Sermon November 19th Matt 25, Parable of Talents Rev. Betsy Hogan
How many of you have experienced a Paint Nite? I don’t know if they’ve reappeared after Covid, but the idea of Paint Nite was that a bunch of people get together somewhere, like a workplace or a restaurant…
And an artist has set up all the canvases, brushes, paints, everything that everyone will need… to produce, with step-by-step guidance from the artist, a pretty good approximation of the particular painting being taught that night.
And by the end of the night, along with a lot of mutual encouragement and probably a decent amount of laughter – everyone has put paint on a canvas. In some cases for the very first time.
Which is actually part of the point. Because sure, Paint Nite is a creative way for artists to help themselves make a living, and sure, it’s also a slightly more interesting way to get together with people than just going out for supper….
But the really cool thing about Paint Nite is that it demystifies, at least to a degree, the ‘often imagined as magical’ process… of making a painting.
Demystifies it for adults. Because many or most of us probably did make a painting now and then as children – but the process of making a painting, for adults? It can often feel fraught with discomfiting obstacles.
Like… Unfamiliar equipment. Mysterious techniques. And especially an overwhelming awareness of one’s regrettable incapacity to draw things… that actually look like those things.
So that’s kind of the beauty of Paint Nite. Because, those obstacles? They just don’t matter. The unfamiliar equipment gets presented. The mysterious techniques get explained. The step by step is all laid out so incrementally that the result at the end of the night always looks… astonishingly recognizable.
So it’s really just fun. And the trying something new, learning something new, are just a straight-up bonus.
Or at least, they can be. Because as I discovered when someone I know had a chance to do a Paint Nite with her work and didn’t, and I expressed surprise about that, the whole ‘just go with it’ attitude around Paint Nite is not in fact universal. Or easy. Or automatic.
In my friend’s case, for example, ‘just go with it’ was inconceivable. Because there were just too many fearsome and obvious opportunities presented in the course of the Paint Nite process… in which she could utterly fail. And that made the whole thing too risky. Even if it might have awakened in her a new awareness of possible untapped artistic talent.
Which brings us to the parable of the talents, which Gail read for us just now from the gospel of Matthew. Though not, perhaps, as we might imagine, and not, perhaps, as this parable often gets interpreted.
Because what tends to happen much of the time when we hear this parable – with the landowner who gets excited when five talents are doubled, and gets excited when two talents are doubled, and gets furious when one talent gets buried –
What tends to happen when we hear this parable is that we tend to hear the word “talents” with our modern ears. And even though we might carefully and constantly remind ourselves and one another that a ‘talent’ in Jesus’ time was a gold coin, actually a huge amount of money, more than any of those servants would make in a year –
It’s really difficult not to jump immediately from that gold coin called a talent… to the talents we mean when we use that word now.
In fact, it was precisely centuries of preaching on this parable that led to the word “talent” in English meaning… a talent. Something we’re good at. Or maybe a little special at. Particular skills, particular abilities, particular sparks or lights or gifts.
Because if we do that conflation, as it’s so easy to do – of our gift skill ability talents with the coin talents in the parable – what we wind up with is a message that actually makes a ton of sense.
Namely, that God doesn’t want us burying our talents, like the third servant in the parable -- but instead God wants us to use our talents like the other servants do, as the gifts that they are, in order to make them grow. Reach further. Expand, in bettering the world.
It’s a super-good message. It makes a ton of sense, and I actually happen to think that it’s true. There are things we’re good at, and we shouldn’t bury them. Instead we should nurture them, develop them, celebrate them. With gratitude. Lift them up, offer them up, share them with generosity, make the world better.
I do think that’s what God wants us to do with our talents. It’s a good message and it’s absolutely true. It just isn’t the message of this parable.
And why? Because parables are not allegories. So in THIS parable, for example, the ‘one man and three servants and various amounts of money and what they decide to do with it are not symbolically representing here – in an allegorical sort of way – ‘one God and three different kinds of people and various sorts of things they’re really good at and what they decide to do with them’. Because that’s not how parables work. Parables are not allegories.
In parables, you have to take the whole of the narrative. And it’s the whole of the narrative, what happens, how it unfolds, that points toward the meaning.
So listen, Jesus says to his disciples, to us, in this parable… The reign of God is like this. It’s like a situation in which if the options are trust or fear? The answer is trust.
It’s like when a man who has a HUGE amount of wealth could operate out of fear, could be unwilling to take any risks – but instead he chooses to operate with an attitude of complete trust, acceptance of risk, and no fear. He leaves his huge wealth wholly to the management of his servants. If the options are trust or fear? The answer is trust.
And it’s like when those servants could operate out of fear, could be unwilling to take any risks with the portions of that wealth they’ve been given – but two of them instead choose to operate with an attitude of complete trust, acceptance of risk, and no fear, and they invest the portions they’ve each been left. Which results in celebration!
While the third one, who couldn’t do it, who couldn’t take the risk, who operated out of fear, who couldn’t operate out of trust, buried his instead. And got in trouble for it afterward.
Because the reign of God is like this, Jesus is saying: It’s like when the options are trust or fear, and the answer is trust. And not even just trust. BIG trust. Like, go on holiday and leave all your wealth in the hands your servants trust. Like, be granted jurisdiction over your master’s immense wealth and take a chance on investing it trust.
Because when the choice is to operate out of fear or to operate out of trust, the reign of God is like this: the answer is trust.
It’s actually a pretty straight-forward message. It’d be nice if it were just as straight-forward to actually follow.
Because we’re absolutely conditioned to operate out of fear. It’s the human survival instinct writ large. We might emerge from the womb with only the Moro startle reflex inborn – that thing where babies tense up if they feel like they’re falling – but experience and learning do the rest in short order.
I used to take my Jack with me on pastoral visits when we lived out in the woods, and probably the first thing he learned in his tiny little life was to stay away from that big black THING in the middle of everyone’s kitchen. Because, No Jacky, HOT! And I can only assume that he still has a lingering inexplicable fear of woodstoves.
We learn it early at a micro-level, how to stay safe. And then we translate it automatically to a macro-level. Because we’re naturally, instinctively, wisely, self-protective.
But what Jesus is cautioning us about here, in this parable, isn’t the kind of instinctive self-protection against ‘danger’ that leads us to choose the sidewalk instead of the middle of Barrington Street. Operating out of trust rather than fear isn’t actually about abandoning all that we’ve learned about the relative weight of ourselves versus a minivan. It isn’t about setting aside our understanding of gravity. Or fire. Or poison.
It’s about setting aside a tendancy to toss into the box marked ‘danger’ – each other. Automatically. It’s about learning to look at each other, at the people around us, NOT automatically as steathily malevolent sources of potential harm -- who might steal from us, cheat us, humiliate us, laugh at us, smack us, sneer at us, damage us – but instead approaching the people around us as fellow human beings. As trustworthy until proven otherwise.
It’s an orientation toward other people, toward life in general, that’s expansive. That deals open-spirited in positive possibilities. That deliberately refuses to begin with suspicion and a totting-up of risk and worst-case scenarios and instead begins with a bright hope that there’ll be goodness.
It’s defaulting to trust instead of to fear. It’s teaching ourselves to start with faith that God is good, that goodness is real, and to believe in the best in each other instead of assuming the worst. It’s teaching ourselves to accept that risk – as the master and two of the servants do in the parable – because that’s how the space gets made for the possible “best” to happen. The servants ARE trustworthy. The talents DO multiply. And it's only the servant who operated out of fear whose fears are realized.
When the choice is to operate out of fear or to operate out of trust, Jesus is telling us, the reign of God is like this: the answer is trust.
Not the easiest message. There’s a reason that Jesus tells us this parable. But the truth is that the capacity to operate instinctively out of trust is IN us just as surely as is our reactivity to fear. So it really is just about, on purpose and prayerfully and incrementally, making it our default. In how we are with each other.
Not tightly wound balls of vulnerability, on guard for every attack, but laying out space around us for there to be the best. So that if someone hands us a paintbrush, say, it won’t loom malevolently before us like an instrument of a hundred different ways we can fail or feel humiliated – and instead we’ll just go for it. And make a little art. Amen.