Contributed by Bill King, Blacksburg, VA
Warm up Question
What was the last thing you attempted to do which took you out of your comfort zone? Most of us like to do things where we can be relatively assured of success; what was the last challenge which stretched you?
Everyone seems to agree that the economy has a problem. Pick up the morning paper or click on your favorite news feed and you will find an article about economic woes: The bailout of Greece threatens to sink the Eurozone. Housing prices continue sluggish, so many mortgages are either in foreclosure or under water. Discouraging unemployment numbers edge up and down, but not very far either way. Older workers wonder if their devastated pension funds will let them retire. Students fear they won’t be able to get loans for college—or a decent job to repay them if they do.
But if there is consensus that we have a problem, there is precious little agreement on the root causes or what to do about it. The economy can’t improve until spending goes up…but how can consumers spend if jobs are scarce and fragile? Then create jobs…but how can companies create jobs if banks won’t lend them capital—and why should they expand anyway, since demand is soft. Then let’s cut taxes so that banks and companies will invest…but wait a minute, wasn’t it those folks who turned Wall Street into a crooked casino and got us into this mess in the first place. Maybe what we need is a massive governmental infusion of cash into the economy. But it’s runaway deficits that are spooking the stock market—which means my mutual fund is in the tank, I feel poorer, and I’m afraid to start spending….Round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows.
Each player in this game is saying, “You first. You take the big risk.” Everyone is afraid and nobody wants to take the chance that might make it better for us all.
- How has a weak economy affected you personally? For example, has it affected your buying habits or the general atmosphere in your home or community?
- Why is it so hard for leaders to come to a consensus on what might benefit the common good? Do you think they are really trying?
- What do you think motivates most Christians’ economic decisions? If you were ranking the top five factors, where do you think the desire to reflect the values of Jesus would fall?
Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 13, 2001 (Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost)
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
I’ve always thought that this parable would be a lot clearer if the servant with five talents had lost his shirt. Perhaps it sounds presumptuous to suggest that Jesus could have done better, but because the first two servants are wildly successful we easily miss the real point of the story. The servant entrusted with five talents earns five more; the servant who had three returns those plus three more to his master. So we might hear this story as suggesting that God is the ultimate investment fund: Put your money into god and you can be assured of a fantastic rate of return.
This is precisely the spin that some contemporary preachers give to the story—“God wants you to be rich; give to the Lord and he’ll give back tenfold.” Now, while it’s true that such preachers may become very rich when you give to their ministries in hope of a little divine insider trading, this “prosperity gospel” conforms with neither our experience nor, more important, the rest of Jesus’ teaching. To give to the Lord in the hope of getting rich is about as cynical and selfish (not to mention absurd, given that God knows the heart’s motivation) a reason to be religious as you can imagine. Jesus does not promise his disciples that following him guarantees a material bonanza. He promises to meet our needs not our greeds.
The first two servants do turn a tidy profit, but that is really beside the point. What the master commends is only secondarily their success; what please him more is their willingness to take what they have been given and use it to the best of their abilities. Presumably he would have applauded their efforts even if they had not been as wildly lucrative. What the master condemns in the third servant is less his lack of profit than his unwillingness to risk.
Why the difference in the servants’ attitudes? The parable gives us a hint. The third servant does not really trust his master; he takes him to be a hard, unforgiving taskmaster. The servant’s behavior is driven by fear of making a mistake; the irony is that he makes the biggest mistake of all in not taking a risk. Afraid of displeasing his master, he enrages him by squandering the little he has been given. The great pathos of this parable is that the third servant, because he misunderstands his master’s character, does not realize he has the freedom to fail. He lives in fear instead of confidence.
At least two things are worth noting from this parable. First, we are sometimes afraid to do bold things for God because we are afraid of failing. We are pretty sure we don’t know our Bible well enough to win an argument, so we don’t tell someone what Jesus means to us. The problem of hunger is so massive that we just never get around to even volunteering at the food pantry. To the degree that our lack of action is rooted in fear of not measuring up to God’s expectations, we can relax; even if we fall flat, we are loved by God. Second, one of the great gifts we can give one another is a gentle rather than judging spirit. In the carnivorous world of cliques and vicious Facebook posts, accepting others just as they are may give them the confidence to take a risk and blossom. And it’s that loving investment in human capital that our Master really wants from us.
- Who do you identify with in the parable? What do you think motivates each of the characters in the story?
- The third servant’s great failure is not risking in behalf of his master. What risk are you afraid to take—particularly related to your life as a disciple of Jesus? Why?
- Do you agree with this week’s writer that it is unimportant that the first two servants turned a tidy profit—and maybe even a distraction? How would the parable be different if they had lost all the master’s money?
- Look at a variety of newspapers, magazines, and news feeds for stories involving religion. Based on what is being said, what would a man from Mars understand God’s character to be? What is God like? What does God want? How does God act in the world? What gives God joy and sorrow?
- Have some in the group role play this parable in a contemporary setting while others watch. Pay attention to the motivations of each character. Let those playing a role share what it felt like to be that character. What new thing did those observing learn which they had missed in simply reading the story.
God, it is so easy to be paralyzed by fear—fear of making a mistake, fear of looking foolish, fear of failing to measure up, fear of disappointing you. When I am afraid, help me to remember that I am already yours, loved and valued before I accomplish anything. Then give me the courage to dare bold things in your name, confident that you, who redeemed Good Friday, can certainly use even my failures to do your will in the world. Amen.