A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 28, 2012.
The Parable of the Talents
14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents,* to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I won’t tell you how to vote, for whom to vote, or what political party with whom to associate—if you choose to associate with any of them. No pastor or congregation in our society should do those things.
But the general election is only days away. Early voting has begun in Arkansas and in other states. Political advertising, phone calls from campaigns, and other campaign activity has reached its peak and is at an all time high.
This sermon is based on the well-known lesson Jesus taught about stewardship that is called the Parable of the Talents. That lesson is the second of three lessons Jesus taught about God’s kingdom. The first lesson involved ten virgins (five wise and five foolish). The third lesson described divine judgment “on the nations” (the “sheep and the goats”).
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus compared God’s rule in our lives to a business owner who assigned varying investments to three trusted employees before taking an extended trip. While the owner traveled, two employees actively worked to double what had been entrusted to them. The third employee buried what he received.
When the owner returned from his travels, he praised the two employees whose work produced a profit, calling them “good and trustworthy.” But the owner condemned the employee who produced no profit, calling that employee “wicked and lazy.”
Here is what I hope you’ll remember about this lesson.
We are obligated to God for what we do with what God entrusts to us. The Parable of the Talents uses the metaphor of investment to help us understand the moral forces involved with what we call “stewardship.” In the lesson, the owner represents God while the employees represent humans.
Jesus reminds us that we’re managers, not owners. As managers, we must account to the owner (God) for what we do to manage what God has entrusted to us. Whatever we claim to hold or control is not ours at all. We’re managers of what belongs to God.
- Our time belongs to God.
- Our resources belong to God.
- Our opportunities come from God.
- Our relationships are a trust to us from God.
- God has a stake in everything we claim to hold, own, or control.
And that means God cares about how we live. After all, our lives are a trust from God. God cares whether we are compassionate or cruel. God cares whether we are careful or irresponsible. God cares whether we are virtuous or vicious with our time, energies, and other resources.
Political freedoms are among the resources we hold from God. In the United States, this idea is famously expressed in the following passage from the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed …
The idea that humans have a God-given “right” to live as free people and that governments exist to safeguard the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is the core of American civics. Racism, sexism, greed, notions of manifest destiny, cronyism, fear of strangers, and hostilities toward people based on religious, regional, language, ethnic, class, and other differences have contaminated public policies in every generation since the United States was founded. We haven’t lived up to our founding ideal. But that bitter history doesn’t the ideal less true. Instead, it exposes shows how deeply and widely our national character has been infected with and by sin.
Every person and every generation must decide how to exercise the God-given rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. And voting is the one of the most fundamental ways that we demonstrate those decisions. Voting is how free people decide how they define what government will or won’t do and should or shouldn’t do in the name of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The great issue facing us is how can free people who are managers of rights imparted by God be “good and trustworthy” as opposed to “wicked and lazy” when it comes to voting. What does sound management look and act like? What does “burying the talent” look and act like?
“Good and trustworthy” voting involves homework! We cannot expect to be good managers of the political power God has entrusted to us if we won’t learn about the issues that affect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Learning involves actively looking for valid information that will help one make good choices.
Wise people know better than to rely primarily on what a seller says about a product or service in deciding whether to buy it or invest in it. It isn’t enough to depend on campaign advertising and political stump speeches. “Good and trustworthy” voting requires homework!
Doing homework means thinking beyond the slick ads we see on television, on the Internet, hear on the radio, and get in campaign mailings. Political advertising is about self-promotion of one’s own campaign or candidacy and undermining confidence in the campaign and candidacy of an opponent.
“Good and trustworthy” voting isn’t based on what candidates and campaigns say about themselves and their opponents. It isn’t based on the labels politicians throw around themselves or how they label their opponents. It’s based on what we learn for ourselves.
That requires us to think about what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean. We must also think about how life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be spread to more people. Then we must think about whether the political ideas and actions of individual candidates match our best thinking about what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean and how it can be enjoyed by more people.
For example, it isn’t enough to vote for or against a candidate based on a label of “pro-life,” as that term is used in the public debate surrounding abortion. Most of what we understand as “life” happens outside the womb and after birth! For someone to base a voting decision for or against a candidate based on a “pro-life” definition that ignores how that candidate addresses issues about life that happen outside the womb and after birth is small-minded, at best, and hypocritical at worst.
- The “life” that is the subject of so much political debate inside the womb deserves Head Start programs after birth.
- The “life” that politicians claim they want to protect from conception is the same life that needs protection from unsafe foods, dirty air, polluted water, and greedy business practices that produce contaminated food and pollution in our air, water, and earth. Pro-life political decision-making doesn’t favor abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration!
- The “life” politicians talk about protecting in the womb is worth protecting from being destroyed by assault rifles. Beware of politicians who claim to be “pro-life” and “pro-gun.”
- Politicians who claim to be “pro-life” but who don’t’ hesitate to view military actions as a threat to life aren’t “pro-life” at all. Wars involve killing.
- One can’t be “pro-life” without wanting safe and high quality public education for every child. How can the same person be “pro-life” who wants to cut funding for public education and the federal agency that oversees it?
- How can one be “pro-life” by denying subsistence benefits to unemployed workers who need to pay for housing, food, and other essential needs for themselves and their families?
- You aren’t “pro-life” if you don’t want sick and injured people to have access to healthcare.
- You’re not “pro-life” if you want to risk the life of an expectant mother whose embryo is lodged in her fallopian tubes.
“Good and trustworthy” voting requires the kind of thinking and homework that goes beyond what we read and hear on talk shows and so-called news programs. It requires us to subject that noise to filters we have set up that reflect our highest and best notions of what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean. When we do so, we’ll be able to cast “good and trustworthy” votes.
Every voting decision and choice—including the decision and choice to not vote—is an act of moral authority! Voting is political conduct, to be sure. But voting involves choices about what we consider important factors in good living. Voting is an act of moral authority.
People bury their votes by engaging in conduct that forfeits their voting rights. Unlawful behavior resulting in loss of voting rights is the kind of “wicked and lazy” conduct Jesus condemned in the Parable of the Talents.
Notice that the employee who was condemned as “wicked and lazy” tried to defend his action by pointing out that the owner was demanding, even harsh. He claimed that by burying the employer’s money, he was preventing the employer from obtaining an unjust benefit from it. In the same way, one sometimes hears people defend their refusal to vote by pointing out the flaws in our political system and the people involved in politics.
The moral problem with that thinking is that it accomplishes no good. Power is only useful when it is exercised. If we don’t exercise our voting rights, we aren’t cleaning up politics. Defending the decision to not vote by pointing out the flaws in our political system is burying the moral authority God has entrusted to us. We can’t clean up politics by not voting any more than we can clean a house by staying in bed. That’s why Jesus called the employee who buried his employer’s money “wicked and lazy.”
- It’s “wicked and lazy” to refuse to vote when the outcome of elections will decide whether vulnerable people are treated fairly.
- It’s “wicked and lazy” to refuse to vote when elections will determine if money is spent on war-making rather than peace-building.
- It’s wicked and lazy to refuse to vote when elections will determine if women will have the freedom to make the personal decisions involved in reproduction.
- It’s wicked and lazy to refuse to vote when elections will decide whether shady business practices are investigated and challenged.
So in God’s name, let us challenge everyone we know to be “good and trustworthy” voters. In God’s name, let’s insist that people do their homework about issues and candidates. In God’s name, let’s tell them to go beyond campaign advertising and political stump speeches in evaluating their voting options.
And as people do the homework and evaluate their options, let’s remind them of the good advice St. Paul shared with some Jesus-followers centuries ago at Philippians 4:8-9.
8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.