Last weekend, Matt and I found ourselves in a pretty deep hole, and it was our own doing. While on our camping trip to Raccoon Mountain near Chattanooga, I had the bright idea that caving would be a fun adventure. So we signed up, filled out a lengthy waiver, put on recommended clothing and headed to the Cavern entrance to meet our guide for our “Waterfall Dome” tour and three and a half hours or so of exploring. We soon veered off from the walking, lit portion of the caverns, and after a slippery walk and belly crawl took a short break. Our energetic young guide, Ben, jokingly asked “so, who here is afraid of heights?” I felt my body stiffen. I had not bargained on heights while deep in a cave. He went on to describe the “y-body position” move we’d need for the next section, angling ourselves “like you see in Ninja warrior” over an opening which he guessed had a drop of anywhere from 8 to 20 feet depending on the section. Then he smiled and asked who was ready to go. I was not. I was trying to figure out if it was possible to go back the way we came; after all, we’d only been going for about half an hour. Then I remembered the notes from the website that said the minimum age was 8 and everyone had to be 56 inches tall. How did 8 year olds do this? They must not have any fear. Fortunately, I have a great partner who saw my panic and reassured me he was there to help me get through it. So we moved forward and made it through. In fact, you couldn’t really see the depth of the drops because of the darkness of the cavern, and it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as our guide had made it out to be. Difficult? Yes. Unnerving? Absolutely. But doable. At the end of the day, you have to overcome your fears if you want to get out of the cave.
In today’s parable, only two servants would have made it out; the third servant would still be sitting in the muddy cavern with his one talent. In the first century, this was the largest unit of currency available at the time. Some scholars guess that it would have been worth between 15 and 20 years’ worth of a salary for a day laborer. The exact figure isn’t as important for understanding as it is that this was no small pocket change. Do some quick math – double your current annual salary. Now add a zero to it. Imagine it in front of you, a stunning amount that doesn’t belong to you, but is now in your care. Of course the servant dug and hole and buried it to keep it safe. His actions prompt us to ask:
What’s so wrong with being cautious? Discretion and deliberateness are virtues, not vices. But with this third servant virtues become vices. Prudence and wariness easily become self-protectiveness and restraint. Inhibition turns to fear, and the servant ends up refusing the risk of trading in the marketplace[i].
The third servant simply waits for the master to come back, so he can return it, perhaps like a hot potato, saying “Here you go – it’s all there. Every penny accounted for, just like you left it.” Nothing new to see here.
And yet, when the master returns, the prudent decision of the servant is not rewarded. It seems there were some better options for how to pass the time while the master was away. The first two servants had invested their sums, 5 and 2 talents respectively, and each doubled the amount. They are rewarded and given additional responsibilities as a result. Then, the master turns to the third servant, who immediately begins offering explanations and notes that he was afraid to do anything but hide what he had been given in the ground. And the result isn’t pretty. The master is harsh, calling the servant lazy, saying he at least could have put it in a basic interest bearing account. And then he is punished, banished to the darkness where there is weeping and grinding of teeth; one of the most harsh treatments of anyone we read about in Scripture. It’s a hard story to swallow. It’s not like the third servant squandered these funds away on gourmet dinners and fine wines. He didn’t buy an iPhone 10 or go on an all-night shopping spree on Black Friday. He just maintained what was there; a reasonable and safe venture. And that seems to be the heart of one issue Jesus is trying to teach in this parable. As John Buchanan notes:
The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. It is about living. It is about investing. It is about taking risks. . . The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently[ii].
This parable is the third in a series of four Jesus tells in Matthew about the end times (eschaton) as he nears Jerusalem and the final events that will lead him to the cross. The tension of this journey is palpable, with a sense of urgency and importance. Here, Jesus expresses what he hopes and expects of them after he is gone while they wait for his coming again. This is a parable about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, faithful to him, even when he’s not there to show you firsthand how it’s done. And so, it is a parable about you and me as well.
Often we hear this parable and think about it as a stewardship lesson of investment, or a reminder to use those skills that we have rather than hide them away. And while these are reasonable and worthwhile perspectives, they fail to capture the larger picture and drama of the context of this parable about the end of time, kingdom of God, and judgment. We might, as Matt Skinner suggests, think about it more as a parable about callings, the “positions in which God has placed you to make a difference; opportunities to be influential[iii].”
The third servant had the opportunity, the calling, to take what had been put before him and do something for the glory of the master. And instead of building up, he dug a hole in fear. Skinner continues:
This parable is about more than just what you can do, or what God has gifted you with, but it’s a parable about what are you going to do in those moments where you clearly know what it means to represent Christ in a moment and you don’t do so[iv].
From the first century until today, God’s people have had trouble stepping up to live fully into Christ’s call to live actively as disciples. In the 1940s, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with this as he wrote in the midst of the Holocaust. He offered “that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility[v],” as he wrestled with his own sense of responsibility to speak out against Hitler and the Nazi party, which led to his arrest, internment in a concentration camp, and execution. Running from responsibility looks a lot like digging holes.
This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. railed about in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” lamenting and calling out those who, like the third servant, did nothing. King wrote:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection[vi].
The middle ground, you see, the ground of inaction and passivity, of the third servant, of the hiding in a hole, is no ground to stand on at all.
This pattern infiltrates our daily lives as well. Fear overtakes our desire and ability to do the things we know are good and right. We don’t speak up when things don’t seem right because we don’t want to create waves. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, this will be tested repeatedly as families with diverse opinions gather. We hesitate to volunteer because we aren’t sure if we have the abilities, or are selfish with our time and afraid it will take away from the other things we want to do. We don’t want to be inconvenienced. The holes we dig for ourselves are all around us. And, even when confronted with it, we keep digging. Have you ever realized you were wrong about something, but then became even more insistent on your wrong notion, or kept talking and saying things that only made something worse? It seems we think that the holes will somehow protect us a bit, but most of the time they end up burying us instead.
The good news is, we have this parable to inspire us to choose another way; to stare fear in the face and stand on the side of Christ; to be bold enough to take a stand in the face of what tries to render us helpless and say, “not today.” In the wake of yet another story about a shooting during a service of worship, our very gathering here today is a witness to the power of the gospel to triumph over fear. This is what it means to be the church. Our Book of Order even helps define it this way, saying:
The church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life[vii].
As people of faith, we are called to take risks, not dig holes. This is one of our greatest callings as those who follow Jesus and live in anticipation of his return. To live into the kingdom of heaven that these parables describes means being ready to present ourselves to God not as maintainers of the bare minimum, but as faithful investors who lived fully into the lives God gave us.
As poet Marianne Williamson reminds us:
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.
And as we let our light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others[viii].
Rather than throw each other shovels to make the holes of fear and insecurity greater, let’s throw some ropes down, join hands, and help each other navigate those caverns and holes together, until we all are brought back up again. And in the midst of the darkness we are in, may the light of Christ shine our way, so that we may be bearers of light to the world with good news, the kind the doubles what we have been given. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
November 19, 2017
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome, “Proper 28,” Texts for Preaching- Year A, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).
[ii] John M. Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective: Matthew 25:14-30,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
[iii] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave Podcast #570 – Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost,” Working Preacher.Org, Posted November 11, 2017, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=948, accessed 11/15/17.
[iv] Matt Skinner.
[v] As referenced by John M. Buchanan.
[vi] Martin Luther King, Jr, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html, accessed 11/16/17.
[vii] Book of Order 2017-2019, Presbyterian Church (USA), F-1.0301.
[viii] Marianne Williamson, “Our Deepest Fear” from Return to Love, as printed in Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, Volume 3, (Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1996).