Investing in the Reign of God: Parable of the Talents

A Biblical Reflection on Proper 28 Matthew 25:14-30
October 3, 2011

"Oh, if I could only win the lottery!" Wishful thinking is not a bad thing, but it is a poor substitute for determination and creativity. Results come not because of what we wish, but because of what we do with what we have. This is evident in the Jesus’ parable of the talents as related in Matthew 25.

It is important to say something about the context of this story. Coming as it does towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel, immediately preceding the events of Christ’s Passion, the parable forms one part of an extended line of teachings beginning at the start of chapter 24. In response to his disciples’ question about when the end of the world will come, he shifted their focus from trying to find some certainty of timing to being prepared at all times. Indeed, the pithy sayings and detailed parables that run through the end of chapter 25 were reminders to the disciples then—and to us now—that the role of the steward is one of intentional activity on behalf of the One who has entrusted us with gifts and called us to make wise investments with those gifts.

Now, investing is serious business! On my daily train home from New York City, I often overhear tales of frustration and woe from fellow commuters who find themselves at the mercy of the financial market’s volubility. Savvy investors know that there is no “sure thing.” They understand risk. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus urges his followers to be as shrewd or savvy as serpents while at the same time remaining as innocent as doves. Followers of Christ know that their gifts, their time, their money, their lives are not really their own. They are not owners, but stewards, and one day they will have to account for how they invested all that with which God has entrusted them. Courageous Christians like Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero experienced firsthand the risks involved in following Christ…but they also acknowledged that the payoff in long-term investment in the Reign of God is worth all the risks, and so they made every word and every action count.

Returning to the parable of the talents, the first two stewards produced results. The third steward did not. The difference, according to Jesus, had to do with the respective reactions to fear.The first two were willing to take what they had been given and do something with it. They did not give into whatever fears they might have felt. They simply moved forward in faith and boldness. The third steward was paralyzed by his own fear. The fact that he did not even put the money in the bank where it could earn a very modest amount of interest shows how stuck he was. He literally buried what he had been given rather than take even a small chance.

One of this nation’s most celebrated speeches, offered during the bleakest days of the Great Depression, began by asserting that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It is a line that is, of course, almost universally familiar. The rest of President Roosevelt’s first inaugural address is far less well known, including his contention that the distress felt by many “comes from no failure of substance.” Indeed, he asserted, “we are stricken by no plague of locusts…plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.” During my time on the Board of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship, I was continually reminded that as Christians we must move from a position of scarcity to that of abundance. To make this transition is to move, as Paul said to the believers in Rome, from being “conformed to the patterns of this worldto being transformed by the renewing of the mind.” It is, in other words, an intentional decision of discipleship, not an inevitable result of circumstances.

So then, where do we make our investments? Into what do we pour our hearts and souls? The answer is found in the parable that follows the story of the talents, the final parable in this section of Jesus’ teachings. There, in the tale of the sheep and the goats, we learn that we are called to invest our time and energy and money in the lives of the people whom God brings before us, including as the Prayer Book says, “all those whom it would be easy to forget.“ Sometimes they are truly “the least of these,” hungry, sick, in prison. Sometimes they are our peers, our neighbors and coworkers, hungry in heart, soul-sick, and imprisoned in regret and guilt. We are called to be stewards not just of checkbooks and calendars, butof one another. Indeed, commitments of money and time will follow.

So, go and be bold, be creative, be determined, and most of all be stewards who know that it really is about the relationships to which God calls us and brings us, transformative relationships that, in turn, can transform the world more than any lottery ticket.

 

-- The Rev. Dr. C. K. Robertson is Canon to the Presiding Bishop and Distinguished Visiting Professor at The General Theological Seminary in New York. He has several published books, including "Transforming Stewardship" (Church Publishing).