The Importance of Risk

The Importance of Risk

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

November 13, 2005

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” –Matthew 25:29

I confess that I am fascinated by the difficult sayings of Jesus and I find this one especially gripping, because it seems to challenge the consensus that Jesus favors those who have not and tells those who have to give to them. In this saying, however, the message seems to be the reverse, “Take from those who have little so that they will have even less, and give to those who have much, so that they may have even more.
I find such paradoxes interesting because I believe they are the normal currency of spiritual wisdom. The points at which the realm of spirit impinges on our realm of ordinary logic are bound to be paradoxes because there we are trying to say the unsayable. As the divine is too great for our perception and interpretation to handle so the categories of our speaking about the divine are too small and what we try to say comes out as paradox. Now paradox is simply a fancy word for ‘surprise;’ a paradox is the expression of the unexpected, and there is no doubt that Jesus’ telling us that the rich must get richer and the poor poorer is a surprise to most of us, who think we understand the Gospel.

Let us pause here to appreciate this ordinary understanding of the Gospel before we go further into the paradox. I want to pause because I do not want to mislead you by my own interest in the difficult sayings. The Gospel rests on the easy ones, – easy to understand although not easy to perform, – like ‘love God and love your neighbor.’ You are right if you think the Jesus’ teaching is the teaching of love, which all of us understand immediately. And the Gospel is more than his teaching; it is the revelation of his person, the disclosure of who he is, the amazing announcement that God is man in him. Because of this fact of who he is, his teaching has unique authority; it is the Word of God, not the wisdom of a great teacher. So why should we be surprised if his word comes to us as a surprise, as a paradox?

We all know the Gospel, therefore, as the message of love from the mouth of God, and it is for that reason chiefly that we find it surprising that he should say that the rich must get richer and the poor poorer. Where is love in that? Is it not just an instance of the cynical realism that experienced people know to be the way of the world? I do not promise an answer to this question but I do invite you now to think it over with me in order to see what new insight we may gain from a. times the Bible exhorts us to “meditation on a paradox.

Paradox is not the only recourse we have when we try to say the unsayable, to speak about God. In addition to paradox, Jesus showed us the way of poetry, and we are accustomed to call the form of his poetry, “parable.” Our saying occurs as a summary of the message of the parable and one of the possibilities we must entertain is that the saying is not from Jesus at all but from an early interpreter trying to tell his readers what the parable means. You see, one of the principles of parable interpretation these days is that they are “open-ended,” in the sense of leaving their message vague enough for us to figure out a meaning with reference to our own needs and not a public and eternal meaning. So one asks of the parable not primarily “What does it mean?” but rather, “ What is it saying to me in my present situation?”
So the meanings of the parable vary, as the meanings of a poem, depending on the reader, and one does not always have to give a prose account of what the poem means. This story from the history of Western music illustrates the point well I think: Robert Schumann, the 19th century German Romantic composer played one of his piano pieces to a chamber audience and when he had finished one of the hearers asked him what it meant. Schumann remained silent, apparently composing his prosaic answer, and then, without a word played the piece again. Just as music is its own untranslatable medium, so is poetry, so is parable. Only bureaucrats believe that there is a clearer prose translation for every human communication; only pedants think that wisdom has must be in sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Prose is too prosaic for some truths. Think of how many times the Bible exhorts us to “sing” to the lord, “make a loud noise,” “shout!”

So our hard saying might be a prosaic interpretation of the poetry of the parable of the talents, even though it takes the telltale form of paradox. Let us check this possibility by consulting the parable. I am going to risk a prosaic summary here for the sake of efficiency. The parable talks about the final judgment by means of the imagery of the world of fiduciary matters, things that one has to be involved with especially when one retires. We retirees know well the money manager who buries ones assets in some hole and expects gratitude because he or she had at least not lost anything for you. Such a one is marginally better than those who tell you how lucky you are to have lost only 5%, and so forth. Fewer of us know managers like the first two servants who doubled their investor’s money in a reasonable time, less that a lifetime at any rate, although some of us are blessed enough to find even those.

Now I think the parable means – let me remind you here that this meaning is derived from my circumstances, your meaning will be different – the parable means that risk is good. It favors the “high risk/high gain” approach to life. Let’s imagine two human types: One that expects to lose and so bends all efforts to prevent loss, clings to what he has, distrusts the world of give and take, distrusts most of his fellow human beings, and in the context of the last judgment, distrusts the graciousness of God. This type is without faith, without hope, without joy, and possibly also without love. And this type will lose everything in the end because across the board the rule of life and eternal life is, if I am not growing I am shrinking, and eventually instead of becoming great like God’s saints, I will shrivel up and disappear. Meanness and anxiety, the marks of this type are terminal afflictions.

The other type I think is the one recommended by Jesus in the parable, the “high risk / high gain” type who trusts the world’s give and take and lives generously. More and more I am convinced that generosity and grace are psychologically the same; we know grace as we give generously. I know that I need not tell you that because you already understand and live that way, but I want simply to celebrate the lifestyle by showing how it is rooted in the outrageous grace of Jesus himself.

Jesus is the creator come in the heart of the creation, so it stands to reason that his message is one of gratitude and generosity. As creator he gives us everything, literally, the whole universe along with our lives, eternal life along with our biological death. The divine love, agape, is defined by its generosity; it does not wait for reciprocity but showers even the unresponsive, it is inexhaustible, never ends, it risks everything, especially rejection, and gives all. Think only of rejection: the money manager who buried the funds entrusted to him in a hole did so because he feared rejection. “I know you are a hard man,” he says, by way of excuse, and the Master says, “You are quite right, that is how I am and so you should have risked, even just the small risk of a guaranteed rate CD with a gigantic bank.

So let us conclude: God wants us to risk. If we risk we gain, if we hoard we lose. Of course God does not advocate sheer recklessness, but never to have risked the assets entrusted to us is a recipe for utter loss. This command applies to all of life, our spiritual, intellectual, athletic, artistic talents, and any others. Some spiritual traditions speak of self-realization, and there is truth in that, if you do not place the emphasis on self to the exclusion of God, as if you could “do -it –yourself.” So I take our hard saying, not as a prescription but as a description of what happens when we behave like the first money manager in the parable. What do you think?


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