Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

As of next month, it will be thirty years ago that the film Wall Street was released in theaters across the country—entitled, Wall Street. The storyline goes like this:

[In New York,] an ambitious young [stock]broker is lured into the illegal, lucrative world of corporate espionage when he is seduced by the power, status, and financial wizardry of [the fictional character] Gordon Gekko. But he soon discovers that the pursuit of overnight riches comes at a price too high to pay.[i]

 The best known quote of the movie comes from the insider trader, Gordon Gekko, who is addressing the shareholders of a company he is about to take over. He sums up his speech with these words: “Greed is good.”[ii]

 I bring up this film because it reminds me of some of today’s parable, a connection that may surprise you. But let me explain. The master in the story, let’s call him the investor, is an extremely wealthy man—because, in Jesus’ day, a talent was a great sum of money, the equivalent of 15 “to 20 years’ wages of an average worker. That means that five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, let’s call them his stockbrokers, is comparable to 100 years’ worth of labor…!”[iii] In other words, the investor is giving each of them a fortune,

Before leaving on an extended trip.

At this point, the parable already has at least one problem: The job of the stockbrokers is, of course, to make as much of a profit as they can. But in the financial world, we know that there tend to be two groups, namely, winners and losers. There are times, of course, when a business venture creates new wealth, and then maybe everyone comes out ahead. But usually that’s not the case. So, if the parable is an allegory, that is, if the servants represent those who follow Jesus—if they are Christians—then what they’re doing is helpful to some, but harmful to others. And that’s not how we often imagine Christians practicing their faithful.

In the parable, an even larger disconnect is the figure of the investor, the master—whom we usually identify as Jesus. When—at the end of the age—he returns to the world, we may, in fact, think of him like a judge of sorts, but certainly not like the master in the parable. That’s why the third servant does not invest the money at all because he fears 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…went and hid your talent…” (Matthew 25:24b-25a)The master then confirms what the servant has just said about him, in the end punishing him by throwing “him into the outer darkness”—a clear reference to the torment of hell.

Is this the kind of Jesus that we know? That we love? Actually, for some people it is—at least the Jesus who returns on Judgment Day. It’s like a bumper sticker I once saw. (And, by the way, I love reading bumper stickers!)  Well, this one said: “Jesus is coming back, and is he ever mad!”

But the Son of God—the Savior whom we know—isn’t anything like the parable’s master. In other parts of the gospels, he doesn’t treat his disciples like this when they feel fearful. Instead, he encourages them; he reassures them. For example: After Jesus first meets Peter and his brother, telling them to go out into the water to cast out their nets and they catch so many fish that the boat begins to sink, back on the shore Peter falls down at his feet, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” And Jesus replies: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Luke 5:1-11).

The image of Jesus as a cruel and demanding master and, to a lesser extent, the first two servants perhaps making money  at the expense of others—tell us that the parable as an allegory, or as a perfect allegory, is a bit of a stretch. What we need to do is interpret it in a somewhat different way. We need to see what’s at the heart of it. And that is that Jesus entrusts us with great gifts, calling us in our time on earth to then use them to the best of our individual abilities. It’s as Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness” (Romans 12:6-8).

The real virtue and the real vice in the parable—if that’s what we want to call them—are, on the one hand, the trust of the risk-taking servants and, on the other, the “fear” of the third servant. Now calling fear a vice or a sin—like other things we’ve considered—may seem to be a problem, may seem to be unfair. But, depending on the context, it does make sense. The same with risk-taking. We sometimes think of it as rash, even dangerous. But again, the context can make all the difference. When fear is more like “an abundance of caution,” as we sometimes call it, then we think of it as a virtue. And it is. It’s only when it rises to a high enough level that it can become a kind of sin.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the great or intense fear that some people suffer from is not at all of their own making. Many have undergone in their lives some kind of trauma. Whether it’s an accident resulting in a permanent disability, or chronic health problems due to a major illness, or a form of abuse—especially a child—a good amount of fear is grounded in reality. And to act in spite of such fear is no easy thing. It’s something that depends on trust—both in God and in others. And again, for many that’s no easy thing.

Martin Luther has a special name for the risk-taking of Christians. He calls it “bold sinning.” That means acting in spite of our fear or doubt—not being sure that the consequences will turn out well, that what we do will be a so-called successful act of love on behalf of our neighbor. (See Romans 5:20-6:1).In so many words, Luther says that, in the freedom Christ has given to believers, we are better able to help our neighbors in need, that is, love them. We can do that even in times, in situations when it may not be clear just how to go about it. For if we make a mistake—which we will at some point—God will forgive us. For God’s grace is stronger than anything we might do that will end up as the wrong thing.

As Carl Braaten, longtime professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, preached a few years ago:

Luther once “wrote a letter to his friend, Philip Melanchthon, who was worrying about a dilemma: If he did what he felt he had to do, he [was afraid] he [might] be committing a sin, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it. Then Luther said to [him],…‘Sin boldly!’ Go ahead and do what you have to do, and then he added these words of qualification:

‘…believe in Christ even more boldly still, for he…is victorious over sin, death, and the world.’ Luther was assuring Melanchthon that X did not die for [imaginary] sinners, but for real [ones].[iv]

So it is that God’s love sets us free from being afraid—free from fear of failure, of disapproval, of punishment. In Christ’s name, we are free to take risks, that is, calculated or measurable risks. If we fall flat on our faces, that’s okay. We get back up, learn from our mistakes, and try again. That’s part of what trusting God is all about. To take that step, to make that effort, not knowing whether we will be successful. It’s the faith that God bestows on us that will see us through. As Jesus says: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6).Knowing that God loves us—no matter what—can give us the strength, the power to be like the first two servants—taking the risk use the talents given them.

It’s like this: As a boy, I played for two years on a Little League team. The first year we came in fourth, out of a total of eight teams. Not too bad. The second year I thought we might do better. Not to happen. That season we came in seventh place. Since the name of our team was the Cubs—as in Chicago Cubs—I should have had that figured out. Well, one of my teammates, Tim—whenever he stood up to bat, he would just stand there. No matter what pitches came his way, he would never swing. So, either he’d strike out, or he’d get a walk. Any way you look at it, he had a zero batting average. Then, one inning of one game, when he got up to the plate, and a pitch was thrown, low and behold, he swung at the ball! He actually swung at it! And not only that, but he also hit it! And not only that, but he got to first base! On the bench in the dugout, the rest of us just sat dumbfounded—our eyes wide open and our jaws dropping almost to the ground. Whatever possessed him, whatever moved him, I’ll tell you what—the rest of us were inspired. And even if he had missed that ball, we would still have been just as surprised—and proud of him

When it is our desire, our wish to do good among others—those who are our neighbors and who need our help—we hope to be successful, we hope to do a good job, we hope to do the right thing. Once more, unlike the third servant in the parable, we need not fear our master. God’s love is so great we can fail over and over again and will still be forgiven. Now, we might drive crazy those who are around us, but God will understand. God will increase our faith, helping us learn better how to use our gifts. So if we end up sinning, at least it will be sinning boldly.

 

[i] “Wall Street,” in Wikipedia.

 

[ii] Michael Douglas, who played the role of Gekko, won an Academy Award for Best Actor.The part he plays was actually a composite of several real-life figures of that period, at least two of whom went to prison a couple of years after the movie came out.[ii][ii]

[iii] Carla Works, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching/aspx?commentary_id=1018.

 

[iv] Carl E. Braaten, “A Reformation Sermon,” October 19, 2010, entitled, “Shadows of the Cross,” in Lutheran Theology: An Online Journal. The Luther quotation comes from the American Edition of Luther’s Works (Philadelphia and St. Louis, 1955-): 281-82. Also see Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976: 138-39.