In Jesus’ day, there was considerable conversation about “talent.” Hearing about a “talent” was not in reference to someone’s ability; rather, talent was about money, as we hear in this Gospel reading today. If Jesus is referring here to the talent-weight of silver, one talent would be approximately $300,000; if gold, upwards to $3 million in today’s exchange. That’s one talent. Five talents of silver, about $1.5 million dollars; five talents of gold, about $15 million dollars. Now Jesus was not a hedge fund manager, and so he’s not actually giving us a profit-loss accounting about investments. He’s simply using an example that would have been familiar to a crowd of his listeners, some of whom were like hedge fund managers, the money changers. Jesus speaks about the wise investment of money entrusted to them. Though we don’t know the exact dollar amount, Jesus’ is talking about a lot of money to be made (or lost) in investment.
By the 15th century in the English language, the word “talent” no longer referred to money; the word “talent” had taken on the meaning of ability: special athletic, or creative, or artistic, or business aptitudes. Talents. The original word “talent” evolved in English in a way which actually makes Jesus’ point. Jesus’ analogy is a parable about life. God is the investor, and into each one of us at our birth, God invests seed money – like gold or silver – each person receiving a differing amount: “five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to their ability.” There is good news in this gospel story, and I’ll speak here to three themes:
God as the investor invests different talents, in different amounts, in each one of us. That’s Matthew’s version of this gospel story. There’s a similar story in the Gospel according to Luke, where each person is given the same amount. Now we all actually are the same in so many ways. If we listen to the physiologists or developmental psychologists, we hear that we all are so much alike, young or old, male or female, of whatever race or nationality. Humans are very similar. And if we listen to Jesus, we hear one Gospel given to princes and paupers alike. We are all so much the same… which confirms Luke’s version of this story. But here in the Gospel according to Matthew, we hear about our differences. And that, too, is true in so many ways.
When it comes to our talents – our unique and special athletic, or creative, or artistic, or business aptitudes – we are all so different. Everyone is more talented than we are in some ways, some of it coming from nurture, and some of it from nature. What do you do with your talent? Invest it, use it, develop it, share it, be thankful for it. The one thing not to do about your talent is compare it. Comparisons always leave us in a bad place. We either judge ourselves better than someone, which is the toxin of pride; or we judge ourselves worse than someone else, which tarnishes our own dignity and may affect theirs. God gives each one of us a story line, and our story is our story, like none other.
There’s this very poignant scene remembered at the end of the Gospel according to John. This is following the crucifixion and resurrection, and Jesus is talking with his wayward disciple, Peter. In the course of the conversation, Peter turns and looks over to another disciple, whom Jesus calls his “beloved disciple. Who knows what’s going on in Peter just now? He’s obviously trying to figure out his very messy life, and it appears that he’s comparing himself with this other disciple. Maybe Peter is remorseful, or maybe jealous or resentful about this other more-beloved disciple. It’s as if Peter is pointing a rather nasty finger at this other disciple when Peter asks Jesus a barbed question: “What about him?” And you may remember Jesus’ response. He won’t answer Peter’s question. It’s clear to Jesus that everyone has their own story line. Jesus only says to Peter, rhetorically, “What is that to you?” And then Jesus, clearly looking Peter in the eyes, says to him, “Follow me. You follow me.” Peter has his own unique identity. Jesus does not call Peter “my beloved disciple.” Jesus calls Peter “my rock.”
There is an ancient wisdom that comes from the early monks: “freedom is found in limitation.” The hand you’ve been dealt in life has real limitations, for reasons you maybe understand or for reasons you don’t. And that’s life. Say “yes” to your own life, without apology or embarrassment, which would be like burying your life’s talent. And don’t invest your life glaring over the fence, either envious or resentful of your neighbors. Long before you poison them, you will poison yourself. Accept the life you’ve been given. Go and grow from there.
Secondly, failure is one of the commodities of investing in life. We can look back to the very beginnings of Jesus’ ministry to see where failure was redeemed. His earliest disciples were faithful followers. In the hour of his crucifixion, they all abandoned him. And in the light of the resurrection, Jesus built his church on forgiveness toward his disciples’ failures. Life is full of a great deal of failure. When we gather for worship, such as this morning, we always include a corporate confession of sin. We don’t take a survey and inquire of the congregation who might find a confession of sin helpful. The presumption is that all of us have missed the mark, one way or another, since we last gathered. The invitation to confess our sins is simply announced for us all, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness is readily given.
If you are in any way living your life timidly, because you are afraid you might fail in something, I want to give you an encouragement. You are going to fail. You are going to make mistakes, knowingly and unknowingly. And that’s life. More than twenty-five years ago, a dear friend of mine handed me a paragraph published in the Wall Street Journal on the theme of failure. I’ve hung onto this piece as a reminder. It reads:
“You’ve failed many times, although you may not remember.
You fell down the first time you tried to walk.
You almost drowned the first time you tried to swim, didn’t you?
Did you hit the ball the first time you swung a bat?
Heavy hitters, the ones who hit the most home runs, also strike out a lot.
Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, but he also hit 714 home runs.
R. H. Macy failed seven times before his store in New York caught on.
English novelist John Creasy got 753 rejection slips before he published 564 books.
Don’t worry about failure.
Worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try.”
Say “yes” to your life. Invest in it, use it, develop it, share it, be thankful for it, and when you miss the mark – which you will do – make necessary amends. Learn as much as you can from your failures (which is about redemption and wisdom), and then get on with it. Saint Irenaus, a second century bishop of the church, said “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Part of being fully alive is learning from inevitable mistakes. If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re probably not fully alive. Choose life. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Being fully alive will inevitably involve some failure. Don’t be timid. Don’t be a tourist in life.
Thirdly, a word of caution about investing in futures. To make a sound investment in the future, you have to be firmly grounded in the present. Where life is to be found, lived, and loved needs to be now. Don’t live your life waiting. A couple of days ago a friend of mind told me about a sign he saw hanging in a bar. The sign reads, “Free beer tomorrow,” and the sign is permanently affixed to the wall. Don’t live for the future. Live for the present moment, which is where life is to be lived and God’s presence is to be known. The future – if indeed we are given a future – will come out of today. And we will need every moment of today to prepare us for the possibility of tomorrow.
Here is a way you could test yourself about your investment of life in the present. Presume today is all you’ve got. Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of us will make it to the end of the day, but let’s say that today is it. If you knew that, would that make a difference in how you are investing your life’s talents and energies? If you need to say something to someone before you die, do it today. Tell them how much you love them. Ask for their forgiveness. Say to them what you always wanted them to know and haven’t’ gotten around to saying it. The psalmist says, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Knowing that today’s your last day, savor it, every moment of it. Breathe deeply. And focus your attention on the amazing goodness of your life. Don’t focus on what is not present. Don’t focus on what you’ve lost in life, over which you’ve now got no control. Focus on the present, which is the only place where life is to be found, and where God is really present to you. Now.
I suspect many of us learned a bedtime prayer as children:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
If the truth be told, I think that most young children are not developmentally capable of understanding what that prayer is about. It’s an adult prayer, which maybe you would still find helpful to use or adapt. At the end of the day, you want to be able to say to yourself, say to your life companions, say to God, “It’s been terrific.” “Life has been terrific.” Life comes packed with incredible personal talents, with amazing delights, and the most wonderful experience of love, all of it a foretaste of heaven. Life also comes with its sadnesses, with its failures, and with many, many deaths. And that’s life. Somewhere inside of that reality we want to be able to end our life, to end each moment of each day of our life, with a prayer of gratitude to God for our most amazing life, far more amazing than anything we could have asked or imagined. To use the language of the church, its to live our life eucharistically, which means to live with great thanksgiving. And that is a worthy investment practice for life on earth, which is as it shall be in heaven.
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