The parable of the talents is one of the best known of all Jesus’ teachings. Its point is virtually impossible to miss. The master entrusted his servants with talents (a significant amount of money in the ancient world – one talent was the rough equivalent of 15 years wages for the average worker). The servant who received five talents was wise; he invested his talents and doubled their value. The servant who buried his talent in the ground was foolish, and thereby lost what little he had. Lots of lessons here:
— be good stewards of your ability – use it or lose it;
— don’t be afraid to try;
— never say, “I have so little, my contribution won’t matter;
— people may not be equal in talent but they can surely be equal in effort.
You can probably think of a few others you have heard. Regardless of the lesson though, the point is always obvious – those who follow Jesus are to be like unto the wise, five-talent servant and not like the one-talent dummy. Case closed.
OK. But there is one aspect of this story that troubles me if we close the case so quickly. What about the one in the middle, the two-talent guy? Is he superfluous? For that matter, were any of the characters in Jesus’ stories superfluous? I do not think so. Yes, there was the wise, multi-talented servant as an example of excellent stewardship and a foolish, single-talented servant as an example of poor stewardship. But also this one in the middle, a person with a lot less than the “super,” five-talent servant but one with a lot more than the hapless, one-talent servant. In my humble opinion, the one in the middle, is there for an important purpose.
Let us check him out. What do we know about the two-talent servant? Well, obviously he is somewhere in between the two others in terms of the master’s faith in his abilities. He has been entrusted with two talents – twice as much as the foolish servant. But he is only entrusted with two, which is just 40 percent as much as the wise, five-talent guy. Perhaps the master thought the one in the middle had some potential, but he was not considered likely to be a standout performer.
And what did the two-talent servant do with his two talents? He doubled them, and wound up returning four talents to the boss. His performance was, proportionately, on a par with that of the five-talent servant. He did just as well as the shining-star example in the parable.
Frankly, although the parable does not say it, I suspect that the master was at least somewhat surprised when he received the four talents from the servant in the middle. We can assume that the master was astute – that is why he is the master in the story. He probably expected the excellent performance from the five-talent servant. He also probably expected worthless performance from the one-talent servant although he had deliberately entrusted the man with a talent in order to give him an opportunity to prove himself otherwise. But the two-talent servant’s performance was better than expected. If he had brought back, say three talents, that would have been a predictable, good showing for him. But performing at the same level as the top guy – now that was something! When the master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant…” to the one in the middle, I suspect his congratulation was just a little louder and just a little heartier than his comments to the other two. (1)
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Most of us are two-talent servants. We are not fools, idiots, wastrels of the riches of God. We realize that God has entrusted us with a great deal, so we are not going to foolishly hide, and completely fail to utilize what God has given into our care. On the other hand we are not superstars of the faith. Few of us are going to become Saint Pauls or Martin Luthers, or Mother Teresas. We are not likely to conduct crusades where millions are saved nor build cathedrals to God’s glory, nor offer our lives up in martyrdom on some foreign field for Christ.
Somewhere smack in between the heights and depths is where most of us live – and the good news is, that is exactly where we can faithfully serve God. Not only can we serve, but we can serve well. Proportionately, we can utilize what has been entrusted to us just as effectively as the crusade conductors, the cathedral builders, the martyrs.
Starting is the first step to succeeding. We cannot be afraid of failure. I am a baseball junkie so, while watching Alex Rodriguez hit his 500th career home run yesterday and Barry Bonds hit #755 to tie Hank Aaron yesterday, I can bring you this also: in 1915 Ty Cobb set the record for stolen bases, 96. Seven years later, Max Carey of the Pittsburgh Pirates became second best with 51 stolen bases. Does this mean that Cobb was twice as good as Carey, his closest rival?
Look at the facts: Cobb made 134 attempts, Carey, 53. Cobb failed 38 times; Carey only failed twice. Cobb succeeded 96 times, Carey only 51 times. Cobb’s average was only 71 percent. Carey’s average was 96 percent. Carey’s average was much better than Cobb’s. Cobb tried 81 more times than Carey. But here is the key: His 81 additional tries produced 44 more stolen bases. Cobb risked failure 81 more times in one season than his closest rival and Cobb goes down in history as the greatest base runner of all time. Why? Because he tried. (2)
Last weekend, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. Joined Ty Cobb in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Tony was an eight-time National League batting champion and Cal, even though he had over 3,000 hits, including 431 home runs, was a two-time American League MVP and a 19-time All-Star, Ripken will always be known for his ironman streak of playing in 2,632 consecutive games. In his induction speech Cal said, “I always looked at it as just showing up for work every day. As I look out on this audience, I see thousands of people who do the same, teachers, police officers, mothers, fathers, business people and many others. You all may not receive the accolades that I have throughout my career, but I would like to take the time to salute all of you for showing up, working hard, and making the world a better place.” (3)
Yesterday, President Bush, in his weekly radio address, reflected on the events surrounding the horrific bridge collapse in Minneapolis this week. He said,
“In times of tragedy, our hearts ache for those who suffer, yet our hearts are also lifted by acts of courage and compassion. We saw those qualities in the residents of a nearby apartment building who rushed to the scene to offer their help. We saw them in the divers who fought the mighty currents of the Mississippi to reach victims. And we saw them in the firefighters who searched car to car for survivors.”
Among the survivors was a group of kids returning from a summer field trip. Their school bus had just passed over the Mississippi River, when the bridge below them gave way. The bus dropped more than 20 feet and came to rest on the guardrail of the collapsed bridge span. A staff member named Jeremy Hernandez quickly swung into action. He broke open the backdoor and helped evacuate the terrified children to safety. The mother of one of the children on board credited Jeremy’s presence of mind with helping spare her daughter from tragedy. She put it this way: “I don’t know what he was thinking but it must have been something really good.”
Indeed. Good for him.
The one in the middle – the faithful servant who does the best he or she possibly can in whatever circumstances and with what has been given – the one who tries. And the result is pleasing, perhaps even surprisingly pleasing, to the Master. As “the ones in the middle” for Jesus Christ today, let us come to his table now for nourishment for the task.
1. David Z. Ring, “The One in the Middle,” Clergy Journal for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/21/93 (and the inspiration for this entire sermon)
2. John C. Maxwell, Be All You Can Be (Victor, 1987), p. 139
3. Associated Press, “Thousands turn out to see Ripken, Gwynn inducted into Hall,” 7/29/07
— Copyright 2007, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.