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Nov 19, 2017

Cultivating our Gifts

Cultivating our Gifts

Passage: Matthew 25:14-30

Speaker: Michael E. Karunas

A landowner of a large estate – multiple properties perhaps – is preparing to embark on a long journey.  It will keep him away for months and possibly a few years.  Before he goes, he entrusts three of his managers with his assets.  One gets 5 Talents, the second 2, and the third gets 1.  One Talent was the equivalent of 15 years’ wages.  In today’s terms, figuring on a very modest salary of 30K / year, that would mean the first manager received $2.25 million, the second $900K and the third $450K.  Clearly this is a lot of money to be given.

Yet this story is not primarily about money.  Though there are references all throughout about things like trading and interest, Jesus’ concern is not that we debate the merits of growth vs. income investment strategies today, or that we speculate on the future of the bond market.  His primary focus is on the generosity and trust of the landowner, who is willing to put a great deal of privilege and responsibility in the hands of his managers.

Now, he doesn’t treat them equally.  The managers don’t all receive the same amount.  But that’s okay, because he treats them fairly – which is more appropriate.  V. 15 says that he gave to them “according to their ability,” which is what we do with our children.  When it comes to the consumption of food at home, we don’t expect the 16 year-old and the 8 year-old to consume the exact same amount – be it spaghetti or cake.  We expect them to receive and eat according to their ability to eat relative to their age and stage in life.  So it is with the managers.  This story is not about how much is given to each of them as much as it is about what they did with what they received.

Because when the landowner comes back, he wants to know what each of them did with what they had been given.  The first two happened to bring the landowner double what they had been given and he is exceedingly happy and blesses them accordingly.  They get the exact same blessing, even though the first brought 10 Talents and the second 4; which means that it’s not how much they brought back, but that they brought something back.  For when it’s the third manager’s turn to give a report, he claims to have been afraid of the landowner.  Too afraid to do anything with his 1 Talent so that’s all he brings back.  This upsets the landowner so much that he kicks him off the estate and takes everything from him.

I guess we can see why this third manager was afraid of the landowner.  He’s an odd sort.  For one, he doesn’t question howthe first two managers doubled their money.  Maybe they got it by dishonest means – extortion, fraud, a ponzi scheme?  It doesn’t seem to matter to the landowner.  And if that were the case, it would be strange for Jesus to tell a story in which such people were honored.  Moreover, when the third manager accuses the landowner of being harsh, not only does he not deny it, he proves it by flying off the handle and being excessively punitive.

Did you know that there’s only one other place in the NT that speaks of Talents?  In another story Jesus told, a king finds that one of his servants owes him 10,000 Talents – or $450 billion!! – a debt impossible to pay back.  Yet when the servant begs for mercy, the king forgives him the entire debt.  Often we think of the Kings and Landowners in Jesus’ parables as God.  But what would be confusing about that is: Why would a God – who doesn’t mind losing $450 billion in an unpaid debt – turn around and go ballistic because of losing just the interest on a $2.25 million loan?  At best this kind of God seems arbitrary and inconsistent.

But what is consistent is that the landowner desires growth from each of the managers.  The first two used what they received to produce more.  They thought of how to allow what was given them to grow.  That’s why they were rewarded.  The third was not, because his mind was set – not on growing – but on not losing.  Jesus is telling this parable to his disciples at the very end of his life.  Literally hours away from the last supper, his arrest, and crucifixion.  That’s why there’s a sense of urgency in his voice as he tells it.  This is the last chance to teach and he’s trying to cram into this final lecture everything he can.

He’s going to be leaving them and he wants– no needs – the kingdom he’s been building to grow.  He needs to know that we (his followers) are up to that task.  That’s why the landowner in the story calls the first two managers trustworthy.  They are the followers that Jesus can trust going forward.  Yes, it’s fearful and we will be afraid when we follow in his footsteps.  But the worst thing to do is nothing; to not even try; to be complacent or paralyzed by our fear.  In that case, we aren’t much use to Jesus – or anyone.  And we might as well be living in some far-away place – where it’s dark and teeth are being gnashed.

This story is about investing; taking what we have been given by God and investing in it.  Meaning that we identify what we have been given; nurture and cultivate what we have been given; use what we have been given; so that it grows in us and produces fruit through us.

Last weekend we had a storytelling event in our Great Hall.  Seven of our members told stories on the theme “I was made for this – stories of our true nature.”  I was struck by how many of the stories followed a similar pattern, which resonates with our theme today.  Linda Virgil, for example, discovered that she had a gift for speaking out in the name of justice as a young child and years later used that gift to speak out on the floor of IL state legislature.  Kevin Miller discovered a knack for pounding on things when he was a boy – even while sitting in the pew on Sunday mornings, to his mother’s chagrin.  And years later he’s drumming in our contemporary service in that very same church.  In both cases, fear had to be overcome; practice was required for that gift to grow.  Unlike the third manager in this story, neither of them buried their gift or ignored it, but rather they intentionally remembered their true nature – what God made them for – and invested in it so that it produced fruit in them – and for others through them.

This week is Thanksgiving and I invite you to reflect on your life – your true nature.  What are you made for?  What brings you joy when you are doing it?  Or, perhaps better put, what brings others joy when you are doing it?  Give thanks to God for that gift given to you – and remember that the best way to show your thanksgiving is by investing in that gift, so that it grows and produces fruit through you.  These are the kind of followers Jesus needs to continue and carry out his ministry.