A sermon for November 19/17 on Matthew 25:14-30
From time to time I’ve had people say to me things like, “Well, I’m not particularly religious, but I do appreciate Jesus as a great moral teacher.” I’d be curious to know what moral such a person might have found in tonight’s Gospel parable. And the moral of the story is… venture capitalists win? Or… for all that Jesus had taught that the last shall be first and that he came to seek and save the lost, in the end God will be most pleased with the winners and terribly condemning of the losers? Or maybe… “you had better put your time and talents to work for the kingdom—and maybe up the contribution to the offering basket—or else you might yourself weeping and gnashing your teeth on judgment day!” Now wouldn’t that make for a high-octane stewardship sermon?
- To listen to the sermon, click play:
For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
He went away, and Mr. Five Talents goes straight to work, trading and investing and working what he had been entrusted with. And what do you know? He doubled his five to ten talents. Mr. Two Talents does the same with what he’s been given, with the same result; doubled. But Mr. One talent “went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” And why? Well, maybe because each had been given “according to his ability,” and Mr. One Talent wasn’t so able in the marketplace? Best to just take the little he’d been given, and play it utterly safe. Except that even his “little” was an awful lot, being that a talent was the equivalent of 15 years worth of a labourer’s wage. To get a sense of that, if you think of a full time job at the current Manitoba minimum wage, over 15 years that would total $351,000. Buried in a hole in the ground.
The key is actually in what this third slave says to his master, to account for why he’d just tucked that talent away.
“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 I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
Or, as Robert Farrar Capon paraphrases it,
I was afraid. I know you. You are a hard man. I know you grab everything, even if it doesn’t belong to you. So I thought to myself, ‘Watch your step, Arthur; if he keeps track of every penny everywhere like that, even when it’s not his, just think how mad he could get if you should happen to lose something that was his.’ And so, Sir, here I am and here’s you money, in full and on time. Tell me I’m a good boy.
Which, as we heard tonight, rather raises the ire of the master. “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” Really? So what’s with the hole in the ground, Arthur? Why didn’t you at least put it in the bank so I’d have collected a bit of interest? You don’t know harsh from nothing, Arthur. I’ll show you harsh…
And here Robert Capon comments on what he names “the crucial point of the parable,” namely “the judgment issued against the servant who acts not of faith but out of prudence.” And it is a misguided prudence at that, as it totally locked him down to a posture that utterly backfired. But, Capon adds, this is “just as we do when we fearfully try to deal with God on the basis of what we think God is like rather than on the basis of what we trust him to be in Jesus.” You can see it in the gospels, in the disputes Jesus has with the priests and scribes and Pharisees, who have decided exactly who God is and what God requires, and have managed to box up the divine in a nice tight package. Their scrupulous adherence to the Law and their firm lines between who is in and who is out—who is pure, who is impure; who is acceptable and who is shunned—keeps them from seeing what God is now doing in Jesus. They have, in a sense, buried their talent in the ground, because they’ve taken the rich treasure entrusted to them by God—the law, the prophets, the deep stories of their forebears, the temple, the promise that through Israel God was going to bless the whole of the world—and have put it in a box, wrapped it in pretty paper, and tied it up with the string… double knotted, no less. And when Jesus comes and basically says to them “you know, everything you have in that box is meant to be lived, seen, embraced, and shared; everything you have in that box has been talking about me for ages,” they just tied the knot tighter. Because, they basically say to him, we know about the righteousness of God, and it doesn’t look anything like you, Jesus.
It isn’t just them of course. People across the ages have done that, and done it in the name of God. We know who is in and who is out; we know what you have to say or believe or do in order to get into the kingdom. That’s part of it. But how about people who get crushed under a burden of guilt or unworthiness or deep shame, thinking that they are little more than—to borrow a phrase from a famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards—“sinners in the hands of an angry God”? Not that I’m suggesting that Jesus is looking to pack off all of the guilt and shame ridden folks into the outer darkness. No, but the challenge issued here is to deal with God and understand God not based on our fears of what God might be like, but on “the basis of what we trust God to be in Jesus.”
Yet we still have to contend with that saying, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” It is such a stark contrast to “the last shall be first” or to the lines in the Magnificat that say that in the coming of Christ, God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Clearly Jesus is not telling a parable about investment strategies and financial success; he’s not (not, NOT) working the territory of the prosperity preachers. Think instead in terms of gift. The gift given to Israel that had been tied up so tightly in that box. The gift given to the church that was sometimes lost under layers of pomp and prestige and power. The gift of mercy and forgiveness given to the church that was at times buried away under layers of judgmentalism, condemnation, shunning, rejection. The gift of life given each of us, which can get set aside as we pursue things that actually keep us less than fully alive. Use the gift—free the gift, unbury the gift, trust the gift—I think that is what he’s saying. And as you do, watch how something freely given can become more than we can ask or imagine.