A lawyer purchased a box of very rare and expensive cigars, then insured them against, among other things, fire. Within a month, having smoked his entire stockpile of these great cigars and without yet having made even his first premium payment on the policy the lawyer filed a claim against the insurance company. In his claim, the lawyer stated the cigars were lost ‘in a series of small fires.’ The insurance company refused to pay, citing the obvious reason, that the man had consumed the cigars in the normal fashion. The lawyer sued and won! Delivering the ruling, the judge agreed with the insurance company that the claim was frivolous. The judge stated nevertheless, that the lawyer held a policy from the company, which it had warranted that the cigars were insurable and also guaranteed that it would insure them against fire, without defining what is considered to be unacceptable ‘fire’ and was obligated to pay the claim. Rather than endure lengthy and costly appeal process, the insurance company accepted the ruling and paid $15,000 to the lawyer for his loss of the cigars lost in the ‘fires’.
Mark Twain said, “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” I’m thinking this particular lawyer easily had both. We live in a society that thrives on success. From our sports to our jobs to who has the prettiest wife or shoots the biggest elk. Success rules. Walt Disney says, “If you can dream it, you can do it” and the rapper Eminem declared, “Success is the only option, failure’s not.”
When you succeed, folks will call you names like: Ace, big man on campus, big brain, winner, the bomb, numero uno, presidential, maniac, and my personal favorite, The Big Gahuna. When words fail, there is always the fist pump, “Whoot, whoot, whoot!” I’m sure our lawyer friend with the cigars received a few of those accolades when he arrived at the Scheister’s Lounge and Bordello, but perhaps not so much the next day.
You see, as it turned out, after the lawyer cashed the check, the insurance company had him arrested on 24 counts of arson! With his own insurance claim and testimony from the previous case being used against him, the lawyer was convicted of intentionally burning his insured property and was sentenced to 24 months in jail and a $24,000 fine. The Big Gahuna had turned into the big loser.
As with winners, we also have wonderful quotes for those who fail. Baseball player Leo Deroucher, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you an idiot.” And of course no sermon would be complete without the wisdom of Homer Simpson, “Trying is the first step towards failure.” For anyone unfortunate enough to fail, we have all sorts of effigies: stupid, loser, dodo, jerk, zombie, goofball, nutter, a sandwich short of a picnic, twit, geek, out-to-lunch, and on and on the list goes.
When we read our parable today, the parable of the talents, we have a tendency to read it in terms of success and failure. The two with the five and two talents both went out and doubled the kings money. The King was pleased. Success. Two Big Gahunas! Whoot, whoot, whoot. The namby pamby little whiner who did nothing but bury his talents in the backyard displeased the king. Failure. Big “L” to the forehead loser.
But here is the question that came to my mind while thinking on this parable: What if Mr. Five Talents and Mr. Two Talents went out and invested in various options, a bit here and bit there, solid investments, but on Black Friday they lost it all? The price of camels plummeted, there was a margin call on fish futures, and the shekel was seriously devalued. When the dust settled these two were wiped out. How do you think the king would have reacted when these two arrived and reported that all was lost? Well, if Mr. One Talent was cast out into the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, then these two would likely be flogged, filleted, quartered, and cast into a place where they would never be seen or heard from again. These two would be the losers and Mr. One Talent would be the hero.
From the world’s perspective, this is true. Lose like that and you are punished and shunned, but a parable of Jesus should never be looked at from the world’s perspective. It should be looked at from God’s. Yes, the world would have thrown these two out on their ears, but not God.
From the Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning: “In the parable of the talents, the three servants are called to render an account of how they have used the gifts entrusted to them. The first two used their talents boldly and resourcefully. The third, who prudently wraps his money and buries it, typifies the Christian who deposits his faith in a hermetic container and seals the lid shut. He or she limps through life on childhood memories of Sunday school and resolutely refuses the challenge of growth and spiritual maturity. Unwilling to take risks, this person loses the talent entrusted to him or her. ‘The master wanted his servants to take risks. He wanted them to gamble with his money.’”
God does not want us to run off to the tracks and bet everything on the ponies, but God also does not want us to sit hunkered down with the talents, gifts and blessings he gives us. He wants us to have a bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed will do – and try. What happens if we fail? Is he going to smite us out of existence?
Consider this: After Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples on several occasions. We read in John’s Gospel, “Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. ‘I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, ‘We’ll go with you.’ So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. – they failed – Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’ ‘No, we’re a bunch of losers,’ they answered. He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” – Success!
When we fail God does not smite us. When we fail God says, “Cast your net on the other side of the boat! Try again.” The sin of Mr. One Talent wasn’t that he didn’t go out and earn more money for the master. In the words of my grandfather, Mr. One Talent sinned by sitting there like a bump on a log and doing nothing.
When we fail we have a tendency to think that all is lost. That we have no recourse, but that simply is not the way with God. Speaking of the Lord, Thomas a Kempis writes, “Believe in Me, and trust in my mercy. When you think I am far from you, I am often nearest to you. When you judge that almost all is lost, then oftentimes it is that you are in the way of the greatest gain of merit. All is not lost when anything falls out contrary to how you would have it. You must not judge according to your present feeling, nor give up in any trouble, however it comes, nor think that all hope of deliverance is gone.” No, when we fail, we are to cast on the other side of the boat, not just leave the net at the bottom of the boat to rot from lack of use.
In our Christian walk, there are many things that we fail at. Sometimes, we gloriously fail at things like holiness, a consistent prayer life, study, blessing, moderation, church attendance (Don’t get me started with that one) forgiving, being forgiven – just to name a few – and we think because we have failed one time or even a hundred times, that all is lost. Jesus doesn’t want us and plans to cast us into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, all he asks is that we cast our nets on the other side of the boat and try again. If you want to say, “Fr. John, I’ve fished this entire lake and there isn’t a dang thing in it but weeds and sticks!,” then try a different lure, but don’t just give up.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie The Lord of the Rings, but just before one of the epic battles when it appears that all the good guys are going to die and they are trying to decide on whether to stay and fight or retreat, Gimli the dwarf says to the group, “Certainty of death, small chance of success… what are we waiting for?” Why just give up? Even our smallest efforts can accomplish much. It may not seem that a tiny pebble can accomplish anything, but cast it into a pond and it will transform the entire surface.
You have not lost simply because you have failed. Instead, you have been given the opportunity to try again. Cast your net on the other side of the boat, there is a catch of immeasurable blessing waiting there for you.