a sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
preached on November 13, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
What does it mean to be entrusted with something? Has a friend ever asked you to take care of her plants or cat while she goes away? Have you ever been put in a position of authority over a large fund or a person’s estate?
There are good and bad things about being entrusted with something by someone else. It’s good because you know that they trust you, that they think you will do a good job, that they respect your wisdom. But it can also be a little scary, too, because then you have to be accountable for what you do with it. If something goes wrong, you actually might have to take responsibility.
The parable we heard this morning from the gospel according to Matthew talks a lot about responsibility, but there’s a lot more going on here. At this point in Matthew’s story, Jesus is encouraging his disciples to be ready for the kingdom of heaven to come at any time, and so he gives them this parable to inspire them.
A very rich man prepares to take a long trip and decides to entrust his fortune to three of his servants. He gives five talents to one servant, two talents to another, and one talent to a third, each according to his ability. These talents are not just some small gift, favorite pet, or beautiful houseplant, though. A talent here is a large sum of money, worth something like fifteen years of daily wages for the average worker. The servants are given these large sums and no other instructions about their use, and the rich man leaves on his trip. The servants who received five talents and two talents take their money and invest it, but the servant who received one talent buries his talent in the ground.
Then, after a long time, at an unexpected moment, the rich man returns home and calls in his servants to return what he left with them. The servant with five talents has made five more because of his wise investments. The rich man is happy with this good return and most of all with his servant’s wisdom, so he promises to put him in charge of much more. The second servant with two talents has also doubled his original trust, and the rich man is equally pleased.
Then the third servant returns, carrying his one talent and nothing more. He grovels in fear at the feet of his master:
Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent. (translation by Eugene Peterson, The Message)
But the master is furious at his servant.
That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest. (translation by Eugene Peterson, The Message)
So the master takes the talent away from him and gives it to the servant who has ten already, then he orders the servant to be thrown into the outer darkness.
This parable seems like the perfect kind of story to tell on Stewardship Sunday. It makes it easy for me to suggest that we all need to contribute to the well-being of this community through our faithful contributions. This story reinforces our American mindset that we can earn our way to the top with good investments. And this parable promotes risk in hope of receiving reward somewhere along the way.
But I’m not sure all that is what Jesus was thinking about when he told this parable to his disciples. At least in Matthew’s telling, he grouped it in with parables that talk about being ready for the coming of the kingdom of God. He focused not on the two servants who made wise investments but rather on the servant who chose not to invest at all.
Now I always wish that Jesus had included a servant who had lost money on his investment. What would the master’s response have been? Would he have welcomed the servant’s risk even at the expense of his own wealth, or would he have decried the servant’s loss? But we don’t have that kind of servant in this story – we have two servants who invested and one who did not, two servants who took a chance on something new and one who did not, two servants who recognized that the time was right to step out on a limb and one who just stayed right where he was, two servants who embraced the possibility of something new and one who just buried a great treasure out of incredible fear.
And so it is fear that Jesus attacks head-on in the story. The safest investor ended up losing it all. The most responsible servant who did nothing, who risked nothing, actually served the master of fear, not the generous master of this story who entrusts even his least-trustworthy servant with something even though he knows that others will do a better job. Then, when the servant’s fear gets the best of him, the master’s fears are realized. As preacher John Buchanan puts it,
Jesus’ warning is that the outcome of playing it safe – not caring, not loving passionately, not investing yourself, not risking anything – is something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 312)
In the end, I think Jesus tells this parable less to urge his disciples to be good investors and to share their wealth wisely and more to encourage them to set aside their fears, take a chance, and be ready for the new thing that the kingdom of God was bringing to them. Jesus knows that the disciples are and will be afraid, but he trusts that the possibility of something greater ahead will inspire them to choose the wiser path, to use their gifts rather than sit on them, to be open to the uncertainty of something new rather than cowering in fear of getting it wrong.
I think these words should speak volumes to us. In these days – as this liturgical and calendar year comes to an end, as a chapter in our congregation’s life comes to an end as we sell our manse, as we wonder what the days ahead will hold for all of us – how will we live our lives? Which path will we choose?
Will we choose the way of fear, the way of burying what we have so that we won’t lose it, the way of squandering our gifts by not using them, the way of staying in the place we seem to know because we are afraid of the uncertainty that lies ahead?
Or will we choose the way of following Jesus, the way of taking risks so that the world might know the wonder and power of Jesus’ life in our midst, the way of investing the gifts we have into the life that we share in this place so that others can grow into faith here, the way of stepping out into the unknown and trusting that God will guide us in the days ahead?
I think John Buchanan puts this way into more beautiful words than I can manage:
Here Jesus invites us to be his disciples, to live our lives as fully as possible by investing them, by risking, by expanding the horizons of our responsibilities. To be his man or woman, he says, is not so much believing ideas about him as it is about following him. It is to experience renewed responsibility for the use and investment of these precious lives of ours. It is to be bold and brave, to reach high and care deeply. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 312)
My friends, we have embodied that way of following Jesus for over 140 years in this place, and it is my prayer that we will choose our path for the days ahead not out of fear but out of responsibility and hope for the possibility that God might still be working in our midst, giving us talents beyond our wildest dreams to invest and use and share with all who need them and making us bold and brave as we embody the way of Jesus Christ in this place so that all the world might see.
So may God help us to set our fears aside and risk all that we have – and even more – for the way ahead, for the power and possibility and promise of new life for all creation in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.