Monday, April 28, 2014

The Parable of the Talents and Risk-Averse Attitudes

One of my most favorite biblical passages is the Parable of the Talents. A talent is a particular denomination of money, though, as you will see, I have chosen to use a more literal translation. This story confounded me when I was a child, but its meaning grows more comprehensible and pertinent with each year that passes.

Ordinarily, I would not include the entire passage, but there is no way to convey what Jesus meant otherwise. This parable displays the harsh, radical side of Jesus, in great contrast to the loving, healing one.

I’ve chosen to reference Matthew’s version rather than Luke’s, because I think of it as more comprehensible. One verse prior, Jesus has warned his followers that the end of the world will be impossible to predict. Even so, we should prepare for it every day. To emphasize his point, he tells a parable.

"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone. He gave five bags of silver to one, two bags of silver to another, and one bag of silver to the last--dividing it in proportion to their abilities. He then left on his trip.
The servant who received the five bags of silver began to invest the money and earned five more. The servant with two bags of silver also went to work and earned two more. But the servant who received the one bag of silver dug a hole in the ground and hid the master's money. 
After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money. The servant to whom he had entrusted the five bags of silver came forward with five more and said, 'Master, you gave me five bags of silver to invest, and I have earned five more.' "The master was full of praise. 'Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let's celebrate together!'
The servant who had received the two bags of silver came forward and said, 'Master, you gave me two bags of silver to invest, and I have earned two more.' "The master said, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let's celebrate together!'
Then the servant with the one bag of silver came and said, 'Master, I knew you were a harsh man, harvesting crops you didn't plant and gathering crops you didn't cultivate. I was afraid I would lose your money, so I hid it in the earth. Look, here is your money back.' But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?
Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.

We are given spiritual gifts from God and commanded to use them. Regardless of how we view and interpret equality, some of us are more spiritually gifted than others. If we’re not especially spiritually powerful as some, this doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. God places more manageable tasks in our hands. Listening to the Holy Spirit is not impossible or somehow over our heads. God is willing to meet us halfway, in our own current spiritual progress, though his expectations for success are no less insistent and demanding.

Most small businesses are predicated on the courage and bravery of those willing to take a risk. As I walk through the neighborhood of where I live, I observe the success and failure of restaurants. A few make it, but many do not. The odds are stacked against them. When one fails, within months, that space is redesigned for another set of entrepreneurs. The capitalist system allows us to roll the dice, but it does not guarantee success. Our spiritual lives function the same way. Pulling our money out of banks and stashing it under the mattress is no solution.

Following God with obedience, however, produces rewards our earthly existence never could. Metaphorically, he provides us with money that he intends us to invest responsibly, even though we must take a gamble in the process. It would be easy to bury our heads and our money in the sand. Activists are driven to avoid this pitfall, though they have other shortcomings. We should confront our attitudes first, and then take into account the behavior of others.

Those in houses of worship who are fast asleep and happy with the status quo are my target audience. When yet another church or Meeting fails elsewhere, much is lost, but it is imperative to keep trying and learning from our mistakes. Risk-averse strategies kick the can down the road. Here’s one example. Many houses of worship or worthy organizations collect precious little from individual donations, subsisting on sources of revenue that are finite. My parents faithfully tithed, placing a check in the collection plate every week.

Writing as a Quaker, there are two different schools of thought currently fighting for control of the discussion. One of them is convinced that the Religious Society of Friends is dying a slow death. The other is equally convinced that we are in the middle of a great rebirth. Making a compelling case for each one relies on conjecture more than solid facts. But if we are to survive in a post-Christian world, we must take Jesus’ words as a challenge. Jesus is still speaking.

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