“Talents” Colchester Federated Church, November 19, 2017 (Matthew 25:14-30) Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Every year Forbes unveils their list of the wealthiest people in the world.  One of the more interesting people on the list is Elon Musk the CEO and Chairman of Tesla.  Musk has been focused on transportation on earth with Tesla and in space with his company SpaceX.  His net worth these days is 19.7 billion dollars.[1]  Though it’s important to remember that Elon Musk survived some low points to be where he is today.  He helped found PayPal and received a significant amount of money when PayPal was bought by eBay in 2002.  So he took that money and began to focus on transportation.  He had an interest in creating a car that could run on renewable energy, a wonderful idea.  Except Tesla unveiled their first car in 2008—just as we faced a significant economic crisis.  The company might have closed.  But Elon Musk poured some of his life savings into Tesla during that rough stretch and the company now continues to grow.

Though he had perhaps an even bigger dream—wanting to eventually operate a business that could launch people into space.  The first three launches with SpaceX were embarrassing public failures and that company was also on the edge of bankruptcy.  Supposedly there was only enough money left for one more space mission.  Elon Musk could have easily abandoned his dream—no one would have blamed him for walking away at that point.  But the fourth attempt was a success.  And these days he continues to passionately revolutionize transportation.  Though it’s important to remember how much he had to risk and how close he came to losing it all to make his vision a reality.

It’s worth thinking of someone like Elon Musk when we turn to this parable from the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus taught us.  Because what The Parable of the Talents emphasizes is that sometimes you have to take risks in order to reap rewards, a timeless lesson for all of us to keep on our hearts.  Now in this story the Master is described as a harsh man, who reaps what he doesn’t sow and presumably gathers from crops that aren’t even his.  The Master goes on a journey and in his absence trusts three of his slaves with some talents, which were very large sums of money in Jesus’ time.  One talent would be worth nearly twenty years of wages.  So we’re talking about the Master leaving his slaves a sum of one hundred years’ wages, forty years’ wages, and twenty years’ wages respectively.[2]  The amounts entrusted are based on the Master’s judgement of each slave’s ability, though all of them receive significant amounts of money.

The most trustworthy slave greets the Master on his return with 10 talents total, he doubled his original amount.  The second most trustworthy slave comes to him with 4 talents.  He also doubled his original amount.  Finally, the poor frightened slave comes to him with the 1 original talent.  That slave was so afraid to trade with it and possibly lose the money; he was so afraid of upsetting his master and experiencing his bad temper, that he buried the talent in the ground and kept it safe and sound and hidden.  It was a risk-free way to save what he had been given.

However, the Master berates the scared slave and punishes him, ordering him to be thrown into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[3]  Once again we experience Matthew’s favorite expression to put us on edge thinking about the horror of the final punishment.  Considering that this is how the slave was treated, no wonder he was terrified of disappointing the Master, terrified of possibly taking a risk and losing the original talent entrusted to him.  The Master took that talent from him and gave it to the most trustworthy slave who had ten talents, and throws him out in the story.

Here’s the thing though—we see the two other slaves (who also knew that the Master was a harsh man) behave very differently in our parable.  It ends up that paralyzing fear held back the least trustworthy slave from taking a chance.  And that’s sad when we stop and think about it.  We get a sense that this frightened slave had little self-esteem and confidence in his abilities, in his talents as a person.  Which is why he went outside and literally buried his talent in the ground—safe and sound, though hidden from the world.  This is someone who wasn’t comfortable taking a risk.

Now taking risks and using the gifts that God has entrusted to us is at the heart of this parable.  It’s an important life lesson.  Though maybe talking about slaves and talents getting multiplied or buried is a hard way to think about this concept.  We’ll explore a few more examples and hopefully something will connect.

It’s like Frederick Wilcox once said about risk-taking (using a baseball analogy):  “Progress always involves risks.  You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”  If we become so timid and afraid of making mistakes, if the fear of failure gets in our heads and hearts, if we can’t bring ourselves to go for it and see what happens, we’re going to get thrown out at second base every time.  The best base stealers in baseball may have the natural talent of speed.  They’re fast runners, but also may naturally take risks that other players won’t.  You can watch them get in the heads of pitchers by stepping off first base and daring a pitcher to try to pick them off.  The terrified slave in our story doesn’t even try to steal second base if you will, he just gives up in some respects without attempting any growth.  He didn’t believe in himself.  He didn’t have the courage to take a risk, and so he doesn’t get the victory in the end.

Here’s another example about risk taking.  Harvey MacKay (the businessman and columnist) once told a story about risk and believing in yourself.  The story is about a college professor who stood in front of his class of 30 senior molecular biology students on exam day.  Before passing them the final exam, he said, “I have been privileged to be your instructor this semester, and I know how hard you have worked to prepare for this test. I also know most of you are off to medical school or graduate school next autumn. I am well aware of how much pressure you are under to keep your grade point averages up. Because I am confident that you know this material, I am prepared to offer an automatic B to anyone who opts to skip taking the final exam.”

The sighs of relief around that classroom were audible.  Some of the students jumped up from their desks right away, thanking the professor for the lifeline he had just thrown them and walking out the door.  “Any other takers?” he asked.  “This is your last opportunity.”  One more student decided to leave.  The professor then looked around the classroom and handed out the final exam to his students.  The exam consisted of two sentences.  It read: Congratulations, you have just received an A in this class. Keep believing in yourself.

Now ask yourself honestly—would you have stayed seated in that classroom to take the test or would you have walked out the door?  For me, if it was a molecular biology exam, I would have taken that B and run out the door without even looking back.  But if that happened to me in Seminary I probably would have stayed because I’m stubborn enough and determined enough to want an A.  And to feel deep down, that if I studied and prepared well for a final exam, I should have the opportunity to earn a good grade.  It would be taking a chance because you could get lower than a B, but it does point to the reality that when you take a great risk, the yield can be even greater.

Now our lives aren’t always saving companies we’ve created like Elon Musk or successfully stealing second base or sticking around to earn As on final exams.  We will face obstacles and the future won’t always be smooth sailing.  We will even fail and wonder why in the world we didn’t just play it cool and not take that risk in the first place.  Though maybe that’s why Jesus told us a story like the Parable of the Talents.  To pick us up and give us that self-esteem boost when we may be feeling a little down.  Great risks can yield great rewards, and God is with us through it all.

It ends up that we have to be faithful with what we’re given.  We have to use the gifts that God gives us.  We can thank God for those gifts, but we also have to use those gifts.  Not bury our talents and hide them because we’re afraid of failure.  We’re not meant to hide our lights under bushel baskets.  We’re meant to put our lights on lampstands and let them shine!  We’re meant to shine our light to everybody around.  As New Testament scholar Arland Hultgren reminds us, “Even the disciple who thinks that he or she has little to employ in the service of Christ must use what has been given.  One enlists what one has.  Each one is given according to his or her ability . . . to be afraid or to refuse to use one’s gift signifies failure.”[4]  In the case of this Parable of the Talents failure is letting fear get the best of us.  It’s not even bothering to try.  Because we’ve got to use what we’ve been given for the sake of the Kingdom of God—and that means taking risks in service to God.

To leave us with one final image of risk-taking to hopefully bring the message home, we can remember a timeless lesson from the ancient and humble turtle.  For as the saying goes, “Behold the turtle.  He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”  Never forget that staying in our shells is safe, but we’re hidden that way.  We’re not putting ourselves out there or inviting anyone else in.  We’re not having any sort of extension of ourselves at all actually.

If we want to make any progress in our lives, if we want to help God make our world more loving and just, if we want to live into the gifts that God has given to each and every one of us—we have to stick our necks out.  And deeply trust that when we do this in community, when we stick our necks out and share new ideas or solutions to old problems, when we put ourselves out there and try new things, when we stand up for the lost and the least, we’ll be supported when our risks triumph and even when they fail.  We trust that we won’t throw one another in the outer darkness, but extend a hand and keep bringing people to the light.  The light of Christ that shines in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Elon Musk Forbes Profile, https://www.forbes.com/profile/elon-musk/
[2] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 275.
[3] Matthew 25:30, NRSV.
[4] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 278.