Beyond Judging Doug: a mini-sermon on the parable of the talents

I had another chance to give an eight minute mini-sermon at (online) church this past Sunday. The text is below if you’re interested, or feel free to watch the video here. My part starts around 39:57. Esther Lee before me (starting around 33:43) and Michael Won after me (starting around 48:44) both have great things to say―it could be worth listening to all three perspectives on the parable if you have time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. What did you find interesting or helpful in the sermon? What questions does it raise? How do you make sense of this gnarly parable in your own life and community?

The Bible text is Matthew 25:14-30. Jesus is talking to his disciples here. Here’s the NIV translation of it:

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26 His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.28 So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Here’s the mini-sermon:

One of the things that’s kind of awesome about Jesus’ parables, and sometimes kind of confusing, is that they can be considered from so many different angles. We can find ourselves in different places in the story. We can read the same story at different times in our lives and find that we ask different questions of it, and it asks different questions of us. 

This morning, as we consider this parable, I want to explore the story from a particular angle: the perspective of the servant who was given just one bag of money. And, because “the servant who was given just one bag of money” is kind of a mouthful, I’m just going to call him Doug. (Because he went and dug a hole.) Let’s think about this parable from the perspective of Doug. 

So, we’ve got this rich dude, who has all these money bags lying around―you know, relatable―and he goes on a journey. Before he leaves, he entrusts a bunch of his money to three of his servants. I’m going to call the rich dude a “lord,” because that’s the language of the text.

The text doesn’t tell us where our friend Doug is while his lord is giving five bags of money to one servant and two bags of money to another servant. But I imagine them being all together in the same room. 

The lord speaks to each servant in turn, in full sight of the others, and says, “here, you take five bags of money.” Then, “here’s two bags of money for you.” Then, finally, turning to Doug: “here, take one bag of money.”

Maybe the lord even says out loud what the text says he’s thinking: “I’m entrusting money to you according to your ability.” In other words, this is what I think of you, what I think you’re capable of. This is how competent I think you are.

This is a short part of the story, but I feel like there’s a lot going on here. What would it be like to have the person you’ve worked for, maybe for a long time, say, basically, this is what I think of you? I think you have, maybe, one fifth of the ability of this coworker, and, mm, about half the ability of this other one.

It can be easy to judge Doug―to join his lord in saying, as he says later on, you wicked and lazy servant. But I also kind of empathize with Doug. I can see how he might think, well, my lord clearly doesn’t think much of my abilities. I don’t want to prove him right by taking risks with his money and maybe losing it all. I’d better not make any mistakes. I’d better just make sure he gets his money when he comes back. 

Don’t we sometimes live up to―or down to―others’ expectations of us? 

I can also see Doug looking around and comparing what he has to what the other two servants have. I can see him thinking: I’ve got nothing. I have nothing to work with here. What does he expect me to do?

The thing we can see easily, from outside the story, is that a money bag, or in some translations a “talent,” is, in fact, a lot of money. Scholars estimate that in this context it was equal to around six thousand denarii―a denarius being the average daily wage of a worker. 

So―if y’all don’t mind some quick math―if we take the Washington state minimum wage of $13.50/hour, and we assume an eight hour work day, a denarius would be $108. And one of the money bags in our story would be six thousand times that, so $648,000.

That’s a lot of money! Doug could have bought a house in some parts of Seattle. 

And yet, in these terms, one other servant was given $1.3 million, and the other, over $3 million. It would be easy for Doug to look around, and compare, and envy others who have more. 

But what if, instead, Doug was able to see past these things. To see the abundance of what he has been given. To dream of the possibilities of what he could do with it. 

Maybe he could have even dreamed together with the other two servants: what can we do with these collective resources we have? How could we put them to work to benefit our community? Maybe they could have put all their money bags together, and used all of their collective perspectives and skills and areas of expertise to decide together how to invest it. 

And maybe―especially if Doug really did in some way have “less ability” than the others―maybe the others could have seen that and offered to help. They could have said, Hey Doug. We have more experience managing money than you do. Would you like some help figuring out what to do with yours? Maybe we could eat dinner together tonight and we could brainstorm some ideas together.

This might sound a little over the top. But we talked about a similar thing with the bridesmaids from last Sunday, in the story Jesus tells right before this one―why didn’t the five prudent bridesmaids offer to share their extra oil with the five foolish ones? Are these three servants terribly different?

I also wonder, here, if Doug has considered this question: why did his lord choose to entrust his money to these servants while he went on his journey? Wouldn’t it have been safer to dig a hole in the ground himself, and hide all the money bags there? 

I wonder if he took this risk because he wanted to empower his servants by sharing what he had with them. Maybe he wanted to give them some significant resources to work with, and see what they could do. Maybe he wanted to see how his resources could be put to work for good in the community in ways he himself hadn’t thought of or hadn’t been able to do. 

I don’t think Doug was able to see these kinds of possibilities.

The text tells us that, instead of all these things that could have been, Doug departed. He goes off by himself, leaves the others, goes off to a place that only he knows about, digs a hole, and buries the money there―isolated from his fellow servants, or any sort of community.

Moving out of this story Jesus tells, and into our world today, we find ourselves still within the first two weeks after the US presidential election, and just over one week after the results were called. Many of us have been breathing a sigh of relief. Some have been dancing in the streets. Some might be skeptical or cautious, not quite ready to feel much of anything. Some might feel mournful about a lot of what we see in the news and where we’re at as a country.

Let’s continue to make space to feel any or all of these things, or however we might feel. And then, let’s get back to work. Let’s keep on putting what resources we have to work, for the good of our local communities, in all of their diversity and complexity and messiness and beauty. And there is plenty of good work still to do.

We might feel like Doug, with his one bag of money. We might look around and think, I don’t have much. Or, I don’t have what someone else has

Maybe in this time we’re being invited to resist these tendencies to look around and compare. To resist our tendencies to dig a hole in the ground and bury what we have―to make choices out of fear, or a scarcity mindset, or insecurities, or comparison, or isolation.

Maybe we’re invited instead to take stock of our resources, and to see that, collectively, we have resources in abundance: skills, and experiences, and abilities, and perspectives, and gifts, as well as material stuff. Let’s put it all to work―for healing and justice, in our communities and in our world.

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