September 9, 2014
Good Morning. There is wisdom for all of us, at the beginning of a new academic year, in the familiar Parable of the Talents that Pastor Katie just read, and I’m not referring only to the opening words — “Therefore stay alert” — which, though they offer great life advice, is not where I plan to focus this morning. Instead, I want to focus on a larger topic in this Parable: what we do with what we’ve been given. And, led by today’s lesson, I’m going to do that using the language of finance. Here’s the executive summary of my meditation this morning: “Double Your Money.”
You heard the lesson: a man is going on a journey. He summons three slaves, gives them each different amounts of “talents,” and then goes away. When he returns, he demands an accounting of the use made of those talents, and then judges the slaves by the results.
The man doesn’t say, “Now, I’m going to be gone for six months. I’m giving you five talents, and I’m expecting an eight percent return, so invest wisely because there will be an accounting when I return.” Indeed, he doesn’t convey any expectation at all with his gifts. But clearly he has one; namely, that he will get back more money than he gave. When he returns and learns that the slave to whom he gave five talents and the slave to whom he gave two talents both doubled his money, he praises them and promises to advance them in his service. But the slave who, because he feared losing money and returning less than he was given, buried his talent and only returned what he had been given, is thrown into the outer darkness.
The expectation of a return on investment — ROI — as it’s called today, is so intrinsic to the Parable that it wasn’t necessary for the man to articulate it to his slaves or for them to ponder and discuss what to do. When your boss entrusts you his money, you are expected to make more with it. This is a parable with a pretty rigorously capitalist environment: having money is a good thing, and making more money is a good thing, but not putting your money to work is a very bad thing.
The exchange between the man and the third slave is telling in this regard. The slave must have internalized the expectation of a return on investment because, anticipating that his master will be angry with him, he begins making excuses before he even returns the money. “Sir, I knew you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” At this point you have to imagine the slave making a strategic shift in tone here, a shift from excuse-making to an attempt to cheerfully validate his actions, maybe a tentative grin on his face: “See, you have what is yours.”
We might expect the man to take offence at the way he has just been described by his slave — as a “hard man,” someone who doesn’t do real work like sowing and reaping but rather who makes money off the labor of others — but he doesn’t seem to mind at all. He’s perfectly happy with his role in a post-agrarian economic model where capital begets capital. “You knew this about me,” he says, “You knew planting my money in the ground wouldn’t be good enough. Beans grow in the ground: money doesn’t. And yet you did it anyway. If you didn’t have the courage or the ambition, or the vision to put my money to work, you should have at least put it in the bank where it would earn interest, not in the ground it wouldn’t grow.”
Now, in Jesus’ day “talent” referred to money, not to ability, as we think of it today. So when the man in the parable gives his slaves talents, he’s giving them money, not perfect pitch or a photographic memory or the flexibility do to the Lotus Headstand with Bound Legs (that’s a yoga pose. I Googled “difficult yoga poses” just so I would have a phrase like that to keep your attention. It looks really hard, by the way). But surely to understand this parable, and to discern its relevance to our lives today, we need to think about the “talents” that are the subject of this parable as more than just money.
So let’s think about “talents” in our lives not as money but rather as gifts we’ve been given: the capacity to learn languages, the ability to conceptualize abstract ideas and thoughts, the gift of expression in writing, or speaking, or dance, or the visual arts. Analytical powers. Musical ability. Athletic prowess. The capacity imaginatively to identify with others, to understand them, to put them at ease. I could go on, but you know what I mean. We all have gifts. We didn’t earn them. You don’t earn gifts. They’re innate. They’re God-given. And — this is the point of the Parable — they are not given to us to use only for ourselves. Even though they aren’t monetized, as in the Parable, we are nevertheless expected to return these gifts we’ve been given — the capital that has been invested in us — with interest.
Now, we could be like the third slave in the Parable and regard this as a threat. “Oh no, if I invest my gifts unwisely, I’ll return less than I was given, and that would be bad. To avoid that, I’ll be cautious, defensive, expose myself as little as possible, fly under the radar, and hope nothing bad happens. I’ll plant it in the ground.” The problem with that approach, of course, is that sitting in the Library — for example — and completing a reading assignment and then going to class and sitting quietly until class is over while discussion about the assignment swirls around the room doesn’t produce a return on investment. You won’t give the wrong answer, and nobody will disagree with you, but you — and everyone else in class —w ill leave only with what you came in with. The same thing is true for how you think about your role on a team, or in a music org, or a student org, or on your corridor, or on a service project in the community, or in a discussion about politics or big issues facing our country. To quote a famous line from King Lear, “Nothing will come of nothing.”
Another approach, the one recommended in this Parable and in my Chapel talk today, is to think of college as a place to invest your capital. You came to St. Olaf with gifts and abilities, passions and aspirations, commitments and values. Think of them as the five talents given to that first slave in this Parable. What can you do while at St. Olaf to double your money? What are the opportunities to grow your gifts and abilities or to discover new ones? Where are the places where you can confirm and regulate your passions and aspirations? What can you do, in addition to being active in the Chapel program, to fully explore and articulate your commitments and values? And how, in every case, can you share your capital and your investment earnings with everyone else engaged in the same work?
College isn’t an end in itself. It’s a means to prepare you for what comes afterwards: life in community with others as a family member; an employee or employer; a citizen of a town, a state, and a country; a person of faith and a witness to God’s love. College prepares you to be successful, to lead an independent, fulfilled life, to be engaged with your communities. So the idea of a return on investment extends far beyond your four years here.
At the end of every fiscal year St. Olaf prepares its financial statements and presents them to independent auditors who verify that we have accurately presented the state of our fiscal affairs. Auditing is a good thing. It requires you to look with clear eyes at yourself, to understand your situation objectively, and to report it publicly. As we think about our gifts, our lives, and this Parable that encourages us to double our money, perhaps it makes sense for each of us to do an internal audit. What have I been given? What are my talents? Did I bury them in the ground or did I put them to work? What impact have I made with those talents?
At the beginning of this meditation I offered an Executive Summary: “Double Your Money.” I hope that by now that unusual opening to a Chapel Talk makes sense in light of today’s lesson. This profound Parable invites us to grow in knowledge and ability, to grow in faith, and to grow in the use of our talents to serve others. So at the beginning of this academic year, when most of the assignments for class are still unread, most of the problem sets unsolved, the pieces not yet played or sung, the games not over, when the Word document that will become your first paper is still blank — at this time of new beginnings I encourage you to reflect on your gifts, to be thankful for them, and to think of each one as an investment opportunity. Double Your Money.