A grandfather said to his grandson, pick up a stone and take it to the marketplace. If anyone asks you the price, don’t say anything. Just hold up two fingers. So, the boy did as he was instructed, and wouldn’t you know it, a woman came up to him and asked if his rock was for sale. He shook his head ‘yes’ but said nothing. “How much is it?” she inquired. And still, he said nothing but help up two fingers. “two dollars!” she exclaimed, “I’ll take it! It’ll be perfect in my garden.” The boy ran home to his grandfather and told him what happened. “Go and get another rock,” said the grandfather, “and take it to the jeweler and again, don’t say a word. If he asks, ‘how much,’ hold up two fingers.” So, the boy went to the jeweler and silently showed him the rock. “What a beautiful and precious stone,” he exclaimed, “I must have it in my shop, how much do you want for it?” The boy silently held up two fingers. “Two hundred dollars! I’ll take it!” The ran home a told his grandfather what had happened. “Go and get one final rock,” said the old man, “and this time take it to the museum. And do the same as before.” So, the boy went to the museum and to his delight the curator was overjoyed by his rock. “This is a very rare stone,” the curator said, “I must have it in our collection. How much do you want for it?” and again, the boy said nothing, but held up two fingers. “It’s a deal,” exclaimed the curator, “$200,000 dollars it is!” Now, the boy was beside himself and ran home to share the amazing news with his grandfather. “The money is great,” said the old man, “but do you understand the lesson here? The worth of something is determined by where it is placed. The same stone was more valuable in the museum than it was in the marketplace. The same is true of your life. If you surround yourself with good people, behave in in constructive ways, and keep a positive attitude, chances are you will be, to others, and most importantly, to yourself, a more valuable person.”[i]
Now, like the story of the valuable stone, what we have before us today is a parable. The Parable of the Talents. Now, parable was a common teaching tool of the time and one that Jesus often used effectively. But we must be careful with parables. They’re not actual, literal stories about real people. No one paid $200,000 for a rock. Instead, parables are stories created by the teller to convey a deeper meaning. The teller of the parable of the valuable stone wanted his grandson to choose his friends wisely. But here’s the thing, we finally don’t know what message the grandson may have heard. Parables, by nature, come with many layers and many facets of meaning. They’re stories that can be heard in different ways depending upon the setting or the worldview of the hearers. And the same can be said about the Parable of the Talents as it has been told and retold across the centuries.
Now, the most common way of interpreting this parable in our day is as an invitation; an invitation to stewardship. It’s an invitation to be generous, especially in our giving to the church, by using our “talents.” And if we use them well, if we take seriously the great responsibility God has place upon us to use our time, talent, and treasure to the glory of God, then good things happen. Using our God given talents will bring amazing growth in us, as well as in the Reign of God. But if we bury them, leave them unexercised, we’ll end up out in the cold.[ii]
And this view makes sense. If we put this teaching into its historical context we find that a “talent” was an incredible fortune—the equivalent of ten to twenty years’ wages. So, the characters in this story weren’t dealing with a trivial amount of money, they were given a great responsibility. As a matter of fact, I read an interpretation this week that says this story should be called “The Parable of the Fortune Funds.” Because in the author’s estimation this parable is finally about investing profits and gaining commissions! It’s about earning rewards.[iii]
But is this really the nature of God? Does the Parable of the Talents boil down dollars and cents for the treasury? As Jesus nears the end of his earthly life, would he really be urging his disciples to invest their money well? Probably not. So, logic dictates that there must be “something more”[iv] going on here; some deeper message for us to hear today? And that “something more” I would contend is grace. Specifically, prevenient grace.
So, what is prevenient grace and what in the world does it have to the parable of the talents? Well, let’s start with prevenient grace. Prevenient grace refers to the grace of God in a person’s life that precedes a human decision. In other words, it’s when God shows love to an individual without any consideration of the good or bad things she or he may have done. And furthermore, prevenient grace allows a person to engage their God-given freewill to choose the liberation offered by God in Jesus Christ. Simply put, the grace of God is demonstrated by God’s unconditional love for all people. Prevenient grace is the vehicle that brings this unconditional love to us. All we need to do is accept it. And once we’ve accepted it, Jesus encourages us to share it.
It’s kind of like being invited to a birthday party. Prevenient grace is like the invitation that comes in the mail. It’s not the party itself, rather it’s the vehicle through which you are being offered the opportunity to join the party. God’s grace would be the party itself. Now, you have the option to go to the party or decline. Freewill allows you to be the one who makes the decision.
Author Marilynne Robinson expands upon this thought when she says, “Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave–that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous.”[v]
I like that. I like it because she’s saying that there must be a divine courage that precedes bravery so that we can find the nerve to begin to use our God given “talents.” And she concludes that it’s this bravery allows us to be generous. Interesting. This deeper understanding, this “something more,” doesn’t discount the traditional interpretation of this parable, rather it enhances it! It allows us to view stewardship from a bolder and broader perspective. Yes, stewardship is about using our “talents” to give back to God; including our financial resources. But stewardship is also about having the courage to respond to God’s prevenient grace by accepting God’s love, internalizing it, and then sharing it.
So, how do we do that? How do we act upon this grace that’s been given to us? How do we share the “precious things that have been put into our hands?” Well, that’s something we all must figure out for ourselves, because each one of us are uniquely created by God with individual gifts and graces and blessings.
We do, however, have an example to consider: Jesus. “Jesus spent his life and ministry proclaiming the present Reign of God, feeding the hungry, healing and sick and the mentally ill, offering forgiveness, and welcoming ALL people, from all stations in life, from all religious backgrounds and nations, with a variety of skin tones and languages and lifestyles to “come and follow him.” Jesus professed a message of justice and equality and peace, and for that message he was executed.”[vi]
My friends, this pouring out of love from the cross took place because Christ wants us to know about and accept the unconditional love of God and share it. And just in case we’ve missed or underestimated the power of that message, the resurrection of Jesus serves a reminder that life is stronger than death and that love is more powerful than hate.
So, as you leave here today and go about your life, my hope and prayer is that you will take very seriously this parable of grace, and reach out beyond yourself, using the talents, the blessings, the extravagant opportunities given to you to touch the life of someone in need. That’s finally the invitation of prevenient grace and the core of Christ’s message of love. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
[i] This parable comes for native Alaskan wisdom, I am reciting it from memory.
[ii] Kathern Matthews. Investing What is Offered (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2017
[iii] Alan Brehm Merit Badges (www.thewakingdreamerblogspot.com) 2011
[iv] Ibid. Matthews.