking and our language profoundly. The word talanto (singular) and talanta (plural) in the koine Greek (the Greek of the New Testament writers), represented, according to scholars, fifteen years’ wages of one person’s labor. Somewhere else it says that it was worth $1,000. So, for his time, Jesus uses an exorbitant amount to denote the gift of the master to his servants. Throughout the centuries the meaning of the word talent has taken on attributes of ability and giftedness, concepts fully justified by this story. The servants had done nothing special to deserve this much money; it was given to them freely. Talent is given to people without any prior activity that shows they deserve it.

We describe wonderful singers, writers, actors, or painters as “people of talent.” “Oh,” we say when we hear a lovely voice, “she is very talented!” Or, when someone doesn’t measure up, we say with regret, “He never lived up to his talent.”

Talent has come to mean a special gift, something one was born with. The shape of the vocal chords and the resonators in a singer’s head we call a singing talent. But not all those who have these physical attributes grow up to become a Marilyn Horne or a Jessye Norman. There have been thousands of talented composers throughout the centuries, but we know only of one Johann Sebastian Bach, one Mozart. The words of writers have enchanted us from the times of King David and Homer all the way through to Shakespeare and John Milton. Millions of words are written down every day and, despite the proliferation of television and the Internet, bookstores are groaning under the weight of new books. And what a long time it has been since Rembrandt and Van Gogh appeared on the scene, even though there are hundreds more galleries and superb museums all over the world!

All the people mentioned above had great talents. They were born with a gift that was rich and unique. But they are all honored, remembered, and praised because they lived up to their talents. They had the gift, but hard work and perseverance on their part caused the gift to become a giver. As in the first two first examples, the servant who received the five talents and doubled them and the servant who received the two talents and doubled those, the gifted people we admire do more than please themselves; they delight the rest of us. Their gift when shared becomes a gift to us also.

The story Jesus told here has some mystifying aspects, probably because we don’t know how much Matthew altered the original story, nor do we know exactly whom Jesus meant with the example of the unused talent – probably the Jews of the day who were Matthew’s chief concern. But the heart of the story is as vital today and as true as it was when Jesus first told it.

The gift of talent is a great trust. Some people are more talented than others just as some people are more pleasing to the eye than others. Throughout the ages, much has been expected of talented people. Those who are given the talents, the trust, have a great responsibility – to use them for growth and for good. Others, because of laziness and indifference, do nothing with the gifts they were born with. They squander them or hide them just as the third servant did.

I am writing this sermon during the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in eastern North Carolina. I am struck by the work of people of ordinary gifts who have risen to heights previously unknown. These are like the servants who received the talents and multiplied them. They are the volunteers who rushed to help the victims of the floods; volunteers are always admirable. But the hidden ones, the people who probably think they are just “doing their job” or who consider themselves to have no talent are the crews and emergency workers that have not stopped giving of themselves since the hurricane struck.

They include policemen, electric power crews, rescue workers, helicopter pilots, maintenance workers, road crews – people who have struggled to make life livable for others. If we asked these men and women who waded through infested waters “What do consider your talent?” their answer would be a shrug that says “I am not talented.” And they would look surprised at the question. But what a gift they have given to others! They have rescued, at great danger to themselves, not only human beings, but also pets and farm animals. What would Jesus say to these people? “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.”

It occurs to me that there is another group neglected by people like me who rarely watch commercial television. We think of local news teams as just pretty faces who many times have difficulty speaking without a script or teleprompter. But I have been humbled by them this time. They stayed in front of the camera hour upon hour and brought crucial news to people who needed to be informed or needed to hear a voice telling them that better days would come. I even found great talent among the meteorologists who studied the radar and all the marvelous new equipment and warned viewers and listeners of dangers, or gave them some hope for future days. For days and nights it seemed as though they never slept. It was an amazing experience to see this and to recognize their humanity and their caring, the talents that multiplied and were put to good use for the good of the community.

A clear message of the parable is that we should not ignore the gifts of the Spirit; that we should not treat the gifts of faith, of liturgy and worship, of service and compassion with sloth or indifference. Notice the words of Zephaniah when he says of God, “I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs…”

God expects us to take the talents given to us and use them to their fullest worth. And for that we need energy, watchfulness, and perseverance. We cannot hide these gifts. Faith that is hidden, that does not result in acts of devotion and service, is like the buried talent. It is a terrible kind of waste. Jesus knew that the price of complete devotion to God could result in death. Yet, he did not waste a minute of his years of service on this earth. In his love for us, he tells us in the parable that he expects the same from us. He is willing to wait a long time. Notice how it says that the master stayed away “a long time.” That means that we are given repeated opportunities not to squander our talents.

When St. Paul calls the Thessalonians “children of light and children of the day,” he is not talking to lazy Christians. He is talking to people who were honoring the talents entrusted to them by loving God and serving one another. He reminds them lovingly, “… therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing…”

We all long for praise and approval. But no words from strangers or friends compare to the words of the master when he says to us: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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