A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on November 13, 2011.
Nothing captured the spirit of this parable better than what a church in California did ten years ago as an experiment in faith. Somehow the pastor talked the church elders into freeing up $10,000 in cash to give away to their fellow church members. At the end of his sermon, he explained that the church would participate in an experiment together. He asked for 100 volunteers to step forward. When they came forward, he handed out 100 crisp one hundred dollar bills, one to each voluntee
They were told the money was not theirs to spend on themselves, but it was God’s money and should be spent in whatever manner they believed would further God’s kingdom in the world. At the end of ninety days, they were to report back to the church what took place. Sure enough, at the end of the three-month experiment, the church gathered and heard the many exciting stories of all that had transpired. No small thing, the ten thousand dollars had miraculously grown to five hundred thousand dollars making the feeding of the 5,000 using a little boy’s lunch cause us to wonder, “What’s the big deal?”
What seems truthful about the parable of the talents is that the parable seems to deal with the issue of our willingness to risk for God rather than being about the gifts we offer back to God out of our own resources. Look at the story, what part of themselves do the three servants offer to God? It was not their own money they were dealing with. The money came from the master. They simply accepted it and the instructions he gave them. Then they were forced to deal with their willingness to accept and act on the risk of the master’s assignment.
This parable of the talents is about a master who both rewards and punishes those who work for him according to what they do with the money he entrusted to them for safekeeping. A little housekeeping is in order when hearing this story …
First, the word talent is a misleading word in its translation from Greek to English. Today, we think of a talent in terms of some special ability or aptitude, such as a musical talent, or a talent in some athletic activity. But the English word derives its meaning from this story and the use of the Greek word, talanton. Admittedly, it’s not a terrible misuse of the concept to think that this story includes the offering of our abilities or aptitudes as gifts to God, but that’s not the central meaning of this parable. This story is about money … cold, hard cash. It’s about what the servants do with the money given to them by their master. And it’s also about the master’s response when he hears what they did with what he placed in their charge.
Secondly, most readers of this story vastly underestimate the sums that are given to these servants. When Jesus tells the story of a master and the distribution of “a talent” to his servants for safekeeping, it was a word that was a unit of measurement of wages weighed out for work done by a common laborer for something like 6,000 days of work, equivalent to some 15-20 years of labor. Let’s crunch the numbers so we understand exactly what kind of numbers we’re talking about. Using the minimum wage and the workweek of a common laborer with long days and no time off, it only amounts to a poverty level of income in our culture, but multiply that meager figure by 15-20 years and you get an amount conservatively in the neighborhood of $300,000. So with those calculations, the master gives to the first man five talents. That’s $1.5 million. Think that changes the way we hear this story?
These three trusted servants understood the rules … the master expected them to be wise with the money and to do everything within their power to see that the value of the money was not diminished. Today we would call the servants, “financial managers.”
The first financial manager invested it all and over the course of time that the master was away, he was able to invest profitably, doubled the money, and returned to his master $3 million dollars, the equivalent of ten talents. Obviously the master was thrilled with his financial manager and rewarded him generously.
We do a lot of talk around here about proportional giving. That means the amount of your gift is calculated with a percentage. Basically that’s a tithing equation. It means you determine your gift amount by calculating the percentage of your funds. That way, no matter what happens to your income, you’ve already determined your gift. It’s not based on whether you happen to have money available.
The Bible talks about our gift to God as a “first fruit.” That means the gift is the first dispersal of funds. The income comes in and we figure out the percentage gift, then we cut it as the first check. Then we figure the remaining percentage is the money we have to spend on ourselves. If you are a tither, as the Bible teaches, you figure God gets the first ten percent and you get the remaining ninety percent. For some of you who have never tithed and have been shocked that God would ask so much from us, you may be sitting there staggering with the numbers. Others, who have learned the joy of giving, may be calculating the amount of the 90% and thinking about how cool it is to have such a gift to spend however you see fit. It’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it?
Wouldn’t you think, however, most folks see themselves more like the second servant? You’ve attained a modest place in life through education and hard work and through your God-given abilities. You’ve tried your best to make the most with the hand that has been dealt to you. Admittedly it’s true that you’ve benefited from living in the most prosperous years in the history of humankind. But you’ve also worked hard to get where you are.
The difficulty of being middle class is the upward pull we feel about the lifestyles of those who make more than us. We’re lured into thinking that through a little credit debt here or there, we can create the illusion that we have more by stretching our buying power. And before you know it, we’re spending regularly more money than we actually make. We’re maxed to the point of frantic anxiety that makes us do some dumb things financially. We’d love to be more involved in the work of God, but we can’t. We’ve become slaves to our debt.
The financial manager given the $600,000 was still able to return another $600,000 to his master. Because of his faithfulness and his willingness to take the risk of his assignment, he was rewarded generously and praised by his master.
Between this trinity of investors and their responses to the master who entrusted his great wealth into their care, we have a glimpse into the element of risk we assume whenever we become followers of Jesus. The first two financial managers see the master’s assignment as something that needed to be done. They were strong in their faith and immediately set out to invest the funds wisely and to see that the funds were effective in accomplishing those things the master would have done had he not left town.
Lastly we come to the tragedy of the one-talent manager. Given less, but still given a significant amount of money, he was overcome by his fear and did what so many of us do … he dug a hole in the ground and buried the money. The problem was not that he was given less than the other two. The problem was that inside, he was a hole-digger, a fear-driven man afraid to explore the investment of the gift for the sake of his master.
Pastor John Ortberg suggests the one-talent servant may have assumed his responsibility was not worth that much in comparison to the other two who was given more to oversee. While his money was less, he squandered the opportunities that existed for him and he returned only the principle amount. No interest, no growth. This was the man who saw a different side of his master. No praise. The master turned on him and took away his reward and gave it instead to his two colleagues. To live in fear, Matthew tells us, is to misunderstand who God is and what God wants.
One of my good friends in San Antonio is Rev. Lib McGregor Simmons, the pastor of the University Presbyterian Church adjacent to Trinity University where Wanda taught. Lib invites us to imagine that we’re sitting at home watching our favorite television show when a news announcer interrupts our show with breaking news.
Looking into the camera, the reporter said, “We have just learned of an extraordinary occurrence. An individual known simply as ‘The Master’ has returned from an extended business trip. Prior to leaving, he had handed over to his three most trusted managers large sums of money. In fact, it is alleged that he handed over all his money to his employees with absolutely no instructions as to what to do with it. Two of his managers are now very rich, we understand. Let’s speak with them now.”
The camera widened to include the Master’s employees. Two of them are beaming with grins that stretch from ear to ear.
The news reporter said, “I understand the Master has given one of you 1.5 million dollars and the other six hundred thousand. Are you surprised?”
“Well, not really,” one of them said. “You see, we know The Master. He’s the most generous guy on the face of the earth.”
“Yeah,” said the other manager. “He was always giving us extra days off, unexpected bonuses, tickets to join him in his luxury suite at the Chiefs games, and a pat on the back whenever he would see us. Heck, just being around the guy made you want to be as generous and as trusting as he was.”
The reporter then thrust her microphone in front of the third guy who had the wide-eyed look of a deer caught in the headlights of an approaching Mac truck. “And what about you, sir?”
“Well,” said the sheepish little man. “I know the Master too. He gave me those bonuses and Chiefs tickets as well. But you know, you never can trust the boss. Deep down inside they’re all the same. They’re just out for themselves and woe be unto anyone who stands in their way. Can’t you see what I mean? The Master’s taken my quarter million dollars and given it to these two guys. It just goes to prove that I’ve been right all along about The Master.”
There are two images of the Master here. One depicts God as the most extraordinarily generous Being imaginable … bighearted, open-handed and immensely trustworthy. But seen from the cowardly manager’s perspective, God is experienced as selfish and tyrannical and demanding.
The story Jesus tells invites us to answer the question, “Are we hole diggers or risk takers? Which is it for you? A small, selfish god? Or the One who risked it all for you?3
 Information on this experiment available at http://kingdomassignment.org/KAfaqs.php
 Cited in a sermon by Dr. David Hughes, FBC Winston-Salem NC, “A Great Heritage, An Even Greater Hope: Manage Wisely,” 10/ 23/05
3 Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Lib McGregor Simmons, “Who is Your Master?” University Presbyterian Church, 11/14/99
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).