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It is a difficult, frightening and uncertain time right now as concerns our finances. And all the talking heads say that it is going to get worse before it gets better. Hmm. Where is the nearest pick and shovel?
As the story unfolds we find three servants. One received five talents with which to trade, one received two talents, and one, one. By the way, talents were significant amounts of money; it would take nearly 20 years of work at the basic wage of one denarius per day to equal one talent. The master was incredibly generous to all the slaves, even the one who received only the one talent (twenty years worth of earnings, remember). If you want to understand it in 21st century American terms, presume a minimum wage of $7.15 an hour, times 40 hours, times 52 weeks, times 20 years, and that is $297,440 - big bucks.
The first fellow followed the market closely, knew the prospects of the crops, anticipated the arrival of the caravans from Damascus, marked the movement of the Roman legions. On the information he gleaned, he invested his five talents...shrewdly - he made a profit of one hundred percent on his transactions. Not bad.
Another servant was entrusted with two talents. Here was a blunt and honest man, probably a down-to-earth fellow who believed in getting money the old-fashioned way...EARN it. I can envision him as a farmer, driving his oxen hard, tending his vineyards carefully, laboring from sunup to sundown. By the sheer faithfulness of day-to-day work, he made his two talents yield another two - a total of four.
The third servant was different. He hid his one talent in the ground. The action, as judged by the standards of that day, was not lazy, and by the standards of our rather shaky day, was downright prudent. In the first century, to hide money in the ground was the traditional way of saving. He was scrupulous with what he had been given. Too scrupulous. That was his downfall. He would have been a better servant had he planned and risked and lost.
It is hard to escape the conviction that this story was told mainly for the one-talent fellow's benefit. There are far more one-talent men and women in this world than five-talent folks. Only a very few have the literary capabilities of a Shakespeare or a Hemingway; only a few have the inventive abilities of a Thomas Edison; only a few have the musical abilities of a Bach or a Beethoven or even the Beatles; only a few can preach like Billy Graham. The temptation for the one-talent person is to say, "I don't have much, so don't expect anything of me. What can I do?" But the real reason for the one-talent fellow's failure (and in Jesus' mind, the big danger that faces ALL one-talent people) is fear - the man said, "I was afraid." He had paralysis from analysis.
This gospel story has given an important word to our language - talents - and it comes through a MISunderstanding of the Greek word tálanta. No longer do we think of a talent as a sum of money (which we should), but rather an ability or collection of abilities that allow individuals to excel.
The egalitarian in us would like to believe that "all men (or all women) are created equal," but, despite what our Declaration of Independence might say, we know such is not the case. Jesus knew and clearly taught that people differ in talents. There are diversities of gifts as the Apostle Paul noted in Ephesians. Some draw plans for cathedrals, some compose music for its organ, some carve the stone and some build the road to the door. But everyone is talented. No one is without some gift essential to the building. (1)
Indeed, the one-talent person is often critical to the success or failure of an enterprise. Shakespeare may have been an incredible literary genius, but the world would not know of Shakespeare if not for the singular gift of someone who could run a printing press. The one-talent person is one note on the piano, but failure to play that note can wreak havoc on the resulting tune.
Note that the story says the master GAVE to each according to his ability. God is a giving God. The "givingness" is called grace. In the beginning, God gives the newly created world to humanity and calls us to be good stewards over it. God gives the covenant to the people to assure them of their relationship to the divine. God gives the law, the prophets and finally gives Jesus to redeem the world. Many believe that the important religious question is "What must I do to get?" The question of grace is "What must I do with what I have been given?" So with the fellows in our parable; they are not are confronted with the job that they have to do in order to get something, but they are given a gift which they must manage and use. (2)
If you are worried whether you can succeed in putting your talent to use, think of this. During the filming of the movie "Ben Hur", Charleton Heston had to learn to drive a chariot. He was having terrible trouble, so he complained to Cecil B. DeMille, "I can barely stay on this thing. I can't win the race." DeMille answered, "Your job is to stay on it. It's my job to make sure you win." That is God's promise to us. Stay faithful. God trusts us to handle our gifts appropriately. God will ensure the outcome.
Sir Michael Costa, the celebrated conductor, was holding a rehearsal. As the mighty chorus rang out, accompanied by scores of instruments, the piccolo player - a little pint-sized flute - thinking perhaps that his contribution would not be missed amid so much music, stopped playing. Suddenly, the great leader stopped and cried out, "Where is the piccolo?"
The sound of that one small instrument was necessary to the harmony, and the Master Conductor missed it when it dropped out. The point? To the Conductor there are no insignificant instruments in an orchestra. Sometimes the smallest and seemingly least important one can make the greatest contribution and even if it does not seem to make that big a difference to the audience at large, the conductor knows it right away!
In the church the players and the instruments are diverse -- different sizes, different shapes, different notes, different roles to play. But like the piccolo player in Sir Michael's orchestra, we sometimes decide that our contribution is not significant. What we do or fail to do could not possibly make a difference. And so we quit playing. Stop doing that which we have been given to do. We drop out. But the conductor immediately notices. From our perspective, our contribution may be small, but from his, not small at all. (3)
I know I am talking to some piccolo players this morning, who have dropped out of the orchestra, for whatever reasons: pain, exhaustion, insecurity, criticism, laziness, misbehavior. Convinced that your contribution doesn't mean a hill of beans in the bigger scheme of things. We have buried our talent in the ground. The word of the Lord is be careful about that.
From this parable comes a rule of life that is apparently universally true. It tells us that, to those who use what they have, more will be given, and those who do NOT use what they have been given will LOSE even what they have. The meaning is this - if a person has talent and exercises it, he or she is progressively able to do more with it. But if that person has a talent and fails to exercise it, he or she will inevitably lose it. If we have some proficiency at a game or an art, if we have some gift for doing something, the more we exercise that proficiency or gift, the harder the work or the bigger the task we will be able to tackle. However, if we fail to use it, we lose it. This is equally true for playing golf or playing the piano, singing songs or writing sermons, carving wood or thinking out ideas. It is the lesson of life that only way to keep a gift is to use it in the service of God and in the service of our fellow human beings. (4)
Years ago, one of my seminary professors told the story of a student of his who, when he was a little boy, won a cake at a church social. It was the first thing that he had ever won, and he was so proud of it that he would not let anyone even touch it. He took it home and put it on a table in his room and just looked at it. He could not bring himself to eat it or share it with his family. Then one day he noticed that the cake was starting to turn green. It was good for nothing but to be thrown away. A cake is meant to be eaten, and unless we use it, we lose it. (5) When Pablo Casals was 90 years old, the greatest of all cellists, he kept practicing the cello for four or five hours each day. Someone asked him why, at his age, he worked so hard at the fundamentals of his art. "Because," he said, "I think I am making some progress." (6) Don't LOSE it. USE it!
What is your TALENT? It should be noted that the story does not indicate that anyone received no talent. No one was left empty-handed. Everyone is in some regard "talented", and remember, the talent is no small sum.
There are LOTS of talents represented here this morning. Some are talented musically. Are you? Then put your talent to work. Don't lose it! USE it! Some are gifted communicators - writers, speakers, teachers. Is that your talent? Don't lose it. USE it! Perhaps you can't carry a tune in a bucket and would faint dead away if you ever had to get up in front of a class or congregation, but you are good at handling details and could put your talent to work volunteering in the church office. Is that your talent? Don't lose it. USE it! Maybe you are good with tools and enjoy building things. Wonderful. Put your talent to work around this campus on a work day or on a mission trip - there is lots to be done. Make your talent available. Don't lose it. USE it! Do you like people and enjoy making new friends? The Lord can use you to greet folks at worship, call on newcomers, visit shut-ins. Is that your talent? Don't lose it. USE it! The list could go on and on and on.
Edward Everett Hale once said, "I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do."
A church is placed in a particular community, not to preserve the Christian heritage and defend it against all aggressors; but to invest itself in the life of that community - if need be, to die for that community. When God calls a congregation to account for its existence, God does not want to hear that we have been holding our own, keeping up the mortgage payments on the buildings, protecting the Bible from misinterpretation so that we can now hand back all that was given to us in the same mint condition as it was when we first received it. No, God wants to know that we have used the gospel by the giving it away with ourselves. Don't lose it. USE it!
One word of caution. Someplace or other there once was a pastor who, following a message on this subject, heard a parishioner say, "I have one gift, the gift of criticism. I can spot problems a mile away." O, GOODY! Is that your gift? The gift of criticism? Don't USE it! LOSE it!
I once encountered a tee shirt that depicted a dog in a pulpit preaching to a congregation of fellow pooches, shaking his paw at them and screaming, "Bad doggie, Bad doggie." Underneath the artwork was the caption, "Hellfire and Dalmation." Well, "Hellfire and Dalmation" is not my purpose here this morning. Rather, for your own sake, with every ounce of my strength, I want you to "be all that you can be" in the name of Jesus Christ so that one day, when your journey is over and you can lay your burden down, you will hear, "Well done...enter into the joy of your master."
1. The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 7, (Nashville, TN : Abingdon Press, 1954), p. 558
2. Richard Hoefler, The Divine Trap, (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, 1980), pp.137-138
3. Richard Love, Sermon, "Blowing Your Horn," eSermons.com
4. William Barkley, Matthew, Volume 2, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia : Westminster, 1975), p. 324
5. Hoefler, pp. 140-141
6. Lewis Smedes, A Pretty Good Person, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), p. 174