Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.
You may have noticed by now that Jesus really, REALLY likes to tell stories. But not really fun ones. And we’ve certainly heard a lot of doozies in the past few weeks, where someone is often getting the short end of the stick…. Cast into the outer darkness, shut out of the party… or just in general not getting a “happily ever after.”
This story we just heard comes directly on the heels of last week’s tale of the kingdom of heaven being like 10 bridesmaids waiting for the groom to arrive at a wedding celebration. And this week, we get the “Parable of the Talents.” Another story that both makes us uncomfortable, but perhaps also confuses us by referencing things we don’t encounter in our everyday lives – things like slaves and slave owners, and coins called Talents that were worth about 15 years of minimum wage.
What would this parable sound like if Jesus were telling it to us today? Perhaps something like this story, which I found a children’s sermon website, and decided to alter it a little bit.
“Once upon a time there was a woman who had a very successful construction business. She had to go on a long trip, so she called her top three employees together and said, ‘I’m leaving you three in charge. I’ve put together a tool box for each of you to use to keep the business going while I am gone.’
The tool boxes contained all the tools the employees needed to do what their boss expected of them, but since the three employees didn't all have the same abilities and passions, each toolbox was different. To the first employee, she gave a very large tool box filled with every tool that you can imagine. To the second employee, she gave a smaller toolbox, but one that still had a very good assortment of tools. To the third employee, she gave a very small tool box with just a few tools, but enough tools for the employee to do what was expected of him.
The boss then left to go on his trip. When she returned, she called her employees together to see what they had done while she was gone.
The first employee said, ‘I knew that you had a great love for the homeless people of the world, so I used the toolbox that you gave me to build homes for the homeless.’
‘Great!’ said the boss. ‘You have done so well that I am going to put you in charge of all new construction for the entire company.’
The second employee said, ‘I knew that you had a great love for the elderly, so I used the toolbox you gave me to fix up the homes of elderly people who can no longer do the work themselves.’
‘Awesome!’ said the boss. ‘You have done such a good job, that I am putting you in charge of all the repair and maintenance work for the entire company.’
Then she turned to the third employee and asked, ‘What did you do with the tools that I left for you?’
The third one said, ‘I knew that you are a very demanding boss and that you expect a lot from your employees. I was afraid that if I used the tools you gave me that one of them might get broken or that I might lose one of them and make you angry. I put the tools in a very safe place. Look, here they are, just like new.’
To that, the boss said, ‘What a worthless employee you are! I didn't give you the tools for safekeeping, I gave them to you to use in my business.’ He was given a merger severance package and shown the door, and then the boss took his toolbox and divided the tools between the other two employees.”
Does hearing the story in that way change what you are hearing Jesus say?
Perhaps something that Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry might help us out here. Way back in Matthew, Jesus gives his inaugural address, which we also call “The sermon on the mount,” where we heard the “blessed are yous” a few weeks ago. A little later in that sermon, Jesus also says, ““Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” Thinking about this story in this light, which one of the employees let their light shine?
The first two employees went OUT into the WORLD to use their tools. THEY let their lights shine, while the third employee buried his light. He did exactly what one of the verses from “this little light of mine” song says NOT to do… “hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m gonna let it shine.”
In the ELCA, the denomination we are a part of, we have a tag line, perhaps you’ve heard of it: “God’s work, our hands.” That means, God uses US to do God’s work, to shine God’s light on the world. When we shine, people see, and that points the way back to where the light came from.
As followers of Jesus, we will be given opportunities to be a public witness for Jesus. Jesus wants US to shine… rather than having our unused tools stay shiny from still being in mint condition. Strange, how in the Kingdom of God, the worth of the gifts GOES UP the MORE it’s USED… and the more you give away, the more you HAVE.
Fast forward to the end of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’s tone has changed a bit. He might be sounding a little bit on edge here because Jesus knows where he’s headed – in just a few more chapters, Jesus will be betrayed, denied, abandoned, humiliated, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Jesus is running out of time, and his disciples are acting more like dim bulbs than beacons of light.
But the stakes are still high, two thousand years later. In many ways the world hasn’t changed all that much – we are still really good at hurting and oppressing one another. Injustice is still a reality for most. But perhaps that makes Jesus’ story all the more urgent. After all, what is the point of being given a light, or a tool box if it’s not going to be used for good?
A few weeks ago, I attended a Lutheran conference where I got to explore some of the parts of my tool box that I don’t usually think about… As a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied English speaking white person, I don’t have ALL the privilege, but I DO have A LOT of privilege. So, what am I going to DO with what has been given to me? Am I going to bury it by and pretend it doesn’t exist? Or will I use the tools I have been given to build up those who do not have as many tools in their tool box as I might have? How will I let God’s light shine in me?
We’re going to have to keep extra awake for the coming days. Work stress, family stress, pre-Christmas shopping stress – where we’re going to hear, Bigger is better! More stuff will make you and your family happy! Throw away the old, and get great deals on the new!
What, then, in the midst of this onslaught, are we to use what God has given us for the use of God’s Kingdom, for the benefit of the people around us?
I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, and you may join me as you feel called, according to what YOU have in YOUR toolbox. I’m going to shop fair trade and second hand when possible, and patronize stores that treat their employees well and help the environment. I don’t know if I’m doing ENOUGH… but at least, unlike the 3rd slave… I’m going to let my light shine, give my tools some use.
“To be of Use,” says one of my favorite poems, by Marge Piercy, is something like this:
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust…
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums,
but you know they were made to be used....
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
So, the next time you are wandering down the aisles this weekend bombarded with tinsel and bogged down with a list… consider this… when you see that shovel for sale, think about how you can help dig a friend – or even a stranger -out of a bad day. When you are hanging lights with your stepladder, consider how you could support someone who is participating in a 12-step program. As you take up your crochet hooks and knitting needles for Christmas gifts, imagine how God knits us all together, and how you might speak up for someone whom the rest of the world considers no more important than a dropped stitch.
We are the tools of Gods kingdom. We were made to be used. For work that is real. For the work of God’s kingdom, for the work of justice and mercy.
So, exhaust all the oil God gives you by shining God’s light into our dark world… Get some callouses on your feet from walking with your neighbor, get your hands dirty, and get some “purl pain” in your knuckles… strip all your drill bits into unusable nubs… break all your needles stitching the world back together… because after all none of these tools are YOURS ANYWAY. They all belong to God… just as you belong to God. Thanks BE to GOD. Amen.