Risky Business (Jeremiah 7:1-15; 1 Peter 4:7-11; Matthew 25:14-20)
A long, long time ago, a prophet named Jeremiah preached a sermon, a summary of which is found in Jeremiah 7:1-15 that most scholars call the Temple Sermon. There is also a shorter summary of this same sermon in Jeremiah 26 that tells us that Jeremiah preached this sermon in the Temple at or near the coronation of King Jehoiakim in Judah in the year 609 BCE. A mere dozen years before this there had begun a great religious revival in Judah that eventuated in the removal of local places of worship in the land, leaving the Jerusalem Temple as the only legitimate site for worshiping God. All this was done with a great deal of fervour for regaining the Old Time Religion of Moses and Joshua. The king at whose coronation Jeremiah preached this sermon was the son of the founder of the revival, who was called good King Josiah. Interestingly, however, it wasn’t just the Old Time Religion that Josiah was determined to revive, but the old time political power as well, and it wasn’t the first (nor, regrettably, the last) time that religion has been made to legitimate a political agenda. The power of those who already had it, and had, in fact, rebuilt the temple became more and more important. Purity, defined in the sense of doing things “just as they’d always been done” (or those in power told you they’d always been done) became the yardstick for measuring faithfulness to God and assuring blessing and safety in the world. Against this, Jeremiah issued a blistering attack. People were trusting in empty repetition of words, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord,” and using religion as an excuse for injustice and abuse. God’s will is not to be found in a quest for religious and institutional purity, but in justice and righteousness – straight dealing with God and with others. So said Jeremiah, a long time ago.
Jesus’ parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 is really the last part of a longer section that reaches back into chapter 23 where he criticized some of the religious leaders in his day for majoring on purity and legalism instead of meeting the spiritual and social needs of everyday people. Chapter 24 begins when Jesus’ disciples point out the glories of the Jerusalem Temple, and he responds that the day would come when that glorious structure would be torn down, stone by stone. Jesus is clearly speaking with the same voice as he had in chapter 23 concerning the religious leader’s priority of purity over justice, but he is also standing in the tradition of the prophet Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon. It isn’t having the Temple and keeping the Old Time Religion pure that leads to a fruitful life in the presence of God. In chapter 24 Jesus also predicted a political disaster with the Roman Empire, which would, of course, drastically change the world as people living in Jerusalem knew it. Well, it was nearly 40 years after Jesus spoke about it that it happened, in 70 CE. By then, a couple of Christian generations had come and gone, and in that time, the fall of the Temple became thought of as an event that would usher in the coming of the Messiah (who Christians confessed to be Jesus, of course), and the peace that the Messiah’s reign would bring.
Matthew wrote his gospel some 10-20 years after the temple fell. And, in that whole time nobody had seen Jesus returning and nobody was experiencing much peace. The question became, how do Christian disciples who thought they had the plan of the ages all figured out, retool their expectations and await what God will do? All this is in the background of the way in which Matthew put chapters 24 and 25 together. Chapter 24 gives a kind of a schematic drawing of what happens before, during and after the Messiah comes (beginning with the Fall of the Temple). Chapter 25 gives three parables of how to wait for all that, and concludes with a discussion of what happens at the end of it.
Our Parable is the last of these three parables of waiting: the Parable of the Talents. The word “talent” is a Greek word for one of their largest units of weight, about 75 pounds. In Hebrew there was a unit with a different name, weighing about the same, and often translated as “talent.” In the time of Jesus, a talent was also an amount of money that varied from time to time and depending on what was weighed. It would have been the wage for a worker in New Testament times for between 15-20 years – so a lot of money.
Jesus’ parable of the Talents is troubling to many people, including some of you, I know. And I don’t mind that things in the Bible trouble us. But we should be troubled for the right reason. First of all, we must understand what the parable is not about. I know that some people conceive Christianity as following a course outline written by God that is aimed at passing a final exam to see whether we go to heaven or not. In this scenario, God says, “Keep the rules, do enough right things, and not too many wrong things, and, then, one day, when the final exam comes, we’ll tally up the points and if you’ve got enough you’ll pass on to good things. Too few points and, sorry, you flunk the exam and end up “in the outer darkness.” We, may then, for some reason, assume that this parable is about all that “eternal destiny” stuff, and figure that something that the first two guys did got them enough points to pass and something the last one did, cost him enough that he didn’t.
Well, that’s almost surely at the very best an unfortunate reading of this story, remembering that the one who told it had said that he hadn’t come to call the righteous goody-goodies with enough points to pass, but rather the unrighteous baddies without a prayer. The Gospel isn’t about keeping enough rules to earn a trip to glory on the happiness express. It’s about experiencing the overwhelming love and grace of God when we don’t have the points to get on board.
However we might choose to understand the story, in Jesus’ day, if one told a story to a group of Jews about a master who went away leaving slaves to work until he returned after a long absence, they would almost surely understand it to be a story about God and Israel. What Jesus probably intended here was in line with what he said to those religious leaders in chapter 23. They had confused the work of God with keeping their own heritage and tradition unchanged and pure within the safe confines of Israel rather than taking it into the world and risking it for the sake of bringing the world into a living relation with God, as their scriptures, at their best, encouraged them to do.
For Matthew, who wrote after the Fall of the Temple and the devastation of much traditional Jewish life, it was not so important to make the point that Jesus’ disciples were now, also, the People of God. That had already been proclaimed in the church for several decades. The danger in Matthew’s day was that some folk in his faith community were succumbing to the same temptation as the scribes and the Pharisees of a couple of generations before; seeing the mission wholly within the growing institution becoming known as “the Church,” and caring only for the internal up-building of that institution.
This parable contrasts ways of being effective in the world and ways of being ineffective and disconnected from it. The talents given to the people were great gifts which they didn’t earn, but with which they were each equipped to deal. We can fill in any value we like for those gifts (going back to what I said earlier, one talent = 15-20 years of wages; five talents = 75-100 years of wages; and 10 = 150-200 years – they’re big gifts). The hearers were disciples of Jesus who had been taught what to do with the good news of wholeness and peace, without setting it out in this parable again.
The contrast is between the two who risked their gifts out in the marketplace and the one who buried it in the ground. He admitted that he knew that the owner expected him to be out and about, doing what he could do, but, because he feared the risk of failure, he chose to bury his gift and keep it just the way it had always been, just the way it had been delivered to him. He took no risk, but he gave the Master back the gift he got in pristine, unsullied, condition. What he found out, to his sorrow, was that effective work in the world requires two things: it must be in the world, and it involves risk. He thought the way to lose the gift was to use it and he found out it was quite the opposite, if you don’t use it, you lose it – it’s only in use and risk that the gift means anything at all.
It doesn’t mean that he flunked that final exam, it means that the gift he was expected to use and didn’t, atrophied with disuse and dissolved. This servant became an ineffective channel of God’s love through Jesus, because he wanted to play it safe, and was, at first unwilling, then, unable to take a risk. Perhaps what he found, to his horror was that the action is really “out there” where the risk is. God’s call to God’s people is not to spend no time inside the four walls of a warm and welcoming community of faith, but, that, being built up inside, we are drawn into the risk of being the church inside-out. Do I think that was the end of that servant’s work forever? I don’t know. The story doesn’t say one way or another, but the isolation of even a temporary lesson of finding oneself useless would be horrible, and darkness enough. The risk is in thinking it’s all about purity and not about risk. Not to risk is to risk the most.
So where do we learn how to do this risky business of the Kingdom of God? I think the answer’s pretty obvious, but the little paragraph from the 1st Epistle of Peter chapter 4 can give us some specific ideas. Like Matthew, Peter affirms that Christians live in a time when the end of all things is “near.” That does not mean it is going to happen today or tomorrow, but it is, as Paul said, “nearer now than when we first believed.” Messiah Jesus has ushered in the last era of the world. So, knowing that, Peter says live alert lives of discipline in order to maintain constant love for others in the community of faith by acting hospitably. Then, in verse 10, he gives us the best way to learn to risk oneself in the world. Practice it in the church.
Practice serving others with whatever gifts God has blessed us. There’s no such thing as a gift that is too small to share. In serving one another together we, thereby, glorify God “in here,” and, really, learn and practice what we’re to do “out there” in the risky world by doing it in here first. Just don’t think that serving one another is the end. It’s only the beginning. The mission to go out into the world to use and multiply the gifts we have is risky business, but it both draws us out of ourselves and gives us the rationale for up-building one another, and gives us the mind of Christ.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer AMEN.