“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ –Matthew 25: 14-30
Who would have ever thought that going to the grocery store could be a risky business? It was never on my list of perilous things to avoid. But you listen to the reports, that the best preventive measures we have are social distancing, staying at least six feet away from other folks and wearing a mask. So, all of a sudden, grocery shopping has become a bit precarious. After all, those aisles aren’t all that wide. And when there is a cough in one part of the store, all other parts cringe a bit. Risk has become a given in our daily lives in ways we never imagined a few months ago, which makes today’s parable seem all the more pertinent. Jesus seems to say that faith, too, is a risky business.
I think a bit of exegetical work helps give added meaning to this parable. First of all, there is the word talent. In our day and time, the definition of a talent is one’s natural ability, their personal proficiency, if you will. However, in Jesus’ day, a talent was a financial measurement. To get some idea of that, a talent in those days was the greatest unit of accounting in Greek money — about 10,000 denarii. And if you remember from the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, a denarius was a fair day’s wage. Therefore, if you multiply this by 10,000, according to some sources, you would have had the equivalent of nearly fifteen years of wages. So, translating this parable into the 21st century, it might sound like this: “A man, before going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. To one, he gave two-and-a-half million dollars. To another, he gave one million dollars. And to a third, he gave five hundred thousand dollars.” This restatement of value makes a dramatic difference. We quickly see that when the master gives the slaves five talents or two talents or even just one talent, the master is actually being extremely generous with his money. It’s another example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole, and it must have turned the heads of his listeners, because he was talking about a very generous man entrusting exorbitant funds.
What this seems to spotlight is the character of the master. Here was one who was generous to the nth degree. The first two of his slaves seem to pick up on this largesse of heart and confidence. The third man didn’t at all. In fact, he saw his master as one who was “harsh, reaping where he did not sow.” What’s more, it would seem that the master is much more impressed with the servants who risk. It’s a billboard statement of risk versus reward. God, as Jesus sees it, loves risky disciples. Consequently, reading the parable, or more aptly put, letting the parable read me, I am called to consider how much I have actually risked for the sake of the Gospel. It’s an uncomfortable consideration. For many, being a Christian these days has become more about being proper, nice. Jesus seems to suggest otherwise. Jesus calls us to risky lives of faith.
Donald Miller is one of the relatively new writers who has emerged on the Christian scene. He is bright, insightful and more than a bit edgy. He tells about a college experience when he was a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a decidedly secular place that the Princeton Review once dubbed as “the college where students are most likely to ignore God.” Miller shares an unlikely event that introduced him to the radical mystery of grace. Each year Reed College has a renaissance-themed festival called Ren Fayre, which has basically become an excuse for the students to have a Bacchian orgy where they can ‘party-hearty.’ The school closes down the campus for the event and brings in special units to deal with the inebriated and drugged students.
Miller states that some of the Christian students in his little group decided this would be a good place to, in his words, “come out of the closet,” and let everybody know there were a few Christians on campus. He and his friend, Tony the Beat Poet, were sitting around in his room one afternoon talking about what to do, how to explain who they were to a group of students who, in the past, had expressed hostility toward Christians. Tongue-in-cheek, Miller suggested that they should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said “Confess your sins.” Laughing, Miller said he knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spirituality begins by confessing our sins and repenting. However, Miller said it as a joke.
But Tony thought it was brilliant. He sat on Miller’s couch with his mind in the clouds, scaring Miller to death, because he was actually considering it. “Tony,” Miller said very gently. “What?” he said, with a blank stare at the opposite wall. “We are not going to do this.” Tony moved his gaze down the wall. A smile came across his face. “Oh, we are, Don. We certainly are. We are going to build a confession booth!”
Tony got their little Christian group together and announced that Miller had an idea. They looked at Don. He told them that Tony was lying and he didn’t have an idea at all. They looked at Tony, who gave Miller a dirty look and told him to tell them the idea. Miller sighed and then told them that he had a stupid idea, one they couldn’t actually act upon without getting attacked. The others suddenly leaned in. He went on to say that his idea was to build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said “Confess your sins.” A girl named Penny put her hands over her mouth. Another girl, Nadine, smiled. Ivan laughed out loud. All the while, another guy by the name of Mitch started drawing designs for the booth on a napkin. Tony nodded his head. Miller couldn’t believe it.
“They may very well burn it down,” Nadine said. “I will build a trapdoor,” Mitch said with his finger in the air. “I like it, Don.” Ivan patted Don on the back. “I don’t want anything to do with it,” Penny said. “Neither do I,” Miller told her. “Okay, you guys.” Tony gathered everybody’s attention. “Here’s the catch.” He leaned in a little. “We are not actually going to accept confessions.” They all looked at him in confusion. He continued, “We are going to confess to them ourselves. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades; we will apologize for televangelists; we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely; we will ask them to forgive us; and we will tell them that in our selfishness we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”
All of the group sat there in silence, because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit the table with a thud. They all thought it was a great idea and could see it in each other’s eyes. It would feel so good to apologize, to apologize for the Crusades, for Columbus and the genocide committed in the Bahamas in the name of God, apologize for the missionaries who landed in Mexico and came up through the West slaughtering Indians in the name of Christ. Miller said that he wanted so desperately to apologize for the many ways he had misrepresented the Lord. He said, “I could feel that I had betrayed the Lord by judging, by not being willing to love the people he had loved and only giving lip service to issues of human rights. For so much of my life I have been defending Christianity, because I thought to admit that we had done any wrong was to discredit the religious system as a whole. But it isn’t a religious system; it is people following Christ. And the important thing to do, the right thing to do, is to apologize for getting in the way of Jesus.”
They built the booth, almost like a shed, complete with a slanted roof and two small sections inside, one for the person confessing and the other for the one hearing it. They built a half-high wall between the two rooms and installed a curtain so the confessor could easily get in and out. Nadine painted “Confession Booth” in large letters on the outside. . .
Miller tells about the night of the party. There was a lot of drinking and loud music, people running and screaming. Miller and the group lit Tiki torches and mounted them in the ground just outside the booth; and they said that because it was Miller’s idea, he should be the first one in the booth. Miller said that he didn’t want to go first, but he played bold and got in the booth. He could hear all the commotion going on outside and imagined the bohemian activities taking place. As he did, he thought, Nobody is going to confess anything. Who wants to stop dancing to confess their sins? Then he began to think that this was a bad idea, that none of this was God’s idea. Nobody was going to get angry, but nobody was going to care very much either, he thought to himself. He was about to give up when the curtain got pulled back. “What’s up, man?” Miller tendered as the fellow student sat himself on the chair with a smile on his face.
He told Miller that his pipe smelled good. “Thanks,” Miller said, and then asked his name. He said his name was Jake. They shook hands because Miller didn’t know what else to do. “So, what is this?” Jake began, “I’m supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip of what I did at Ren Fayre, right?” “No.” “Okay, then what? What’s the game?” he asked. “Not really a game. More of a confession thing.” “You want me to confess my sins, right?” “No, that’s not what we’re doing.” “What’s the deal, man? What’s with the monk outfit?” “Well, we are, well, a group of Christians here on campus, you know.” “I see. Strange place for Christians, but I’m listening.” “Thanks,” Miller said. “Anyway, there is this group, just a few of us who were thinking about the way Christians have sort of wronged people over time. You know, the Crusades, all that stuff …” “Well, I doubt you personally were involved in any of that, man.” “No, I wasn’t,” Miller told him. “But the thing is, we are followers of Jesus. We believe that he is God and all, and he represented certain ideas that we have sort of not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent him well, but it can be very hard.” “I see,” Jake said. “So this group of us on campus wanted to confess to you.” “You are confessing to me?” Jake said with a laugh. “Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you,” Miller stammered. “You’re serious,” Jake said as his laugh turned to something of a straight face.
“There’s a lot. I will keep it short,” Miller started. “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix his spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more, you know.”
“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water. “Well,” Miller said, clearing his throat, “I am sorry for all that.” “I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it. “Thanks,” Miller replied. He sat there and looked at the floor, then into the fire of a candle. “It’s really cool what you guys are doing,” he said. “A lot of people need to hear this.”… “This is cool what you guys are doing,” he repeated. “I am going to tell my friends about this.” “I don’t know whether to thank you for that or not,” Miller laughed. “I have to sit here and confess all my sins over and over again.” Jake looked at Miller very seriously. “It’s worth it,” he said. He shook Don’s hand, and when he left the booth there was somebody else ready to get in.
It went like that for a couple of hours. Miller talked to about thirty people, and Tony took confessions on a picnic table outside the booth. Many people wanted to hug when they were done. All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. Miller said that he himself became changed through the process. He said that he went in with doubts and came out believing so strongly in Jesus that he was ready to die and be with him. Miller concludes his remembrances of that evening: “I think that night was the beginning of a change for a lot of us.”
The call to follow Christ is always a call to risk something. It nudges us out of our comfort zones toward the Kingdom of Heaven. The question for us today is: “Are we willing to take such a risk?”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Take time to consider those who are taking risks to serve others during this pandemic. Lift them up to God.
Can you bring to mind a specific occasion when someone took a risk for your good? Thank God for that; thank God for them.
What calls for a risk of faith in your own life? In our church?
A Poetical Guide for Prayer: Anaïs Nin’s “Risk”
And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to Blossom.