The Stakes Are High

Everywhere we turn right now, the stakes are high. What a year!

What a week! (And who can know what will transpire between the time I write this and the time you read it!) What a challenge it is to preach! What crucial opportunities are in front of us! What relief! What worry! And what a parable from Jesus about talents, rewards, and punishments!

Let’s begin with two truths that are obvious:

  1. As a preacher—and therefore as a congregational leader—you have outsize influence within a community. You possess a precious calling to preach good news, especially on behalf of the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the oppressed.
  2. You have received your calling to preach in a critical place and time. You know the issues, and you know the stakes: deep political divisions driving people apart, a deadly pandemic stalking the planet, cruelty becoming tolerable, cries for equity being ignored, isolation and disconnection wreaking psychological damage, economic hardship spreading, and lies masquerading as truth.

This is no time for preachers to take their foot off the gas. Working Preachers, you’ve been commissioned to invite people into the emergence of a different reality, the realization of the kingdom of heaven among us.

That makes this a good week for us preachers to sit with Jesus’ Parable of the Talents.

I know the parable has many terrible aspects. The final punishment is severe. The story’s reliance on enslaved people as moral examples is problematic. The monetary and transactional symbolism makes it easy to miss the larger point.1 Don’t let those things become excuses to warp, rewrite, or ignore Jesus’ urgent message about how we must live, though. The stakes are too high to try to protect a congregation or yourself from this parable.

Working Preachers, consider your commission to preach as if it is a precious talent. I don’t mean a special ability, like playing a musical instrument or juggling torches. Jesus is speaking about a crazy amount of wealth: just one talanton alone was equivalent to roughly thirty pounds of gold.2 The parable’s use of absurd monetary values is meant to shock you again and again, underscoring the fact that Jesus’ followers possess extraordinary opportunities to advance his work of blessing the world. That outsize influence you have as a preacher? That’s part of this equation. Don’t squander it.

Likewise, the journey of the “master” (kurios) in the parable is no casual excursion. It represents a momentous occasion—a time for vigilance and stamina, a time when truth and falsehood must be shown to be what they are. We can deduce that from the wider context of Matthew 24:32—25:46. Over and over, Jesus emphasizes that faithful Christian discipleship expresses itself through active and ready engagement. In other words, that influence we preachers and disciples possess is vital because our lives are situated in a critical place and time. It’s a place and time especially important for the well-being of the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who long to experience the refreshment of a full dose of righteousness.

The parable works only when we accept its main premise that the stakes are sky-high and our involvement is essential. You would be upset, too, if you discovered that an influential person was refusing to make a difference in the midst of a genuine crisis.

It’s up to each of us to recognize the specific occasions we have to shape communities in accordance with the good news. What opportunities are we burying? Where can we help a congregation discover Jesus among our neighbors? Where can we face down our congregation’s perverted norms and long-concealed dysfunctions? Where can we extend mercy to those who are systematically denied it? Where can we tear down white-supremacist foundations in our inherited theologies—and in the wider culture? Where can we demonstrate what it is to practice forgiveness?

Working Preachers, the parable urges us to regard our work—and the witness of the whole church—as nothing less than rising to the moment when good-news-centered leadership is absolutely needed. Both your calling and the particular needs are so great.

Conversely, if your view of what a preacher is supposed to be doing in this place and time renders you passive, neglectful, complacent, risk averse, or unable to muster any sense of hope, then this parable has its sights set on you.

All of this is hard work, especially when we are tired, burdened, and lonely. Fortunately, none of us labors alone. None of us influences others all on our own.

And usually no one buries talents without accomplices and enablers.

No matter who will be sworn in as the next president, prime minister, or grand pooh-bah where you live, the church’s public vocation remains the same. Elections are beginnings more than they are endings. We continue to announce and embody a new society brought together in Jesus Christ and marked by peculiar yet generous norms. We continue to hold leaders accountable for just policies and we advocate for those who have been silenced.

We need boldness. We need vigilance. We need preachers. It’s worth all the effort.

Matt


Notes

  1. I preached about this passage for my home congregation back in mid-May, describing the parable’s ability to indict cowardly and complacent expressions of Christianity. In the first half of the manuscript I discuss some of the parable’s difficult characteristics: https://www.westminstermpls.org/2020/05/easter-imperatives-advocate/.
  2. To put it another way, a talanton was about the same amount of money a manual laborer would earn over a span of twenty years.