Rev. Diane K. Hooge
When a convert to Christianity in the late first century or early second century read the Gospel According to Matthew for the first time, they read it as a manual to understand membership. The people of Matthew’s day expected the return of Christ during their lifetime. This parable is a warning for the community members. They are challenged to make the most out of what they have been given in this period prior to the return of the master. This parable thinly veils the fraying around the edges of a community that is struggling to keep those doubters who are tired of waiting included in their common commitment to follow the way of Jesus.
Many years ago, I was on the staff of a church where the Senior Pastor had graduated from a Bible school that taught a literal belief in two important events. 1. The second coming of Christ, which follows the beliefs of the Matthean community. 2. The Rapture –a state of being in which one is transported out of daily life into heaven. Now, while the pastor was on vacation, the choir director and I came up with a plan to celebrate his return which we marketed to the rest of the staff.
The pastor was due back from vacation on Monday morning for our usual 9:00am staff meeting. Each one of the four staff arrived early working hard to set the chairs in our usual meeting circle which was held in a section of the pastor’s office.
We each carefully laid out our clothes on the chairs as if we were in a sitting position. Our socks and stockings were tucked into our shoes…all designed to simulate the rapture…all of us having been snatched out of our roles as staff…and of course leaving the main man behind. When I think back on the work of carefully placing all the props including the scattering of jewelry and spilled files, I realize we all needed help in establishing more of a life outside the church office.
This particular parable is told both in Luke and Matthew. Luke sets Jesus forth as King or Master, while Matthew depicts Jesus as judge.
The essence of the story is told around a talent which was not a coin but a weight. Its value depended on whether the coinage involved was copper, gold or silver. The most common metal was silver, and the value of a talent of silver was about 15 years of wages as a laborer.
To the first servant the master gives five talents, to another two, and to another, one talent. The implication is that while the five and two talent men went at once and began to make their investments, the one talent slave buried his treasure in the ground which was an Eastern way of preserving it, and would correspond to putting it in a safety deposit box instead of on deposit with a bank. However, if anything would have happened to the servant, the wealth would have been lost.
During the Middle Ages, the word talent came to refer to a person’s gifts or abilities. It is not the number of talents that matters, it is how individuals choose to use their talents. The one who is punished is the one who will not try. The man with the one talent let fear dictate his choice. He would not step out and risk the talent for the common good.
If we believe that we follow a living Christ, and if we believe that the Spirit is alive and moving in this era just as vibrantly as in the past, then we must open ourselves to a continuing discernment process over interpreting scripture knowing that the guidance of the Spirit calls for changes of understanding within each generation.
In today’s lesson, the action of burying was done by an individual who was attempting to keep his life safe. The third servant was motivated by fear of his master’s personality. His actions cost him his future. We cannot afford to let ourselves see this servant as some kind of bumbling buffoon. If we begin to look at what we have buried in our own lives, we can begin to allow ourselves to understand and have compassion for the kinds of fears that this parable addresses.
As always, we’re invited into the story. When in our lives have we compromised and attempted to play it safe only to discover that a portion of our soul had died. When have we paid a price by opening ourselves to paralysis because we buried our emotions and allowed ourselves to be numbed over? Sometimes we don’t know what the gift is that we have to reclaim because it has been buried so early and so deeply within us.
Midlife, by its very station in life, often offers a time and place to revisit the buried parts of ourselves. It is a season of life in which radical changes are sometimes made to recreate or reclaim lost dreams and to bring new vision into reality. It is a time when people often find the courage to face their fears and to dig up the old treasures and begin to use them with a sense of gratitude and hope.
I love the story of Oseola J. McCarty of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She was a washerwoman who left school at the age of 8 to begin working as a laundress. Reared in a household of women, she supported and cared for each of them through their illnesses until each of their deaths. Her grandmother died in 1944, her mother in 1964, and her aunt in 1967. She was left alone. Year after year surrounded by lines of drying wash she frugally lived her life in the same house in which she was born. By only turning on the air conditioner when company dropped by and foregoing cabs and buses in favor of walking to the store, she was able to set aside a few dollars every so often which were stored in the local bank. At the age of 88, she decided to dig up her treasure. Having only been out of Mississippi once in her lifetime, she chose to offer her gift to the school close to her home. The University of Southern Mississippi received her “talent” in the sum of $150,000 to finance scholarships. It had only been a short time since African American students were allowed on campus. Miss McCarty’s picture is the first portrait of an African American to be displayed in the administration building. I went online to discover how many students have been the recipients of her gift—the number is 44.
In digging up her treasure and offering it, she has stirred the hearts of countless people who have added to her original endowment and it is continuing to grow.
Digging up the buried treasures of our lives can happen at any stage of the journey. God invites us to live into the dreams that are built within us and bring them into reality.
Psalm 90 speaks of the importance of every generation and the need to offer our gifts as our way to help build the future. Perhaps another way to talk about the darkness of the judgment side of the parable is that if we keep our deepest desires hidden and buried, we pay a personal price. We are indeed thrown into the darkness that comes from not experiencing the fullness of life. We experience the pain that comes from having compromised our soul. The darkness comes when we make the choice to smoother or hide that which is built into the very fiber of our being.
The great movie Schindler’s List is the story about a wartime profiteer, womanizer and heavy drinker by the name of Oscar Schindler who was a good friend of the Nazi. For unexplained reasons that perhaps even he could not fathom, he became obsessed with saving as many Jews as he could from Auschwitz by commandeering them to work in one of his factories. He ended up saving some eleven hundred Jews.
Schindler made a choice to re-order his life and to build his connections within a very dark world, and to offer the light of hope. Behind his persona of a swaggering young commandant, he responded to some deep call within him to dig up a deeply scarred box that held justice and mercy. It demanded that he take huge risks. Schindler’s story is about one who wakes up to the darkness of his own life, and utilizes his position to save lives, to save stories and to save gifts. The lives, stories and gifts have been given to the world as a reminder to never let such an atrocity happen again.
Every call upon the life of this community has demanded leaps of faith. When this church voted to become a Sanctuary Church in 1983 to welcome refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, there were those who left. When this community voted in 1991 to become an Open and Affirming congregation, not everyone could live with the decision, and people left the community. It’s risky to not abide by the status quo. Soon we will have a delegation from the church leaving for Fort Benning Georgia to join in the march seeking the closure of the School of the Americas. Thousands have gathered every November for the nonviolent demonstration since the first anniversary of the 1989 SOA graduate-led massacre of 16-year-old Celina Ramos, Her mother and six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in El Salvador. Today in Jim Phillips Book study on the plight of refugees we will again seek to discern what is our role in this critical time in the life of so many in Honduras and Guatemala who find themselves caught in how to save their children. Every Spirit led decision demands a leap of faith.
This rather feisty parable with its overlay of the Matthean community, who, frankly, were quit frustrated that Christ hadn’t appeared, weren’t much different than any of the rest of us. Our deepest need as human beings is our need for God and each other. Many of us struggle with how to have that need met in our lives. The master in today’s lesson was a harsh man, but God is not harsh. God expects us to take risks, but the invitation is about teaching us to overcome our fears. It’s about learning to take the risk to step out in faith…trusting that God will sustain us in our leap. It is about helping us to heal from those fears that block us from living into God’s call upon our lives. The risk we are offered is grounded in the certainty of a loving God. The life of Jesus offers us the way of one who encouraged us to bring our fears to God so that God’s love can give us the courage to quit burying the parts of our lives that we have forced into hiding.
In the First Letter of John, we are given these words of hope, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” May it be so. Amen