Although he didn’t invent the saying, famous basketballer Michael Jordan made popular the saying: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” In other words, if you have a shot and miss then at least you gave it a go. If you don’t have a shot then it doesn’t matter how good or experienced you are you will never make the shot.
As we read today’s Gospel reading, the parable speaks along similar lines. The message of the parable is that what God requires of us is not success, but faithfulness. The parable opens with an act of trust. The master is about to leave town on a journey and he entrusts his wealth to three servants. Each is given a different sum of money. The master trusts each of his servants handing over the money without any instructions on what they have to do with it or what he expects when he returns. It’s simply trust.
After a long time, the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money. The third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly what he received. He thought he was doing his master a favour by simply looking after it by burying the money in the ground. He reveals the reason for his action: fear. Fear of the master. So while the first 2 servants had a relationship based on trust – the 3rd servant’s relationship was based on fear. And what a difference it makes both in how they deal with their master’s property and how they relate to the master. The trust of the 3rd servant in his master was zero, so he reduced his financial risk to zero. Yet he reduced the possibility of profit so that it, too, was zero. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t make.
The story does have unanswered questions. How would the master have responded to the first two servants if they had lost the money or not made a profit? I think the master would have accepted them. Because as we look at the parable what he commends is not their profits, but their faithfulness. He says – Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Certainly the Master would have been experienced in some ventures not working. Even though the first servant earns more than the second, both receive the same commendation: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.” Both receive the same reward: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” But in responding to the third servant, the master makes it clear that he would have accepted anything – even rock-bottom, savings-account interest – that was motivated by faith rather than fear.
The parable is not about money or ability so much as it is about trust. The master trusts his servants and hopes for their trust in return. Two of the servants return the favor by living out of trust rather than fear. Interestingly, the 3rd servant is not judged on what he didn’t make but he his judged on his own words in his relationship with the Master: 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? What this servant gets is exactly the rejection he fears. The other two servants, however, understand grace when they see it. Here is a man who’s generous, who takes a risk, who accepts them, even honors them. They feel empowered, and are willing to take risks of their own. They have watched their master and learned from him. The love their master has shown them overcomes their fear of failure. The master’s love for them has generated love for their master – that he is more interested in them than in gaining a profit.
This relationship turns upside down the standards of the world which sees profit as success. This parable rejects the notion of a God who is unmerciful and judgmental. The 3rd servant was not judged by the master’s standards but by his own words and relationship with the Master. Likewise God does not banish people to hell but honours their relationship with himself. As Jesus says – Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. The 3rd servant has judged himself. The parable assures us that failing is not a sin. The worst thing is living in fear of God. In the eyes of God, the fear that keeps a treasure in the ground is a lack of trust and belief in God.
The freedom we live with puts that treasure of God at risk – and may even result in its loss – that is an act of faith. The same faith shown by God in creating us with free-will. A free will that could return his love or reject him. A free will that saw his own son put to death. And that is why we have forgiveness.
We can learn from our failures, and often it is failure that provides the most valuable lessons. But fear teaches us nothing and earns nothing. So many times in the Gospels the disciples are rebuked by Jesus not for lack of faith but for fear. And we see many examples of how fear creates selfishness and self-preservation rather than generosity. The same traits in our 3rd servant who thought of his own preservation. Like the elder brother who refuses to welcome home the prodigal son. The all-day workers who demand that late arrivals receive less than the daily wage. The Pharisee who tries to talk God into accepting him because he’s kept the rules, unlike that tax collector over there – and yet it was the tax collector who went home justified before God. The criticism of Jesus for letting “that woman” touch him and waste expensive perfume on him. All these and more live in a fearful world, where grace is absent and selfishness abounds.
But we, too, are often given to burying our talent out of fear. We live in what is called ‘maintenance ministry’ rather than mission ministry. Checking if we can afford to do something rather than trusting that God will provide. The Good News of Jesus gives new meaning to success and security. Grace is about our willingness to risk in response to God’s invitation. Security is found in a God who trusts us and who takes a risk in us, and asks that we risk also. God doesn’t need our money – he needs our faith and trust in him. Like the poor widow who gave 2 small copper coins – all she had – whom Jesus said gave more than all the riches given to the treasury. The only thing that concerns God and all he seeks is that “I desire mercy not sacrifice”.
“The Parable of the Talents” is not about money or abilities. It’s a story about trust, a story about risk.
Life is the same way. What turns out to be important is not our money or abilities in themselves, but using what God has given us in ways that show our willingness to risk and to trust. Jesus has left us with the promise of his return. While we wait, he has given us gifts to use for the benefit of the community. Using these gifts can be risky; we may face persecution, rejection, ridicule. Sometimes it’s easier to bury our faith and just wait. We’re right. We have assurance of our salvation. But what about everyone else. We cannot “play it safe” like the third servant, fearing negative possibilities, letting those gifts be unused, or underused.
God took a risk with us and asks us to trust him as Jesus says in John 14 – you trust in God, trust also in me.
So let us live lives of trust and not fear as we wait to here those words – Well done, good and trustworthy servant; enter into the joy of your master.