“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, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”1
“…I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground…I was afraid…”1
That slave, who received one talent, often speaks for many of us. Isn’t fear of making a mistake, of trespassing, capable of paralyzing us into passivity and inaction? And when fear and inertia entrap us it is easy to imagine ourselves living in the freedom of the gospel while we are, in fact, trapped in slavery to the Law.
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man” resounds. It resounds as a description of a general collective attitude about God; a view of God based on an even wider collective attitude about sin. That attitude about sin which comes directly from that attitude about God goes something like this: “you know better, God gave you the rules, you deliberately ignore them and so now you are going to be punished.”2
The Russian philosopher Nicholai Berdyaev called this view of sin the “ethic of obedience.” That ethic of obedience is an idea based on a penal code conception of morality and after-life geography lessons that instruct us to believe that punishment awaits those who have done what we would not do.3
Jesus’ view of sin is different. As his parable teaches, sin is not simply breaking God’s rules; it springs from fear and moral darkness brought about by a lack of awareness. As long as we live in darkness about our motivations, we can only hope to obey the Law. But, like the slave who was afraid to take any risk, penal code morality cannot find its source in love because it is based on fear. Only when we dare to live, and trespass, and make mistakes, only when we dare to risk all, like the slaves with five and two talents, can we hope to break the chains of uncreative obedience whether imposed on ourselves from within or by whatever we think is lurking without.
This is Berdyaev’s other ethic, the “ethic of creativity;” Jesus’ ethic, the ethic that demands that we risk all. If we are to grasp this parable we have to take risks because only then can we hope to live into the freedom that is the kingdom of God.
Like real life, the ethics of the situation that the parable portrays are neither simple nor straight forward. The servant’s motivations are worth looking at carefully because they are multi-layered; so human in so many ways.
Doesn’t it astonish that the servant who was given one talent at his master’s departure knew that when his master returned he would require more than the one talent in return, yet he still went ahead and buried it in the ground. So, even though he knew better yet he acted in fear.
And how does the master reply? He calls the servant both wicked and slothful. The servant was not just wicked, as though he had intentionally buried the talent to spite his master — if that were the case he might just as easily have gone one step further and simply run off with the money. No, he was at once both wicked and slothful. He obviously thought that despite the fact he knew he wasn’t going to meet his master’s requirements; he could still get away with returning the one talent intact. He thought that by being honest and admitting to his master that he knew him to be a harsh man – hint, hint; maybe he shouldn’t be such a harsh man – by saying this and by including his admission of fear, he could presume that his master would let him off the hook, that everything would be all right.
But notice, too, that the servant expresses no regret for not having met his master’s demands. Now, whether the servant expected simply to return the talent and maintain the status quo, or even to return the talent and receive the same reward as the other servants, we do not know; but it is safe to assume that he did not expect to be punished. How often do we see others, or do we ourselves expect to be let off the hook or actually get some reward for just being honest and truthful? Honesty for its own sake is very popular these days. The thinking seems to go something like this: above all, just be honest, and upfront about a given situation and you’ll relieve the tension and everything will be all right.
Indeed, honesty is important before you can even begin to deal with problems as they are. For us as Christians, truthfulness, although difficult at times, should be the norm. But when it comes to wrongdoing, honesty by itself accomplishes absolutely nothing in the long run unless it results in repentance on our part or some other constructive change in a situation. When we confess our sins to God, it is not as though the act of being honest with God were going to earn us salvation. Salvation is already a fact because of what Christ did on the cross. It is our honesty plus our sincere desire to change, to turn our lives in a different direction, and our will over to God’s guidance, that opens us to God’s saving grace.
Another important point to notice is that the wicked and slothful servant says that he was afraid of his master. This might not have been a bad state of affairs, if it had goaded him to invest his talent with the bankers; but it did not. Fear at times can be a good thing if it spurs us to face the truth, and then to make a right response. But an entire relationship based on fear is never healthy, especially where God is concerned.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition it is said that there are three types of Christians: the slave who serves God out of the fear of punishment; the hired man who serves him because he expects a reward; and the daughter or son who serves God out of love. Perhaps, if the servant in the parable had at least acted out of fear, he might have invested his talent with the bankers. But his laziness and presumption of his master’s leniency blocked even this motivation to act.
Our Lord expects more from us than action based on fear. St. John the Evangelist wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” The love of God is what sets us free from fear and empowers us to fulfill that for which we are created: to love God and to act responsibly in response to God’s trust in us. As St. James writes in his epistle, “Faith without works is dead.” The works themselves do not save us, but without them our faith is lifeless. It becomes the salt without savor, worthy only to be thrown out and trodden under foot.
The love of God in Christ frees us so that, fearing no one, we can bring courageously to life the greatest potential possible for those talents God has entrusted to us. An older definition of the English word “talent” comes from this very parable and means a “power or ability of mind or body viewed as something divinely entrusted to a person for use and improvement. Let me repeat that.
Trust is a key factor here. God’s love, like any love involves real trust. And in relationships, trust requires mutuality. If I love someone, I learn slowly, bit by bit, to trust that person with things that mean a great deal to me. Sometimes it may be a part of myself that I don’t necessarily want others to see. That is vulnerability enabled by trust. This same vulnerability, intimacy, and mutuality should characterize our love for and trust in God.
God gave us free will which is absolutely necessary for genuine love to exist. We can choose to love and trust God, or not. God gave us this choice despite the evil that hurts our world when people reject God.
In Christ on the cross, God poured out his love setting it beyond the bounds of his control; allowing us to choose our response to that love. We are not robots. The resurrected Christ gives us his very heart and the means to walk, worthy of all that he has entrusted to us in this life. But the “walk” is our task. God does not demean us or degrade us by offering a wishy-washy, permissive kind of love that says it does not matter how we act.
What God entrusts to us he expects us to use responsibly and to increase its value through loving investment in others. For example, take a talent for listening to others, or a talent for making things, or a talent for repairing things — just to name three. How much richer those talents become when we give of their bounty to others for Christ’s sake.
At the Last Judgment, God is not going to ask us if we were like St. Francis or Mother Theresa or this brother or that sister. God is going to ask us if we were ourselves. Did we, with God’s help, succeed in shaking off the deceptions of sin and grow into that full, lively, unique individual he created us to become, in loving fellowship with himself and with those whom we share our lives? Our truest self, our fullest potential, our richest self must be searched out in a vigorous, healthy relationship with both vertical and the horizontal dimensions symbolized in the cross, with both God and with the neighbors God gives us. Then our search and the investment of our God-given talents will be centered not in our own ego, but in Christ hanging on the horizontal and vertical beams of the cross reconciling all three in himself: God, neighbor, and our true self. Then our search will lead us to the end of all ends, the very voice of our Lord calling to us, “Enter into the joy of your master.”
- Matthew 25:24-25
- John A. Sanford. The Kingdom Within. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1970, p. 145.
- Sanford, p. 144.
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