Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; Psalm 90:1-8, 12; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
I had a friend in high school whose father gave him the equivalent of his college tuition and a choice. He could invest his money and pay for college, invest it and keep it, or spend it and not go to college. My friend didn’t have to think about his decision for long—he invested the money and used it to pay for college. He became a wealth manager and now invests other people’s money as well. He will tell you that it isn’t always easy—whether you play it safe or fast and loose—there is always a certain level of risk and the anxiety that accompanies it.
This morning’s gospel reading tells us the story of a master who, in his preparation to leave town, distributes money to three slaves—one receives five talents, one receives two talents, and one receives one talent—each according to his ability. The first two invest the money, receiving double on the return. The third buries the money. When the master returns, he applauds the first two and decries the third. Words like lazy and wicked get thrown around; emotions are running high; and the whole thing culminates in the gnashing of teeth. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.
The parable we hear today seems like a transactional theology based on taking what we are given in life and either succeeding or failing. The more risk we are willing to take the greater the pay off. The less we are willing to risk, the less return we realize. This might sound logical, even reasonable, but ask any wealth manager and they will tell you there is a lot more to it than that. For instance, there is the rule of 72—a calculation based on percentage points to determine how many years it might take to double your investment. Let’s say you invest in a 5% guaranteed rate of return. It will take you 14.5 years to double investment. The master was gone a long time.
But it is in the investor’s ability to take on risk and the kind of risk they are willing to assume that will often drive not only your attitude toward investing but your strategy as well. Thus the wicked and lazy slave. His ability to assume risk is significantly small, practically non-existent, so instead of investing—even in a money market—he protects the money assuring that it will not grow but neither will it suffer loss. The master, however, is not pleased with these actions and seems to punish the slave not praise him. That seems a bit counter-intuitive as we might expect punishment only if the money had been lost, mishandled, or used for personal gain. That is our biggest clue that this is not about transactional theology and is instead about our deeper drives and motivations.
When my friend was making his decision to invest his money he knew the clock was ticking. He had about two years to make a significant return off the initial investment in order to afford his first year of tuition. He calculated his risk across a variety of opportunities and finally decided to invest in a particular company. The risk paid off but not without a little bit of doubt and a lot of anxiety along the way. Years later, he would describe those two years as filled with doubt. He wasn’t sure if he would succeed or fail. At times, he thought he should just take the money and not worry about college. But college was his dream and he could not fathom a future without it, so he took the risk and refused to allow his doubts to speak to him.
Unlike my friend, the wicked slave allowed his doubts to override any sense of possibility or opportunity for furthering what he already had. Not only did he allow fear to become the focal point of his life, he then spent a goodly amount of time blaming others for his doubt and fear instead of accepting any personal responsibility for his actions. When his master confronted him about the talent he had given him, the slave attempted to shift responsibility for his lack of imagination or initiative by blaming the master—calling him harsh and a thief. He had obviously not attended one of Dale Carnegie’s courses on how to win friends and influence people. The master, of course, will have nothing to do with this and calls the slave out. He is thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth but that is not the master’s fault.
We might appreciate the lack of ingenuity by the slave and how that might result in detrimental circumstances but we do not get to blame the master and by extension God for judging us harshly. Being thrown out is less literal language and more metaphorical language for the slave’s realization of his own fears. He didn’t invest the master’s money because he was limited by his fear. That fear is the cause of his weeping and gnashing of teeth, not the master. The wicked and lazy slave may well never connect those dots—in part because his fear and self-centeredness continue to rule over him and limit his ability to dream or imagine greater possibilities.
This story is not meant to weaponize scripture into judgmental and punishing transactional theology. It is meant to afford us new ways of thinking about who we are in the eyes of God and how we respond to the gifts and opportunities that God gives to us. When we are ruled by fear and doubt we are limited and do not even dare to dream. When we release those fears and doubts, we can embrace possibilities we would otherwise never have been able to imagine.
My friend couldn’t help but dream. His future lay ahead of him and he now had some mastery over what he might do and become. Failure was an option. But to him, the greater risk was to do nothing. He knew that doubt kills more dreams than failure does. In that moment of his life, he had been empowered by his father to do something more with his life and discover who he truly was in the process. He wasn’t simply playing a transactional economic game—he was discovering who he was and who he wanted to be. To have risked nothing would have been to have lost everything—instead he gained himself.
The first two slaves who doubled their master’s money were invited into his joy. They were fulfilled by the experience and found satisfaction in what they had done. The third slave was dominated by his fear and doubt. It spoke words of darkness to him and limited his ability to participate in life in creative and productive ways. That is the invitation we are always being offered by God. The invitation to live in this world from a position of hope instead of fear, from possibility instead of doubt.