Tola’s sermon preached on Nov. 19, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Nov 19, 2023 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 25th Sunday after Pentecost

Nov. 19, 2023

I will admit that I have not always had a warm relationship with the Parable of the Talents. A while back I told Mother Katherine that I wasn’t sure I could preach it. But I’m genuinely happy to be with you here this morning. I have come to realize that in fact this story illuminates important aspects of our faith in Christ and God’s hopes for all of us.

Why did I have such concern about this parable? The modern ear recoils from stories about masters and slaves. And then the master is not remotely a paragon of infinite compassion. Even one of the slaves turns out to be a character with a hard heart. And in the end we have the old punishment darkness, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This is not a story to put on a set of inspirational embroidered kitchen towels.

When we are young, we tend to think of anything before perhaps our parents’ childhoods as ancient times, when people lived simpler lives with less of the distractions and complications that confound us. One hundred years, two hundred years… so much has changed. Now extend that out to two thousand years since Christ’s time. Surely those ancients are unrecognizable?

Today’s Gospel gloriously explodes that assumption. What we see are the same challenges faced today, with the same types of characters as we find in our lives, taking actions that we can recognize as good or bad ways to respond. And so we come to the same conclusions that Jesus wanted from his listeners.

We can judge the people in this story by the same standards as we would judge anyone here in this room. To do otherwise would be to underestimate the sophistication of Christ’s audience and the power of his message.

First and foremost, it is just a story. It didn’t actually happen. Jesus made up the story. No actual slaves were harmed in the making of the Parable of the Talents. We can go ahead and root for the success of the good characters, and the punishment of the wicked.

We must get past our squeamishness with words like “master” and “slave.” Try this: replace these with “boss” and “employee,” and you still preserve the power imbalance that is important to the story, but get past the modern and important concern that we might somehow normalize the enslavement of other human beings.

So we’ve got a boss. And he’s going out of town. And he’s got three employees. Why would he give each of them different amounts of money to safeguard? I think we are to infer that he suspected that he might get different outcomes from the different employees. Ultimately, Jesus is inviting us to compare the employee reactions to see what they say about the people involved.

The first two employees, not so interesting. They took the money, invested it, and doubled it. The fact that Christ did not present this as an extraordinary outcome suggests that one modern concept- the idea that “it takes money to make money”- may in fact be timeless. But the third employee. We all know this kind of employee. The employee with a chip in his shoulder. He said he was afraid. Note that Jesus didn’t tell us he was afraid, just that he claimed to be afraid of his master. But it’s telling that he was not so afraid that he feared to insult his master. “Master, I knew 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.”

I love that ending. “Here you have what is yours.” Basically, he was saying “I did the very minimum that I had to do to comply with the letter if not the spirit of your instruction. You want your money? Here it is.”

Again, we all know this person. We’ve worked with him, though “he” may have been a “her”. Does he sound afraid? No, he sounds defiant. If he had been truly fearful of his master, he would have talked up what a careful and obedient servant he had been. You can almost see the gleam in his eye as he told off his boss. And how’d that work for him? Not well.

We all know people who chafe at all forms of authority. Maybe because of a poor relationship with their parents, or a bad experience in school, or a disappointing start to a career, they bristle at Bob Dylan’s sage admonition that “you’re going to have serve somebody.”

This is a good era to be reflexively anti-authority. The civil rights movements of the 1960s enshrined the right to thumb your nose at officialdom, and the internet descent into noisy rancor gave us little reason to hold our leaders in high regard.

Rugged individualism is celebrated. We tell ourselves that the Founding Fathers didn’t need anyone- never mind that most of them were prosperous southern farmers and northern businessmen- and that we need no one. The titan of industry needs merely to be unshackled- never mind that they need educated employees, a robust market in which to build their products, and the stability and prosperity only afforded by an orderly society.

This myth of personal independence obscures and trivializes the web of interdependence that is our actual lives. First to our families, to whom we have committed ourselves in support and constancy. Then to our churches, where we gather in communion to praise the Lord and unravel the mysteries of life. Then to the employer who provides the resources for a comfortable living. And then to the people in our community who provide our roads and education and parks and safety- all those day to day trappings of what some snarlingly call “the government.”

Jesus of course new better. He knew that our happiness and fulfillment come from those interconnected relationships. He knew that those relationships are investments, nurtured by what we bring to them, and enriched as we somehow get back much more than we put in them.

That’s what I hear in the Parable of the Talents. I hear Jesus telling us to make the most of what we are given, and not to fall into despair and acrimony. To not take the desolate and illusionary path of the third servant. So that we can build and strengthen those wonderful and enriching connections in our families, and communities, and nation, and world. Amen.

© 2023 Mr. Tola Marts. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

Post will be removed at 8:00 AM on Wed., Nov. 19, 2025.