According to one online dictionary, responsibility is defined as "a duty or obligation to satisfactorily perform or complete a task (assigned by someone, or created by one's own promise or circumstances) that one must fulfill, and which has a consequent penalty for failure."[i]
Responsibility. I don't know about you, but growing up I had some fairly unpleasant associations with that word. I was responsible for taking the garbage out. I was responsible for walking the dog and cleaning up after him. I was responsible for weeding the flower beds and completing all homework assignments in a timely manner. None of these duties exactly inspired joy or enthusiasm in me. Responsibility became, I suppose, something I would rather not have had.
Maybe I'm not alone. May be that's why we modern church folk don't stress responsibility much. We tend to emphasize other reasons for pursuing a life of faith. Following Jesus is not really about any onerous duty, we are likely to tell ourselves. Instead, it will give us peace. It will instill a lasting hope in us. It will heal and nurture and save and comfort. It will benefit us.
But then we come to the lectionary text assigned for us today from Matthew's gospel, and we run smack into my old nemesis, responsibility. At least, I can't read the Parable of the Talents without recognizing that taking responsibility is a big component of what Jesus is trying to teach us.
This parable is told as part of a long teaching sequence reportedly occurring near the end of Jesus' life. A plot to silence him is already underway. The intensity and urgency of his teaching now seems to increase. It's almost as if Jesus is summing up. He alludes to his impending departure from this world and he cautions readiness in his followers. He advocates alertness and engagement in seeing that his work is carried out in his absence. He tells this parable.
Jesus describes a Master who, as he is about to go away on a journey, summons his three servants, entrusting each with a portion of his assets. To one servant the Master gives five talents, to another he gives two talents, and to the third servant he gives just one talent.
Talents were considerable sums of money. A talent was equivalent to around fifteen years' worth of wages. I like to envision the first crowds gathered to hear Jesus teach - perhaps simple fishermen, herders, peasants - listening to this parable and imagining themselves taking responsibility for such vast sums.
As Jesus tells the parable, the servant given five talents invests and doubles his assets, as does the servant who receives two. Both took significant risks, both were aggressive. When the Master returned, both were praised, given even more responsibility, promoted, and invited to share the joy of the master.
But the third servant has a different story to tell. You see, he was a cautious, prudent fellow. He has observed that the Master is a tough businessman and will not be pleased if the principle is lost. So, the third servant digs a hole and buries the money in the ground, which was, in fact, a perfectly reasonable thing to do if he did not wish to be liable for any loss. When the Master returns and this servant is called upon to give an account of himself, he says smugly that he is able to return to the Master exactly what was entrusted to him. He can account for it down to the last penny.
Now, maybe he's expecting that the Master will be pleased that he neither squandered nor risked the Master's principle. True, no great gain was achieved, but no harm was done, right? The cautious servant must be assuming that the Master will invite him to join his fellow servants in entering into the joy of the Master.
But here comes the twist in the story that must have stunned Jesus' listeners. Jesus tells them that this prudent, judicious, sensible, practical, careful, cautious man was treated very harshly by the Master. Not only was his single talent taken from him and given to the other successful investors, but on top of that, instead of getting his invitation to the big party, he is unceremoniously thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now there is a twist you wouldn't have expected, would you? Just because he was practical and sensible, he's tossed into darkness? Just because he was cautious and careful, he's thrown out to weep? Just because he was fearful of failure, he's consigned to the corner reserved for teeth-gnashers? Who saw that coming?
What's Jesus trying to say? Could it be Jesus' way of saying to his disciples, as he anticipates the clash with authorities that will lead to this death, that he plans to go, having entrusted them with his treasure? Could it be his way of telling them that if they bury his message of God's loving kingdom, that he'll be very disappointed in them? Could he be declaring that if they have the confidence, the courage, the trust in themselves that he has in them, then they'll take the wealth of his love, his compassion, his goodness, his righteousness, and they'll take that wealth into the world to let it multiply?
This isn't primarily a parable of financial acumen, after all. It's a parable of faith acumen. Have we been given the treasure of faith? If we have it, we will invest it, not hiding the best of what we have, not being prudent or cautious, not seeking our safety and security above all else. We will demonstrate proper management of the treasure of our faith by taking risks for the sake of spreading and multiplying the good news of God's love.
Philip Hallie was a professor, philosopher, author, and a sincere student of good and evil. Having studied the worst of Nazi cruelty in all its twisted and horrific dimensions, he turned his attention to radical good. While granting that there is, among many of us, indifference to the hardship and the pain of others, there is also, as Hallie recorded in his book Tales of Good and Evil, the capacity for astonishing self-giving, risk-taking, and rescue-making by some.[ii] What makes them capable of this? Why do some step forward to engage danger on behalf of others, even at enormous personal risk? What fuels the courageous moral passion of these world changers?
Consider Rev. Andre Trocme and his wife Magda, French Protestants who lived in a tiny mountain village called Le Chambon during the Second World War. Along with their fellow townsfolk, they provided refuge and, when possible, escape from the Nazis for Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution. Although the Trocmes and other villagers who shared in this rescue operation were under surveillance, they quietly continued their efforts throughout the war. Ultimately, their investment of personal risk and gospel love yielded an enormous reward. Between 1940 and 1944, the villagers of Le Chambon saved the lives of more than three thousand five hundred Jews, most of whom were children, as well as fifteen hundred others fleeing persecution.
Years later, Magda Trocme was interviewed by those who found it hard to fathom such courage, such risk. She said this about her choices: "Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances where you will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision on your own, not about other people but about yourself. I would not say more."[iii]
What a fascinating review of a life-changing, life-saving undertaking. Magda Trocme insists the rescue operation in Le Chambon was not about the people they were trying to save, only. It was also about the rescuers themselves. They each had a decision to make. Who would they be? Would they be passive, cautious, self-protective, fearful? Or would they be enactors of Christ's message of compassion and love - no matter the risk? The villagers of Le Chambon chose the risk. As Christ's people, that was their responsibility. As Magda Trocme concludes, what more is there to say?
Still, it has to make you wonder...must such risky responsibility-taking be a component of faithful living? I suppose we are not all taught to believe that. Some of us have been led to think that faithfulness and being a good Christian simply amounts to avoiding what is immoral or sinful, heeding all the prohibitions and negative rules like "Don't do this," "Don't do that." But when you think a bit about how Jesus teaches those who will take up his cross and follow his path, there isn't so very much said about what not to do. Instead, Jesus has a great deal to say about what must be done in his name: Take my yoke. Follow me. Ask, seek, knock. Feed my sheep. Watch and pray. Let your light shine. Love one another.
When you think of the lives that have mattered by making a difference for you, or for others, aren't they lives that have risked taking these instructions of Jesus seriously, perhaps at some cost to themselves? Aren't they people who have responsibly worked to fulfill the most significant and meaningful tasks they could?
I remember a line I once read from Gian Carlo Menotti that said, "Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do."[iv]
There can be a hellishness to regret akin to darkness and teeth gnashing. Maybe you've experienced the harsh regret of lost opportunity, of wasted gifts. Avoiding that regret ought to have us asking ourselves again and again: Do I love deeply enough? Care passionately enough? Give generously enough? Risk greatly enough?
Yet sometimes I look around at our deeply troubled world, our divisions and our distrust and our discouragement, and I'm inclined to think my feeble efforts at resolving things aren't going to matter much in the whole scheme of things. Even if I had the parable's equivalent of five talents-full of faithfulness, who am I to suppose my investment of them in the world around me will change anything? Ever find yourself thinking that? Ever think that you'd like some guarantees before you took the risk to care or spent the effort to make a difference?
When we entertain that kind of pessimism, it helps to remember that the message of Jesus, and his love, his compassion, his trust in God's dawning realm, isn't something that actually belongs to us. Like the servants in the parable, we've not been entrusted with the gospel as if it is a personal treasure we can hoard. It's only given to us that we might take the responsibility to invest it.
Back in 1876, Johanna (a little girl of ten) was placed in an almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Johanna's mother had died, and not long afterward, her abusive father deserted the family. Johanna was wild and ungovernable, and she was nearly blind from a childhood eye infection. Her poor vision made reading impossible, limiting her formal education. In the almshouse, she learned lessons in self-sufficiency but little else. There would appear to have been little hope for this girl.
However, after a few years, a young woman named Maggie came to the almshouse. Maggie took an interest in Johanna and took her under her wing. Maggie "moved in the blackness of the almshouse like sunlight."[v] Maggie grew flowers in her room. Maggie protected Johanna and the other vulnerable little girls. Maggie taught Johanna that while she was not responsible for having been left in the almshouse, she was responsible for the state of her spirit, wherever she was. Maggie was a young woman of devoted faith.
Eventually, Johanna learned about the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and convinced the almshouse overseers to send her there. She enrolled in 1880, and though her rough manners made the going tough at first, she persevered and graduated in 1886, as valedictorian of her class.
After graduation, the director of Perkins School recommended Johanna, who was usually known by her nickname, Anne, for her first job. It would be quite a challenge. She was sent to Tuscumbia, Alabama to be teacher and governess to a seven-year-old blind and deaf girl named Helen Keller.
This newly certified teacher, Anne Sullivan, knew about blindness, anger, and fear through the hardships of her life. But she also knew about grace and redemption and the responsibility to live faithfully because of the love of Maggie Hogan who made the grim reality of an almshouse life bearable and even hopeful for children.
And so, Anne Sullivan began opening a new world to Helen Keller, who eventually authored twelve books, was a leader in the women's suffrage movement, and was one of the first advocates for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Now, most of us know something about the remarkable achievements of Helen Keller. And most of us know the story of her life-long, devoted friend and teacher, Anne Sullivan. But how many of us knew about Maggie Hogan?
Yet, it is almost certainly true that without the simple, faithful, devotion of Maggie Hogan, invested with patience and trust in almshouse orphans, neither Anne Sullivan nor Helen Keller could have known the lives they did and achieved the remarkable things they did.
It might not have appeared that Maggie had been given much to invest. But that's hard to judge, isn't it?
What have you got to invest in God's world and among God's precious people? If you have a secret stash of talents buried in your backyard today, dig them up, spread them around. Try investing them wherever you spot an opportunity. Use every ounce of what God has invested in you and make it matter.
And what will be the outcome when we take on such investment opportunities? We never know. Others' lives may be impacted in ways we never foresaw or could have predicted. But there is, according to this parable, a reliable result for us, as investors. The outcome for us is joy - an invitation to know the extraordinary, divine joy of our Master.
Investing for God's sake, in God's people... Isn't that a responsibility we can be honored to take on and enthusiastic to undertake?
What more is there to say!? Amen.
[iii] Carol Tittner and Sondra Myers, The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 107.
[v] Kim Nielson, Beyond the Miracle worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller (Boston: Beacon Press, c. 2009), 22.