Risk In Love – The Rev. Michelle Meech
November 19, 2023
There are some passages of scripture I have problems with – today’s Gospel reading is one of them. At face value, and through our American lens of capitalism, it would appear that God gives more to those who have more. Without context, the parable reads as though cleverness, not kindness, is the higher quality. That one’s worth can be measured by one’s ability to invest and become greater.
The master of the household goes on a journey and chooses 3 servants to entrust his property to. And we’re talking huge sums of money. One talent is equal to about a year’s wages. The first two, who were given more, doubled the householder’s money. And they are called trustworthy and good and they are given more responsibility along with the favor of their master. The third, however, was afraid, knowing the character of the master. He buried the money, a way of keeping it safe, and gave all of it back. For his efforts? He’s called lazy and thrown out.
Frankly, it sounds like a scene from a movie about Wall Street.
The context, however, helps us read this parable. At the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus starts hinting at the risk he knows he will have to take – to go to Jerusalem and be held accountable by the powers that be. If we stop to think about this: if any one of us risked ourselves in such a way today, people would try to stop us or, at the very least, they would call us stupid and shake their heads and walk away.
Love. Hope. Giving. Trusting. Sacrificing. These are not easy things in a world that tells us we are supposed to keep ourselves safe.
Jesus says this in chapter 24: “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray… Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day God is coming.”
Then Matthew launches into three parables about being ready, being awake – the faithful and the wise servants, the wise and foolish bridesmaids… from last week, where he repeats the warning, “Keep awake!” And today’s – the Parable of the Talents.
Today’s is not a story about wealth. It’s a story about risk, about what it will take for us to be ready for Christ in our lives. There are two different readings for this parable. Although these readings come from 2 entirely different perspectives, they are both about risk.
The more traditional reading argues that the first two servants are wise and trustworthy, indeed, because they have done good things with what they were given. They have demonstrated a willingness to risk in the face of fear. They have trusted and have become trustworthy. And, although one risked more than the other, the important thing is that they chose to step out of their comfort zone and have made the harvest more plentiful.
But the third servant was too scared to risk anything. And this was his downfall. Nothing happened except the servant stayed locked in his comfort zone, afraid of a harsh master – someone who reaped where he did not sow and gathered where he did not scatter. In other words, this servant knows this master to be a thief. The same word used to describe God in other places – the thief in the night, the one who takes from us all of our self-deception.
In this reading, the talents are a metaphor for the good actions of the first two servants, who have increased the harvest, choosing to risk on behalf of God, and becoming the heroes of the story.
Let’s look at an alternate reading of this parable offered by biblical scholar William Herzog who wrote a book called Parables as Subversive Speech. Herzog explains that the greater risk was taken by the third servant who did not play by the rules. Instead of doing what was expected by this harsh master, the third servant challenged the norms and called out the cruel man – like a whistleblower. And, like a whistleblower, the third servant was tossed out, effectively black-balled for his action.
In this reading the talents are a metaphor for worldly power. And the third servant upends the system, becoming the hero of the story.
Whichever reading you choose, be clear that this parable is not championing the accumulation of worldly wealth. The context of the passage tells us that this is about the willingness to risk, to contribute, as a spiritual path.
I have a story that may help to illuminate the kind of risk we’re talking about here. It’s a story offered by a Roman Catholic religious leader and author named Sister Joan Chittister who worked for years in Erie PA. She tells her story in her book called Welcome to the Wisdom of the World.
It was a cold day, one of those late fall days along the banks of Lake Erie when the rain is heavy, almost snow, cold to the bone. The Soup Kitchen is always over-full on those days. If the guests are not hungry they are chilled to the marrow. On those days, homeless people, jobless, some of them sick, all of them living out of shopping carts or garbage cans, come in off the streets and stay till it closes. It is, if nothing else, a place to warm up before they leave the kitchen to face the long damp night alone.
The sister at the counter that day didn’t really know the man in the long black overcoat all that well. He had come by a few times before with leftovers from an office party. A few times he simply walked up the steps, handed one of the sisters an envelope at the door, and left. Some days he dropped in and did some of the heavy work of filling the pantry shelves. This day he came in carrying hams to donate and, seeing the size of the crowd, stayed to fill plates in the serving line.
But it wasn’t the sight of him serving salads that was so surprising that day. After all, some people make a regular ministry of it. Whole teams of them have come one day a week for years. Without them, the kitchen couldn’t possibly survive. But this was different.
Just as he got ready to leave for the afternoon, coat on and scarf tight around his neck, he noticed that one of the guests sat at the end of the table, his legs pressed against the heating element, his summer sandals wet. Summer sandals. He was wearing summer sandals… with open toes and sling back heels over his bare feet. On the fringe of winter.
In a heartbeat, the man in the long black overcoat and silk scarf reached down, took off his shoes, handed them to the sister at the counter, and walked out. In bare feet. “Wait,” she ran after him, “you can’t go out like that, without these. It’s cold out there.” The man kept moving down the street. “I know,” he called back, “that’s why I left them.”
Chittister goes on to say that she was deeply challenged by this man’s act of risk-taking. She says, “Suddenly, all the words in the gospel, all the vocabulary I could muster about poverty and generosity, vacuity and purpose, came together in one astounding, shocking act. And one more even difficult question: Was I prepared to do the same kind of thing? Was I prepared to give something away that could have more meaning, more import, to someone else than it did to me – especially when it did still have meaning to me?”
I admit to sitting in the same place as Chittister. Am I prepared to do the same kind of thing? Would I give away my shoes on a cold wet night? Would I risk that much?
Not to be obvious, because we are in the middle of a stewardship campaign, but risk is what stewardship is about. Money does have value to us as individuals. But, as a spiritual practice, we are asked to give a portion – to risk a portion of our income – to ensure that something we value is sustained. This man risked – giving something that was precious to him because he valued the life of that cold man in the sandals. This is kind of risk that God is asking us to take with our lives every moment of every day.
The risk is not about danger, but about contribution, which can feel dangerous to us sometimes: because we believe we don’t have anything to give; or we believe that our contribution isn’t enough to make a difference; or we believe we need to keep all we have and all that we are for ourselves; or any of the other beliefs we have about taking the risk to contribute to the life we share together.
The Parable of Talents tells us that falling for this belief… is one of the worst things we can do – not just to ourselves, but to others who sometimes need us to risk ourselves. These beliefs are the false Messiahs who get us hooked on notions of self-sufficiency and embittered by resentment.
It’s also the ultimate message of Matthew’s Gospel – that in order to fully live into the Incarnation, we have to risk. Caring, giving, witnessing, loving, hoping, forgiving – all of these things that we are scared to do because we don’t want to be hurt by the world, all of these things that we think might make us look gullible or naïve or senseless or ridiculous… this is why we’re here. This is why we breathe.
None of us are immune to being scared to risk. But with practice, we realize that risking isn’t as scary as we thought it was. And that’s what ministry is about – practicing our contribution, practicing our risk. None of us knows exactly how to do anything and perhaps there is good news in that. We already know we’re going to get it wrong and we’re going to fail miserably sometimes so, perhaps, embracing that might just give us permission to try. Why not?
When we risk… when we try… we are given the opportunity to practice forgiveness and compassion… for ourselves, mostly. And then we risk again. We practice contributing together because, just as we have needed someone to risk something for us, we know that someone at some point is going to need us to risk ourselves for them.
This readiness to risk, this willingness to contribute: This is what it means to be ready, to be awake. To be ready for Christ, the Advent of God.