Invest or Inter?

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To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

Hearing these words makes me shiver. These are times when many have lost what little they had, and those who had much lost as well, depending on where they had invested their wealth. In a global economy where poverty in many places still is deadly, and equal opportunity for all remains a challenge, hearing these words makes me shiver.

To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

These are words with authority, words printed in red, straight from the gospel – only Jesus is not making market predictions, he is not in the economic advice business. The words sound like a proverb, a morsel of insight distilled from decades of life experience, but that is not what they are.

Proverbs for investors come from people like Warren Buffett, who follows and recommends a simple rule: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.

Jesus, however, is talking about discipleship, and we know that he recommends neither fear nor greed as motivating factors for his followers.

Jesus tells us a story that involves enormous amounts of money, and he turns trading and investing into a parable about faithful living. A talent is a lot of money, about as much as a worker makes in a lifetime.

So this man, going on a journey, entrusts his entire property, everything he owns to his servants, to each according to his abilities. Two of them go off at once and start trading, while the third goes off, digs a hole in the ground, and hides his master’s money. Two of them double the entrusted funds – not a bad return on investment, and they both receive their master’s praise.

The spot light is on the third one, though, the one-talent servant. He admits that he was afraid and says, “Here you have what is yours.” The one-talent servant, out of fear, treated what was an investment as a safety deposit – he didn’t lose any of what he had been given, but he didn’t use it either.

Now let’s pretend for a moment a different kind of plot development; let’s say the other two invested everything in real estate, mortgage-backed securities, and U.S. automobile stocks.

Upon the master’s return one said, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; the markets were really doing great until August when the bottom fell out. Now there are only three talents left.” The second said, “Master, you handed over to me two talents, and I’m glad I lost only half of it.”

What did the master say to them? Your answer will depend on what kind of master you think he is. Is this someone who is looking for maximum return on his investment? Or can you imagine the master praising the two for taking risks and using what had been entrusted to them? Your answer will depend on what you think this investment parable is really about.

This is a story Jesus told his disciples after teaching them everything about discipleship and the kingdom. This is a story Jesus told his disciples just days before he was crucified. This is a story about us, what we have been given by our master, and what we do with it.

Our master is quite a risk-taker: he has entrusted to us all that he has. Together, we have been given everything that is the master’s, everything we need to proclaim God’s reign and live faithfully as servants of God. We have his teachings and his spirit, we have the power to forgive, and the promise of his presence. He has entrusted to us all that he has, and every servant has received a portion.

Not many of us will think of ourselves as five-talent or two-talent servants; we’re humble people, aren’t we? There’s a danger in being too humble, though: You think of yourself as just an ordinary one-talent disciple, and chances are that whenever God’s mission in the world calls for courageous and generous action, you’ll defer to what you consider the better-endowed disciples.
What you forget is that one talent is an enormous gift. It’s not your talent for cooking, or playing the piano, or remembering the names of everybody you’ve ever met – these are all gifts and abilities God has blessed you with. The talents in our story are everything Jesus gives us so we can participate in his mission in the world, and just one talent is a treasure that needs to be invested, not buried.

Jesus says, “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master” (Mt 10:25). It is enough for us to imitate him, to invest ourselves the way he did: words like generous, kind, and fearless come to mind, merciful and faithful. It is enough for us to recognize what we have been given and to make it our daily joy and work to invest it. The third servant in the parable did not recognize what he had been given, and he did not know his master:
“I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping 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.”

You have to wonder where on earth he got that impression – or could it be that he made it all up to justify his own inaction?

The master we know has scattered the seed of the kingdom with lavish extravagance. The teacher we follow in no way resembles this servant’s description. If there is one thing we know, it is that he is not harsh. He only reaps what has sprung up from the seeds he scattered throughout his life, seeds of grace and compassion, of truth and hope. He is the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, and he only gathers the abundance of fruit that gift has born (John 12:24).

Our master encourages us not to hold back when it comes to investing what we have been given, but to be generous and daring. He has entrusted the good news of the kingdom to us, not as a temporary responsibility that he will take back one day, but as a gift that is ours now and forever. His words, “Enter into the joy of your master” are his invitation to take that gift and to invest it without any fear of losing it – we cannot lose it by investing it.

  • An investment the size of a mustard seed grows into a tree, and the birds come and make nests in its branches (Mt 13:31).

  • A small investment of five loaves and two fish results in a feast for thousands (Mt 14:17).

I wonder if the one-talent servant in our story ever understood the economy of the kingdom, an economy that isn’t ruled by scarcity but by abundance. I wonder if he could think of giving only as losing, and consequently he nurtured only fear, rather than joy. He buried the gift in order to protect it, and ironically that was the only way to lose it.

I believe this is what Jesus has in mind when he teaches us, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25). He is not just talking about the rare circumstances where his followers will have to face violent persecution; he addresses the daily challenge of investing ourselves without fear in God’s mission: by forgiving someone when it seems much safer to bury that impulse; by beginning a difficult conversation when it seems so much safer to be quiet; by recognizing ourselves as Jesus’ trusted and talented friends rather than hiding behind timid humility.

Jesus encourages us to go off and trade as if each of us had been given at least five talents. We are free to invest with abandon because the kingdom treasury has unlimited resources.

I believe it was Nelson Mandela who said that our greatest fear is not that we might fail, but that we might be successful beyond imagining. Could it be that we’re afraid to use what we have been given out of fear that it might actually work? Could it be that we’re afraid the world around us might change in ways we cannot imagine, and our investment, Christ’s investment in us might actually double?

Jesus has given us everything we need to live with faith and courage, but there is a real possibility that we are ignoring his investment in us and keeping it safely underground.
Who knows, you may be a five-talent servant living and investing on a one-talent budget.

With this story Jesus encourages us to unearth the gift – but how do you that when you don’t remember where you’ve buried it?

You dig in promising places. At a recent workshop we identified three areas of spiritual attention for Elders, and I believe they provide a map of the promising places:

One: You turn outward with perhaps small but intentional gestures of hospitality and service – Room in the Inn offers many opportunities for that.

Two: You nurture your inner life with perhaps small but intentional and regular times of prayer, Bible study, and spiritual reading – just ten minutes a day can move a lot of dirt.

And three: You connect with others – you worship and work with others, you study and learn and play with fellow servants; you find the friends who will see what you overlook, and who will find in you a five-talent servant who is still unearthing the treasure of the kingdom.

Outward. Inward. Communal. It’s a map that covers the world. Now you all go and start digging – there’s a lot of hidden treasure.

Welcome to the wondrous economy of God’s reign.