Faith In Real Life Blog: “Use it or Lose It”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Novemeber 15, 2023
14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then 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.” 21 His 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.” 22 And 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.” 23 His 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.” 24 Then 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; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26 But 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? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This passage fits into a series of ‘end times’ parables. Matthew in particular spends a lot of time on questions like—”What do we do while we are waiting for the Lord?” What is ‘good’ waiting and what is ‘bad’ waiting? What are the consequences in life of such distinctions? And in Matthews’s language: What are the punishments (getting thrown into outer darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, losing what you have, missing the party, etc.)? Matthew’s language is brutal to my ears and it is really hard to find grace in this passage when the passage seems so unfair and so unremittingly punitive to the third slave. It would be a lot easier to skip the last verses and/or write them off to first century hyperbole.
Because I was short on time this week, I made the mistake of not spending enough time with the scripture before our first FIRL group. I was familiar with the passage and thought I could wing it. Big mistake. No matter how familiar I am with a passage, I must allow it to speak to me—even when I find parts of it abhorrent—in order to enter into a conversation with the scripture. It has taken a couple of days to get past my own first reactions long enough to create a space to listen. So, I am going to start at the end of the passage first. I think we need to deal with the repugnant before we can listen to what Jesus (via Matthew) is trying to say.
Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return, I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- In Faith and Real Life, one of the complaints about the passage was that the third slave was not only given substantially less, but there were no clear directions or expectations about what he was supposed to do with his gift. How could he be held accountable if he didn’t know what was expected? His gift is taken from him and given to an already impossibly rich slave. He is left with nothing, is called worthless, thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is not right, fair or Christian to suggest that it is God’s will that the rich should get richer at the expense of others. Nor does the penalty for the third slave allow for forgiveness or grace.
- It turns out there is a law of physics and a principle in relationships that says if you do not add energy into a system, the system will deteriorate. It is the Law of Entropy. If we take out moral judgments and our fears of ultimate damnation (hard to do in real life), we realize that this parable reflects the real world. The physical world is at best stagnant and at worst falls apart if we do not proactively add energy. The law of entropy has nothing to do with what we think is fair but it is as predictable and as reliable as the force of gravity.
- We cannot coast through life. The same is true in relationships. Couples with children and who both work spend less than one hour a week in non-logistical conversation. As most of us learn the hard way, that is not enough. Individuals feel lonely and disconnected. Relationships get stale. It takes energy and effort to keep a relationship working. This is not new information but in the stresses of the real world it is often difficult to do the work of connections.
- I believe we get caught worrying so much about the afterlife, we lose sight of the present life. Our first job is to pay attention to the life we are living. Failing to stay focused upon what really matters will most certainly lead to regret, lost opportunities, weeping and gnashing of teeth. The law of entropy applies to us all. We may not like it but that doesn’t change it. If we fail to develop God’s gifts to us, we will lose them. Gods’ greatest gift is the opportunity to know love and to live love. That is when ‘we enter into the joy of the master.’ That is enough for me to worry about without trying to imagine what the words heaven and hell mean after I am dead. Whatever happens after we die, I will leave to imagination. Remember, in such matters we are always limited to using words we know to describe what we do not know.
- When a child experiences their parents’ anger, when they are punished, it is easy to fear that God works the same way forever and ever. But in most (not all) families, children are not left in their rooms forever. They return to the family. Likewise, when a spouse slams the door and walks out, most of the time (not all) couples find their way back to each other. We all make mistakes. We all fail to do the work of relationship but when we stop long enough to realize the consequences, we are more likely to seek to re-engage in what really matters.
- In this passage, the people are waiting for Jesus to return. They began to wonder and fear that such a reuniting was less and less possible. It is harder to keep the faith. It is harder to do the work. It is harder to invest the energy when we wonder if it is worth it. This was the struggle of the first century church and it is our struggle today. It is hard to look around our world and believe that love will prevail. But losing that hope will immobilize us and keep us from doing what we can do. That is our version of burying our gifts.
- Bottom line. The consequences of failing to invest our energy in the development of God’s gifts has dire consequences. Look those real-life consequences square in the eye and choose the life that leads to life. Do the work. Hold the faith. To quote a 12-Step Program motto: “The program works if you work it.”
Circling back to the beginning of the passage. A talent was an exorbitant amount of money— depending upon who you read, it was equivalent to 15-20 years of labor. Imagine receiving a severance package equivalent to even 75-100 years worth of salary. Or on the low end, a package that gives you 15-20 full years of income. How would you feel if your officemate received the big package and you received the smaller one? Or vice versa. How would you feel if you received the big package and your office mate received the smaller? However, when you realize the numbers, it is hard to worry about the third slave getting ‘only’ 15-20 years worth of income.
- Don’t get too reactive about images of God that suggest he is a slave holder. I know the word slave is used but instead think of these people as stewards of the master’s wealth. The word ‘slave’ arouses too many modern-day connotations and it is easy to miss that these people were given great opportunities.
- Likewise, don’t get caught in the question of equitable distribution of wealth. In real life, we certainly have lots of feelings but questions concerning equity are above our pay grade. In real life such inequities are the norm not the exception. This passage describes the real world. Other passages deal with how we should navigate those discrepancies.
- Nor should we imagine this is a passage about portfolio management. It is more about the realization that we are all given something to be stewards of. It is more about unexplained generosity. We are all given an unknown amount of life—it may be 2 years (or less), it may be 100 years (or more). Again, we may not like it. But the question is: “How will we use what we have been given?”
- I love to sing. I do ok but there are people around me with a lot more talent and a lot more range. If I make comparisons or fear that I will not be enough, I will not risk singing aloud much less in a choir. In real life, I can’t really avoid those comparisons but mostly I have made peace with what I can do. When I can develop what I have, I have the opportunity to enter into the joy of the master. God wants us to have full and abundant lives.In order to have such lives we must develop what we have been given. This is NOT the prosperity gospel. Whether enormously talented or rich, or mediocre on both scales or even severely compromised in talent or money, we are expected to use what we have been given. It is such investment – not the quantity – that allows us to experience the joy of the master.
- The third slave was afraid. He anticipates judgment—“Master,I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid…” In a quite ordinary desire to protect himself, his words actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In real life, this is a common phenomenon. If you do not expect to be listened to, you will not speak—guaranteeing that no one can listen to you.” If you view your partner as harsh, you will never risk finding out otherwise. (I am well aware that sometimes such fears are founded in reality and silence is the smartest option but I am only addressing those times when we are reacting out of our projections and untested expectations. In such cases, ordinary questions for information are easily experienced as judgments and reasons not to speak).
- Regardless of the reasons or reasonableness of the third slave’s reluctance, the outcome is the same. Undeveloped gifts are lost gifts. In real life we only have so much time so we must make choices about which gifts we will develop. But failure to develop any of them is equivalent to burying them. We become smaller. Money that is not invested and kept under the mattress, loses value each year it remains squirreled away.
- All of us are given bodies to care for and use. We all know we should eat well and exercise. If we do not, our bodies will deteriorate faster. We cannot stop such erosion but we can maximizewhat we have. Which means we can enjoy more of the life that we have.
- We all wait for the Lord. Even when he is ‘away’, we are expected to do the work of developing our gifts. We are expected to continue to seek to follow him. This is the path to becoming all that we are created to be. This is the path to experience the Risen Lord. We are the losers when despair, fear or laziness inhibits us.
Develop what you have been given. Do the work of love. The rewards are great. The consequences are dire. Use it or lose it.
Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.