John, your parish secretary, puts together a mailing every week that he sends to the clergy who will be joining you as presiders and preachers. He includes in that mailing some of the material from an Augsburg Fortress publication called “Sundays and Seasons,” which is a great lectionary resource. The illuminations that your lectors read before each Bible reading giving a little introduction about the lesson come from “Sundays and Seasons.” I’ve been familiar with the publication for a long time, though I’ve never been a subscriber: I used to participate in a weekly ecumenical lectionary study group that included Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal clergy and our Lutheran colleagues often brought something from “Sundays and Seasons” into our discussions.
This week “Sundays and Seasons” offered this précis as an introduction to our gospel reading, which is Matthew’s Parable of the Talents:
Jesus tells a parable about his second coming, indicating that it is not sufficient merely to maintain things as they are. Those who await his return should make good use of the gifts that God has provided them.
It’s now that time of year when clergy and church councils like to talk about stewardship of God’s gifts, and I am sure that you have heard many sermons that take exactly this approach to the Parable of the Talents;. I know that I have both heard and preached such sermons! But, having taken a closer look at the text recently, I that interpretation misses the mark. I don’t think this is a story about stewardship, at all: I believe it’s a story about conscience or, rather, the lack of conscience.
By conscience, I mean that faculty deep within ourselves by which we detect a law that we do not impose upon ourselves, but which nonetheless holds us to obedience. The voice of conscience summons us to love good and to avoid evil, to do this and to shun that. Each of us has this law written in ours heart by God; “to obey it is the very dignity of [the human person, and] according to it [we] will be judged.” To obey it fully means more than “obeying the commandments and fulfilling the duties of one’s state in life.” It means “look[ing] beyond the obligations of rules and social roles and seek[ing] to accomplish good on a wider scale.” It means exercising “creative responsibility, which involves … think[ing] imaginatively and independently, and [taking] risks for the sake of helping to improve things.”
“Sundays and Seasons” is correct that Jesus “tells a parable about his second coming.” In fact, he tells two of them: one just before this story and one right after it. Together the three tales form a cohesive and coherent teaching. Jesus starts this teaching with the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids – that was our gospel lesson last week – the point of which is that the bridegroom is going to be absent, and though he will be returning he will probably be delayed so that you won’t know exactly when he’ll be back; therefore, keep alert and stay prepared.
Next, he tells this story of the talents, which is not a parable about his return, but about the time of his absence, about the time between Christ’s first coming and his second: in other words, about the times in which his first listeners and Matthew’s first readers were living, in which you and I are living. Then he concludes with a story about his return, the parable about the separation and judgment of the sheep and the goats – which will be next week’s gospel reading.
Remember, last week I suggested to you that parables are sort of like metaphors and sort of like similes, but they really aren’t either metaphors or similes: they are, instead, comparisons, which may be either positive or negative. Instead of looking for allegorical or metaphorical meaning in a parable, we should be looking for that which we may be taking for granted. In this particular story, that means setting aside the notion that the absent master represents God or Jesus or that we, either individually as believers or collectively as the church, are one or another of the servants. Instead, we need to figure out what in this story Jesus’ first hearers or Matthew’s first readers would have taken for granted and what might we take for granted.
It strikes me that the basic thing that they and we might take for granted is the master-servant or employer-employee relationship between the characters. If this is supposed to be an allegory for the relationship between God and the faithful, than that’s the very poor analogy, particularly with an employer like this one, “a harsh man, reaping where [he does] not sow and gathering where [he does] not scatter,” a man who frightens his employees. Furthermore, he commends investing at interest, a practice forbidden by the Law of Moses. He’s an exploitative businessman, a member of the elite who apparently abuses his employees and his customers; not a very good representation of God. As a story about the second coming, then, this tale fails. But as a story about how things will be, how things are, until Christ returns, it pretty well hits the mark; there will be and there are abusive employers and exploitative elites, and they will be and are aided by similarly abusive and exploitative managers and other employees.
The question for us, then, is how we are to behave during such in-between times. In a speech given on February 6, 1968, in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr., said:
On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.
In the story of the talents, two of the employees (those who receive five and three talents each) operate with the guidance of either expediency or vanity, or both, and the third is guided by cowardice, doing what he hopes will be safe, although it doesn’t turn out to be. In the end, the result of their actions, as described by the exploitative master, is that “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.” In more familiar modern phrasing, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” That is not a Christian outcome; it is simply not right.
The Christian outcome is described by Jesus when the followers of John the Baptizer ask if he is the anticipated messiah: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” And again in the parable of the sheep and goats which follows this story: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
The first two servants, “the rich who get richer,” cooperate with and extend their employer’s exploitation; the third fails to participate, but does nothing to improve the status of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the sick, or the imprisoned, “the poor who get poorer,” and as a result becomes one of them. None of these employees exercises the creative, independent, imaginative responsibility that conscience demands during these in-between times; none of them does what is right.
Conscience would dictate that an employee refuse to be complicit in the exploitation and abuse carried out by the master; instead of joining in the exploitation or just avoiding it, he would make use of all available resources to further the Christian outcome. As Christian ethicist James Keenan has observed, “Moral progress … occurs when people heed their consciences, take steps of their own, and move forward, even at the risk of isolation and loss.”
This story encourages us to move out of our comfort zones, take a risk, and try something. Jesus wants his followers to take risks. And if you have qualms about the employee in this parable possibly making use of his employer’s resources to do that, remember that Jesus told another story of an estate manager who did just that.
In the Parable of the Unjust Steward found in Luke’s gospel, a manager squanders his master’s property and, as a result, is told that he cannot keep his position. Hoping to curry favor with his soon-to-be-former employer’s debtors, he fraudulently reduces the amounts they owe his master as shown on the business’s accounts. He hopes that the relieved debtors will return the kindness and provide for him when he is unemployed. Oddly, his master commends his shrewdness and Jesus says to his listeners, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
By financially aiding his employer’s debtors, the dishonest manager is creating friendly relationships. Financial fraud (as in the Lukan parable) or outright misuse of funds (which would be required in today’s parable) may not seem to be the best ways to build relationships, but, as one commentary notes, apparently they are “better than not building relationships at all. Building relationships is far more effective for gaining security than building wealth is.”
I’m not sure that Jesus is saying that generosity to the poor and good relationships with people are more important than financial integrity, but he is saying they are important. True riches and true security are found in such relationships, and a good relationship with God is realized in unselfish service to the poor. Those whom our conscience encourages us to aid will eventually “welcome [us] into the eternal homes” as they do in the person of the king at the separation of the sheep and the goats.
Author Alan Hirsch, a leader in the missional church movement, has said, “Christianity is an adventure of the spirit or it is not Christianity.” As Christians during this in-between time, as those who are awaiting the bridegroom’s return, we are called to eschew safety and security, to follow the dictates of conscience, and to do the tasks that only Jesus’s people can do. We are called into ministries that take us out of our comfort zones and stretch us beyond the circle of relationships and practices with which we are familiar in our usual faith communities. All around us there are opportunities for extraordinary and life-changing interaction with other people, but often these require that we move into greater uncertainty and engage in activities in which we have a great chance of feeling discomfort, encountering resistance, or being required to make personal sacrifice.
The author Jack London once wrote:
I would rather be ashes than dust!?
I would rather that my spark burn out in brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry rot.?
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.?
The proper function of man is to live, not exist.?
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.?
I shall use my time.
I think “Sundays and Seasons” is right. “It is not sufficient merely to maintain things as they are. Those who await [Christ’s] return should make good use of the gifts that God has provided them.” But I think the dictates of conscience demand something more than simple security, more than merely taking part in the annual church stewardship campaign. During these in-between times as we prepare for the Second Coming, we are to help improve things, to foster moral progress; in a word, to do what is right. Amen.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2023, to the people of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Warren, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest presider and preacher.
The lessons were from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Proper 28: Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; and St. Matthew 25:14-30. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
The illustration is Rembrandt’s The Parable of the Talents, c. 1652l, on display in the Louvre, Paris, France.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Sundays and Seasons: Sunday, November 19, Lectionary 33, 25th Sunday after Pentecost, Augsburg Fortress (2023)
 Anne E. Patrick, Conscience and Creative Responsibility, C21 Resources, Boston College, Fall 2016, pp. 28-29,29
 Matthew 25:24-25 (NRSV)
 Matthew 25:27; compare Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:36, and Deuteronomy 23:19
 Matthew 25:29 (NRSV)
 Matthew 11:5 (NRSV)
 Matthew 25:35-36 (NRSV)
 James Keenan, S.J., The Call to Grow in Love, C21 Resources, Boston College, Fall 2016, pp. 6-7,7
 Luke 16:1-13
 Luke 16:9 (NRSV)
 Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, Faith of Leap, The: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure & Courage – eBook (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI:2011)
 Jack London, Jack London’s Tales of Adventure, Introduction (Hanover House, Brentwood, UK:1956), p. vii