This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on January 17, 2021. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
This passage today is a tough one. In a lot of instances, Jesus’ parables have a clear message, one that speaks to the goodness of people, and the need to work hard for the least of these. While this one, the parable of the talents, shares those sentiments, it’s a bit harder to see at first glance.
You see, we heard this parable about a guy going on a journey, and he asked his slaves to take care of his property while he was gone. He gave different amounts depending on their ability, the first-five talents, the second-two, and the third-one. And when he left, the people with the talents were in charge. The one with five talents traded with it to double the original five, as did the one with two. But the third person, the one who the man deemed having the least ability, he hid the money he was given to take care of, and therefore gained nothing extra.
Here’s where it gets confusing. When the man comes back, he sees what the three did with the talents. He praises the first two, because well, they doubled his money. But the third one gets scolded, the one who buried his talent. The master calls him wicked and lazy, tells him he did the wrong thing. And then he condemns him, calling him worthless and ordered him to be thrown to the outer darkness.
So like any other parable, we ask ourselves, what is the message? What is Jesus trying to communicate through this story? Often, the person in charge in a story, the one with the power, they often take the form of God. But this story is different. This is a parable which centers the ‘least of these’, and makes him the hero of the show.
Today, we’re going to talk about the third slave, the one who took the one talent and buried it in the ground, the one who was scolded for not investing the wealth. We might use the term ‘whistle-blower’ to describe this person, as he revealed to the larger audience an issue in the way the master derived his wealth. And instead of participating in those unjust systems, he saw what was happening, and he called it out.
So instead of this parable being used as a what to do, it’s actually a cautionary tale about how we must stay alert, paying attention to the systems that call our attention, especially the unjust ones.
What systems are calling for your attention now?
Is there a particular cause that has your attention?
We have this rich master, the one with the power. And he isn’t just well off. He’s incredibly rich. To give you some context, in the Hellenistic world, a talent was one of the biggest values of money they had. One talent equaled about fifteen years wages for a laborer, and this ruler had at least eight talents, 120 years wages worth. In this time, an ideal lifestyle was geared towards financial stability, having enough to get buy. They didn’t so much value, as we do now, making as much as possible and coveting it. In fact, that was actually in bad taste, because it meant you were storing the excess wealth where it couldn’t be utilized for those in need.
There are several places in scripture that speak to that and warn people against storing the excess wealth, like Leviticus 25, where it speaks about profiting off the poor, or Exodus 16, where it warns against storing surplus. Essentially, the society was not built to handle the economic means this rich master had, so it would have been virtually impossible for him to have acquired it honestly.
In any society, there are just systems and also unjust ones. You can make your own judgments about what goes in which category, but perhaps a less charged one to speak critically of would be our healthcare system. In the U.S. our healthcare system has a lot of structural issues that make it difficult for those who need care to get it. It favors wealthy, privileged individuals and large pharmaceutical companies, who seek to profit off of the least of these. Here’s the tricky thing about unjust systems. We exist in them. And some of us even benefit from them, right?
Large scale things like the entire healthcare system isn’t something we have full control over. We need medicine and doctors and hospitals. And yet, there are structural issues within it that must be spoken up about. Taking it back to our story, the rich ruler, he earned his wealth through dishonest means, unjust means, and each of the slaves were a part of that system. The first two decided to go with the system in front of them, operating in the same ways that accumulated the overabundance of wealth in the first place.
Instead of lending our focus to the first and second slaves, the ones who invested by doing what was likely a non-legal means of investing, we turn our focus to the third. After the first two slaves were praised, the rich ruler asked the third to explain himself. Why did he decide to do nothing, to bury the talent?
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
What we see here, is an instance of speaking truth to power, of standing up for what is good and right and just, even when there are consequences. The third slave saw what was going on, and he was faced with a choice; either say something, or stay quiet. The heroism comes from speaking up for what is right, no matter the consequences.
In our world, as we’ve mentioned, unjust systems are all around us. In our community, our state, our country, and our world, things happen every single day that would certainly give Jesus another parable to tell to teach us something we should already know: People matter, and we are called to care for them.
What we learn today from our story, is that unjust systems will remain unjust until they are disrupted. And even when we can’t pull the whole system down, we must make cracks in the system in order to begin its crumbling. As a church, we are led by Christ, the one who made several dents in the unjust systems that valued money or hierarchy or power over people. Jesus stood up for those who were being harmed, beaten, bruised, humiliated, and he spoke truth to power: loving, gracious, and often hard to hear truth.
Now is a time when we do not have the luxury of ‘not seeing’, of being unaware of the injustices going on around us. Homelessness, food insecurity, abuse, white supremacy, homophobia, Christian nationalism… We can hardly open our phones or read an article without being notified of unjust systems of power that require our attention.
And so, the question is “now what”.
Just like coveting resources we didn’t earn to begin with, we too often use our privileges to ignore the realities going on around us, the same realities that caused Jesus to act. As people of faith, we have a responsibility to pay attention, to wake up, to take a look at the world around us and respond in faith.
What will we do now, now that so much has been brought to the surface?
How will we respond to the injustices happening all around us?
Friends, this week’s passage speaks for itself. This is a call to action, and it is urgent. As a follower of Christ, I invite you and urge you to respond. How will you respond? Will you write a letter? Will you go out and feed someone who is hungry? Will you have a risky conversation with a family member? Will you march? Will you pray? We do not have the luxury of staying silent anymore. The brokenness of our world requires us to act now.
As we move into our time of giving, may you pay attention to the needs of the world, even when you can easily look away. May you remember the call of Christ, for us to speak truth to power. And may you act in faith, doing what needs to be done to bring forth the kindom of heaven here on earth. Amen.