Monday, November 17, 2014

Making the Most of What We Have Been Given (A sermon on the Parable of the Talents - Matt. 25:14-30)



I don’t know if there is any truth to it or not, but the story is told that when Britain faced a critical shortage of silver during the days of WWII Winston Churchill launched a search of possible sources of silver. They discovered some sterling silver statutes of saints in some of their churches and cathedrals. When Churchill was made aware of this he said, “Well, it’s time to put the saints into circulation.” 

This parable is about saints in circulation. Jesus is addressing his followers. In Matthew’s Gospel there are five major discourses attributed to Jesus, this parable is part of the last teaching block that begins in 24:1. Jesus and his disciples had just come out of the temple. His disciples were admiring the beautiful buildings when Jesus warned of the temple’s coming destruction. Then they walked over to the Mount of Olives and Matthew says that the disciples came to him privately with their questions about the destruction of the temple and end of the age. That is the setting for these parables. This is private instruction to insiders. The judgment parables of Matthew 25 are not directed to the crowds, but to his disciples.

There are some troublesome elements to this parable that do not quite square with Jesus’ earlier teachings in this Gospel and the ways in which he spoke of God. One difficult part is verse 30 where at the end of the parable the unfaithful servant who failed to use his master’s money wisely is cast into “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I read this symbolically of course, but still the language seems unusually harsh.

Another troublesome aspect of the parable is the way the unfaithful servant is described. He is called “wicked,” “lazy,” and “worthless” - descriptions that are totally uncharacteristic of the Jesus Matthew has described for us in his Gospel. I suspect (and not just me, but others as well) that these descriptions were likely added to the parable either during the oral transmission of the story (when Jesus’ followers retold these stories in different settings) or when the writer composed this Gospel. Of course, there is no way to be sure.

In the parable a master passes out money to his servants – actually a considerable amount of money – and puts them in charge of investing it while he is away. To one he give five talents, another two talents, and still to another one talent. A “talent” is a lot of money. One talent was equal to 30,000 denarii and a denarius was equal to a day’s wage for a common worker. So the servant who was given one “talent” was given more money than a common worker could have earned in a lifetime.

We are also told that to each one of the servants the money was given according to his ability. The ability belonged to the servants; but the money belonged to the master. This is the master’s money.

I love the story of the elderly woman who had just finished shopping and returned to her car. She found four men inside. She dropped her shopping bags and drew a handgun. She pointed the gun toward the men and screamed for them to get out of her car. They flew out of there like crazy. Somewhat shaken, she put her gun away, picked up her bags, and got into the front seat. But for some reason the key would not fit the ignition. Then it dawned on her; this was not her car. Her car was in the next row. So she found her car and drove down to the police station to turn herself in. As she told her story the officer behind the desk who was about ready to fall out of his chair laughing pointed her to another desk where four men were reporting a carjacking by a little old woman with a handgun.

She thought it was her car, but it really belonged to someone else. We think what we have is ours – we earned it, we worked for it, it’s ours. Except that it isn’t. It’s God’s. All of it. We have been entrusted with it to put it to use for God’s good purpose in the world.

Remember, this is a parable taught by Jesus to his disciples. To accept the call to discipleship is to accept responsibility to use whatever we have in the interest of God’s kingdom. To accept the call to discipleship is to accept the reality that it all belongs to God. We have been given resources of money, ability, and time and entrusted with the responsibility to use these resources for the good of God’s kingdom, for the good of our sisters and brothers and the good of society.

The parable prompts me to ask myself where fit in the story? If I am honest I have to admit that I am not completely like the two servants who doubled the master’s money, nor am I completely like the servant who did nothing with it. I am somewhere in between. Sometimes I am like the two faithful servants, and sometimes I am like the faithless one who did nothing with the master’s money.

So when I stand before God to give an account – and I thoroughly expect to do so (I agree with Paul who told the Corinthian Christians that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ) – I fully expect to be evaluated, to be assessed, and I expect to be both commended and judged. I suspect I will be commended for some things and judged for some things and found wanting.  

Am I worried? Not too much. And why am I not worried or anxious? Because as Lisa [our children’s pastor] teaches our kids, God is good all the time. God is always looking out for our good even in judgment. God’s judgment is not like so much human judgment that is punitive and retributive. God really does seek our good. So whatever “outer darkness” I must walk through it will function to open my life to the light of God’s love and grace and enable that light to shine through me more visibly. Whatever “weeping and gnashing of teeth” I experience, whatever suffering I undergo it will only serve to move me along the path to greater spiritual maturity, integrity, and depth of character.

I think of athletes who go through training periods that are quite intense; they endure periods of suffering and hardship for the purpose of becoming better athletes. So whatever sort of suffering or hardship God might require us to endure, I believe it will be for the purpose of making us better persons.

This is why Paul and other NT writers could speak of suffering in redemptive ways. In the little book of James, the author wrote: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Philip Yancey tells about playing chess in high school.  He was a member of his school’s chess club and studied books on techniques and strategies.  After high school Yancey put the game aside for twenty years until in Chicago he met a truly fine chess player. They played a few matches.  Any classic offense Yancey tried was met with a classic defense.  If Yancey turned to more risky, unorthodox techniques, his opponent incorporated Yancey’s bold advances into his own winning strategies. Yancey soon discovered that none of his own strategies mattered much because his opponent simply incorporated Yancey’s moves into his own plan. 

Yancey writes,
“Perhaps God engages our universe, his own creation, in much the same way.  He grants us freedom to rebel against its original design, but even as we do so we end up ironically serving his eventual goal of restoration.

If I accept that blueprint—a huge step of faith, I confess—it transforms how I view both good and bad things that happen.  Good things, such as health, talent, and money, I can present to God as offerings to serve his purposes.  And bad things, too—disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failures—can be redeemed as the very instruments that drive me to God.” 

And I would add, the bad things can be the very instruments that change us, that make us more loving, caring, empathetic, and compassionate persons. 

Faithful servants entrusted with God’s resources trust in the goodness of God and so they are not afraid to take some risks. They are not afraid of failure.

The servant who did nothing with what was entrusted to him was hampered by fear. When he is called onto the carpet for his failure he says, “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 I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

If that is how we imagine God, we will not be motivated to take risks, we will not be compelled to give our resources and abilities and energy to serve and love others. If we are afraid of failure or afraid of God we will not invest our money or time or talents into the lives of others and for the common good of our society. We just won’t.

I heard about a pastor who was excited about taking his two visiting nephews to church.  The two boys, six and nine, had never been to church. For whatever reason the two boys were not very impressed. The younger one - in the middle of the children's sermon - raised his hand and asked, "How much longer do we have to sit up here." When the offering was passed he watched as people put money in the plates. When it finally got to him, he looked up at his aunt and said, "You mean we gotta pay for this?"

If our image of God is like the unfaithful servant in the parable then we are likely to approach service and giving to others with the attitude of the boy who asked, “You mean we gotta pay for this?” You mean we have to serve others? You mean we have to invest in this? And if that is what we think, if that is our attitude, we are more likely to stuff away what we have than to use it for the good of God’s kingdom.

But if we know the God of Jesus, if we have experienced the God of Jesus, who is the all-compassionate one, who wills our good, who wants our best, who loves each one of us with an unconditional, eternal love, then we are likely to take great risks and find great joy in investing our resources, in giving away our energy, time, and money for the good and well-being of others and growth of God’s kingdom.


Our good God, most of us here are like me. We are sometimes faithful, sometimes motivated to take greats risks, sometimes willing to give much in terms of our money, time, and ability, and others times – well, not so much. If any of us here are hampered by fear, give us a clearer vision into your nature, open our eyes to your goodness and grace, help us to know how much you love us and care for us, so we won’t be afraid to fail, afraid to take risks, or afraid to give our resources for your cause in the world. Thank you for all the good things and help us not be too upset with the bad things – but to allow them to grow us and mature us so that we might become the loving, compassionate, and caring persons you have designed for us to be. Amen. 

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