Sunday, November 13, 2011

Assuming Risks

The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. (Matthew 25.16-18)

Mutually Beneficial Outcomes

Business that took me to San Diego last week offered an opportunity to visit with our financial advisor, his wife, and their two-year-old son. Before their recent move to the West Coast, Walt and I counted them among our favorite couples to spend unhurried evenings with, and the chance to see how they’re doing in their new place—if only for an hour or so—gave us too much important stuff to talk about to discuss money. As it is, my financial conversations with Byron are typically brief for two reasons. My head isn’t wired for money matters; it shuts down the instant the charts and graphs come out. More important, we have total faith he has our best interests at heart. Because he knows and cares for us, and wants to please us, he treats our assets like his own.

Our discussions usually begin by him saying, “Here’s what I’m doing with our money,” and end with me saying, “If it works for you, it works for us.” In between, he’s legally obliged to disclose risks we assume if we take his advice. Given his faithfulness as our friend and advisor, precautionary measures seemed silly at first. Then he explained why they're important to him. “You stand to lose money—which is never pleasant, but can always be remedied. I stand to lose your friendship, trust, and respect. That can’t be fixed. If the law didn’t require it, I’d still go over what’s at risk to assure you I’ve weighed the options to make the wisest decision—for both of us.” The explanation beautifully summarizes the investment dynamic Jesus describes in Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 25.14-30). His story of a man who entrusts large sums to three servants is all about assuming risk, weighing options, and wise decisions—and how honoring the master’s faith yields mutually beneficial outcomes for two of the three servants.

No Growth Without Risk

Matthew buries the parable’s lead by not telling us much about the master’s character until the third servant scrambles to justify not generating gains with what he’s given. “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” he says. “So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” (v24-25) These days, when we’re inundated with exposés of Ponzi schemers, robber barons, and Wall Street flim-flam artists, we immediately suspect this guy’s working some kind of angle. We’re suddenly very wary when he hands one servant five talents, another two, and a third a single talent before departing on a trip. (Scholars estimate one talent equaled 15 times an average worker’s annual income. Jesus is talking a lot of cash here.) We shudder as the first two rush off to wheel and deal with his money—and we’re relieved they’re able to double it. Imagining their fate if things went wrong, the third servant’s decision to bury his talent doesn’t look so foolish after all. With the least to gamble, he’s got the most to lose.

So why does the master call him “wicked and foolish” (v26) and those who take big chances “good and trustworthy” (v21)? Why does he reward their risky behavior by giving them more, while taking back what he gave the other servant, saying he should have known not to play it safe? (To add insult to injury, he hands the talent to the first servant, who risked more than the others combined.) Why does he invite the first two to “enter the joy of your master,” yet banish the third to “outer darkness” (v30)? If he’s as greedy and conniving as we’re led to think, avoiding his wrath at all costs is the smartest thing a servant can do, as it witnesses true loyalty and respect.

The master doesn’t see it like we do, because he’s not the predator we presume him to be. He’s a brilliant venture capitalist in the business of funding risk. He reaps where he doesn’t sow and gathers where he doesn’t scatter seed in return for providing the seed and ground it grows in. Expecting those he entrusts with wealth to assume risks to create more wealth, it’s his right to demand they weigh the options and make wise decisions that benefit him and them. What the third servant views as harshness is really sound management. The master empowers his people to take risks, and those who know and understand him don’t hesitate do so. They’re less concerned with results than honoring his trust. As a canny investor, he’s aware that markets and harvests fluctuate. He knows taking risks invites potential disappointment and frustration. Yet it’s nothing to be afraid or ashamed of, as there can be no growth without risk. The first two get that. The third earns his master’s ire by lacking will to grow. Poor grasp of his master’s plan and fear of punishment witness not a shred of faith in the one he serves. It’s true: he’s wicked and lazy and deserves to be fired on the spot.

Them That’s Got Shall Get

According to Matthew, this is Jesus’s final parable before He’s arrested. In light of its timing, then, we ascertain Jesus refers to Himself as the demanding master who endows his servants to manage his investments while He’s away. He cautions us we’ll be judged and rewarded in scale with what we’ve done with what we’re given, which is by no means a negligible sum regardless how our talents compare to others’. The only commentary Jesus inserts into the story surfaces in the master’s fury with the risk-averse servant—and it’s a stunner: “For 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.” (v29) Jesus wants us to recognize the value of what we possess and He expects us to risk all we have to create greater wealth from the wealth He’s entrusted to us. Burying it where no one can find it may seem smart. But it’s a wicked, lazy approach that reveals not a shred of understanding or trust in Christ.

I’m also convinced the parable contains less overt messages that we need to hear. While faith is our most precious and holy possession, we’re foolish to imagine it needs our protection. What’s more—and you may want to fasten your seatbelt for this—fearing God’s wrath does neither God nor us a service. Indeed, Jesus says what comes of being afraid of God’s punishment is the surest way to experience it. We are not called to spiritual stasis. We’re called to grow. That demands courage to assume risks, weigh options, and make wise decisions. In 2 Timothy 1.7 Paul writes, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Burying our talents for fear of losing them puts us at greater risk than any chance we’ll ever take to grow the power, love, and self-discipline God entrusted to us. Jesus couldn’t be more explicit in warning us risk-averse cowardice leads to an unhappy ending. And it’s no surprise we should find this so surprising. As Billie Holiday put it, “Them that’s got shall get; them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible says, and it still is news.”

Lord, You know better than anyone we’re surrounded by third servants frozen with fear of Your wrath. Assuming risks to generate growth is anathema to them. Reignite the power, love, and self-discipline You placed in us so that we’ll reject fear and honor Your trust. For Your sake and ours, strengthen our will to grow. Amen.

Safeguarding our talents may seem like a wise strategy, but it ends up putting us at greater risk than using what God has given us to generate more growth.


Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, I've always had such trouble with understanding this passage. I have always had much sympathy for the third fellow. lol..Thanks for clearing things up a lot for me. I have a better appreciation for the story now. Blessings, Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, I don't believe your sympathy for the third fellow is misplaced, inasmuch as he's so far off in his understanding of his master and responsibilities. Obliviousness is a tragic thing. Had he been the first to receive his portion, we could cut him some slack and say he did the best he knew to do. But there's that problem of him coming last, with two examples of trust and risk-taking before him. That reflects poorly on his decision, I think.

William R. Herzog II--a social progressive and staunch liberation theologist--offers a compelling alternative reading (albeit a minority one) that actually lionizes the third servant. (So anyone who thinks the third servant gets a bum deal is in esteemed company.) According to Herzog, the master is corrupt--he equates him with a slumlord--and the two servants who do well are more like toadies or inside traders. The third servant buries his talent because he won't participate in an unjust system. His statement about the master isn't a fearful equivocation; he's blowing the whistle on the tycoon and pointing out that his harsh policies engender fear. In Herzog's eyes, he's less like Bob Cratchit and more like Norma Rae.

It's a marvelously provocative interpretation--and tasty to those of us who equate faith and social justice. The problem I have is that the set-up doesn't square with the resolution. If the servant indeed does the right thing, the story's missing it's final twist, where the toadies and master lose everything and the third servant comes out ahead. Without that, where's the promise that goodness will be rewarded? And if this meaning indeed is what Jesus wants to convey, the parable becomes a unique example unlike any other, in that it ends inconclusively, without so much as a cliffhanger.

The beauty of the parables lay in their flexibility. We can enter them from many avenues and come out with many different conclusions. But they are conclusions. Once Herzog gets us in, he can't get us out--at least not by using anything Jesus has to say. We can excuse Billie Holiday for leaning on the text to blame the rich and side with the poor; she's a blues singer who's life was a catalog of codependency and inadequate resolve. She romanticizes the notion of helplessness because she was, in many ways, a poster child for voluntary victimization. One would hope Herzog knows too much to fall for such a naïve idea. (But one must give him credit for reaching...)

With Advent around the corner--always an exciting season--I'm already sorry to see the Lectionary's long stretch of parable discussion go. Every one of them has challenged our presumptions and brought us closer to the realities deeply imbedded in Jesus's storytelling. What a long, strange and illuminating trip it's been!

Thank you so much for commenting. I trust you know you're my constant Sunday companion and I'm always anxious to find out what you lend to the discussion here--and to skip your way to find out what nuggets you've dug out at your place.

Many blessings always,