24th Sunday after Pentecost

  1. Pentecost 24.20 “Better Sorry than Safe” Matt. 25:14-30

You’ve heard the old saying “Better safe than sorry”? Well it seems from our parable today that, with Jesus, it’s the other way around: “Better sorry than safe”! Weird huh? Well let’s take a look and see how that can be…

This parable has baffled more than a few commentators over the centuries. Two translation points might help. First, the Greek ταλαντα (talent) is simply a unit of measure about 75 pounds—it’s not “talent” in the sense of “ability”. It’s usually gold or silver that is being measured and, Jesus being a gold standard Guy, it’s safe to assume we’re talking gold here. One talent of gold is about 180,000 days median wages. 5 talents then would be roughly 30 lifetimes worth of wages. A lot of money.

Why is this important? Because I’ve heard too many sermons about how Jesus gives us abilities, talents that He wants us to use for good—and so we better be good for goodness sake! And that’s not the point of this strange little story at all, if you can read. The point is: the Master dumps an incredible amount of gold in His servants’ laps without any instructions on what to do with it. He just gives and goes.

A second translation point: the Greek doesn’t say the servants made more talents by trading but says literally that they put the wealth to work and gained more talents. It was the talents that did the multiplying work, not the servants.

This is important because it helps us to answer the question: “What is trading with the talents, exactly?” The common answer (from those who can’t read Greek and depend solely on translations which, in this case, are a bit misleading) is: “trading with the talents is using your God given abilities, talents, like woodworking, painting, or hedge fund management wisely and diligently in order to increase wealth which presumably is then used for the advancement of the Christian church’s interests after you’ve met your basic needs.” But this is wrong.

It’s wrong because the talents aren’t our abilities but rather a great pile of unearned gold. And the Greek doesn’t say the servants made the gold increase, but that they put the Master’s wealth to work and it gained more gold. How to live large on Unearned wealth seems more the point.

So, hmm… how would I do that, exactly? Well, say you had 50 million dollars in gold given to you: basically, you could invest the money in equities, real estate, money market funds, commodities, etc., and get a return that would be proportionate to the risk you run. You could buy a business for yourself, maybe a little vineyard in California, a motorcycle repair shop, or my favorite, buy a Petite Le Mans race team and run a couple 911 GT3s. Big payout to the series winner! Or you could do a mix of all of the above. But in all of those cases, it is really the money itself that does most of the work of multiplying.

    This is a very contentious topic in our society today—where wealth really comes from. Now, if you read Thomas Piketty’s definitive work on the topic “Capital in the 21st Century” or any other similar work you’ll see it’s pretty much beyond argument among economists today that serious wealth, real money, multiplies in our day (as it did in most other ages) mostly by the rent seeking behavior money all but demands of those who have it rather than by any great labor or ingenuity on our part. And it has basically ever been thus…

Certainly from our Lord there is no suggestion that being well-off is because of our great labor or diligence; it’s because God gave it to us as a gift! People like Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible who say “I built that” come to a very bad end as God demonstrates that they did not, really “build that”. David, by contrast, confesses with his last words that all his wealth and prosperity was an unearned gift of God for His glory and the joy of His servants.

So “trading with the talents” would be, in the parable, simply placing profitable bets with the gold! The servants aren’t digging ditches here or making handcrafts. No. They are given a huge pile of gold; and they put the wealth to work in some investment or business deal that generates a profit. I would imagine the 5 talent guy went with sports betting as it has the biggest risk and biggest pay-off and most immediate thrills. The 2 talent guy probably went equities with 1 and bought a business that he liked with the other talent. Both got lucky with their bets. But bets they were! That’s how stock markets, private equity, sports betting, and racing teams have always worked. Now (as then!), they’ll try to convince you it’s some great work of theirs, some ability they’ve cultivated that the herd lacks, but you know deep down, that’s not true. Somehow they got staked and then they got lucky with their wagers.

I think this reading of the physical details of the parable is mostly beyond argument. But what’s the spiritual meaning?

Trading with the talents is living large off Jesus; IT’s betting everything on Him and His Gifts. In a Word: it’s faith!

Pascal was and is right on this, I believe. Christianity is a wager. Christ has staked us in life’s game with our bodies and souls and a few accessories. We can be careful and cagey, invest in ourselves, toil and labor to gain earth’s treasures. Or we can be carefree, reckless, bold; and go Live Large off Jesus, bet it all on His Cross and Empty Tomb being the ultimate payoff. Lose our lives with Him in order to find His…

You notice the five and two talent guys go at once and trade with them? They are unconcerned about loss. Someone asked on Tuesday: “what if they lost it all?” And I say that betting on Jesus, trading by faith with what is His, is playing with house money; that you can never exhaust IT. If you bring His bright, yellow 911 GT3 back battered, bodywork crumpled, back bumper zip-tied, barely hanging on, Jesus will just smile and go “Looks like you had fun. Crunch away. I’ll make more.”

But the one talent man is afraid. So he locks his fluorescent green 911 GT3 in a climate controlled storage center, returns it pristine, zero miles on the clock. But, instead of being glad, Jesus is just ticked. He calls the servant wicked and slothful for not going a little crazy with the neat toys He gives us, free…

Prudence doesn’t pay with Jesus. That’s why I said at the outset: the moral of this story is “Better sorry than safe.” Better confessing: “I dinged the Carrera at the Isle of Mann race. Sorry, Jesus!” Jesus will go, “Did you see the dings I put on My bodywork?” Was the cross safe? Sensible? I think not! Does Jesus say ‘Be really, really careful with your lives; safety first, or I’ll make you pay?’ No! He says “whoever loses his life for My sake will ever surely find IT.

I remember riding with my sister after she’d just gotten her license. She smacks dad’s Lincoln into a parked car, turns with glee and goes: “It’s a rental!” Christ’s faithful servants drive like this, always. Because… we’re all rentals! Just so, we “enter into the joy of our Master”. We live unafraid. Because you can’t break the gifts Christ gives. If you get your body dinged up (like His was dinged by the Cross!) He’ll just raise it up, better than ever; perfect, in fact…

“To everyone who has will more be given…!” Here, now, Jesus gives us Everything—His broken Body to make us whole. When we drive IT like we stole it (it’s a rental!) sorrow turns into the Joy of our Master. In the Holy Name of Jesus, Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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