“Awaiting the Return”:
A Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
Have you ever absolutely hated receiving a gift? Gifts are supposed to be great, and joyous. It establishes a relationship of generosity between the giver and the receiver. But sometimes, gifts are not given generously. Sometimes a gift is more of a burden. Maybe your grandmother makes a very ugly sweater for you, that you now have to wear EVERY Christmas. Or maybe you are given a very ugly car by one of your relatives, its hard to think it as a gift. Not only do you have to hang on to the ugly car (6 months, 1 year?), but you also have to now keep up with the relative that gave it to you. You have to tell “white lies” and act as if you enjoy it. And now your dream car is even further from you. Giving and receiving gifts is a complex ordeal. Jesus told a parable about receiving gifts, both receiving them as burden and as a joy. About receiving talents. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like:
A rich man that decides to go on an extended leave, maybe a vacation. Now he had three servants working for him. As he was going to be gone a long time, the master came to the 3 servants and said “I am entrusting my property to you all” and decided to give them some money in order to do so. As soon as he sent out the call, they showed up and stood in a row, the three of them. The master decided to give the 1st 5 talents. A talent was an unheard of amount of wealth in ancient times, roughly equivalent to 15 years of wages. Today, if we take a job that makes 40k a year, a talent is worth about $600,000. And this man is just giving the servant five of them. Needless to say, the servants were shocked! What enormous wealth was just handed to the 1st servant, like pocket change.
This made the other two servants amazed, what would he do with such wealth? And the oddest thing is that the master said nothing as he gave the mass of money to him. He knew the master wanted him to watch out for his property, that the estate was entrusted to him, but how bizarre?
Then, the master proceeded to give the 2nd servant 2 talents, and the 3rdservant one talent. Then without words of instruction, the master left. And as he faded into the horizon, the servants began to talk to one another. “Why did he give us such an extravagant amounts of money? Why did he give us different amounts? What could he possibly expect us to do while he’s gone? “
The first servant said “If the master was here, he would labor day and night and would try to increase his wealth, I’ll invest it and try to make even more money while I await for the master to return.” The second servant wholeheartedly agreed with him. But the third servant said “I don’t think so guys. Sure the master might make more, but there is no way we could ever do that. I mean I’m petrified of disappointing the master, what if I lost the money. Besides, I don’t know about investing, that’s kinda not a good option right now.” The first two said “suit yourself” and left.
The 3rdservant had a brilliant solution, he went and found his shovel and buried the talent in the ground, where no one would ever find it. “Oh what a clever and intelligent servant I am. Those other two will fail, they will waste all their efforts and return penniless, begging for the masters forgiveness. BUT I, the prudent and careful, will have my talent, no matter how long it takes the master to get back.”
A Long Time Passes.
The Master returns- and the servants run to the master and they get right down to business, settling accounts. The 1stservant shows up first, followed shortly by the second. They both doubled their money. SO the master says “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share in your master’s happiness!” And the servants were so excited to see their master again, because he had been good to them and they had eagerly awaited his return. What a glorious day it was for all three of them.
Then the 3rdservant shows up after they had celebrated. Before the master could say a word, He said “I know you are a harsh man. I heard the rumors about those cutthroat business deals you make and scams, taking what you didn’t earn. I was too afraid so I buried the talent in the ground. See, Look! I still have your property!”
Then the happy master became very angry. Fire was in his eyes. “Wicked Servant! Lazy Steward! If you thought I was such a bad man, why didn’t you put it in the bank for those introductory interest rates of .008%? It would have been better than nothing!”
Then the talent was pried from his fingers, as the 3rd servant hung his head in shame. And to his total embarrassment the talent was given to the servant with 10. Total overkill. The lazy servant feels hands on his shoulders, guiding him towards the door. “Its dark out there! How will I live? Have mercy!” Then the servant is thrown outside into utter darkness.
Jesus could have stopped before that last verse, right? I can handle the servant being rebuked, but the gnashing of teeth and the harsh treatment of the 3rd servant makes us cringe a little, its shocking! This parable is told at the end of the book of Matthew, shortly before Jesus went to his death. He was telling about his return of which “no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven.” Jesus was about to leave, and so he told a few parables about keeping watch for his return. Jesus is coming back, and in the mean time, this is how the Kingdom of God will be: and then he tells this parable.
So imagine you are a disciple of Christ, listening to this parable. The natural instinct is to identify with the 3rd guy right? He played it safe! He wasn’t risky with the money, he didn’t mess with bankers or investors. Back then, burying your money in the ground was the right thing to do, and even today, sounds like a great option among all the financial turmoil we are having.
So where did he go wrong? He tells us he buried his talent, because he was afraid. He says the master was a harsh man, with questionable business tactics. Let’s pause and see if this is true. The other completely shocking thing to an audience would be the master giving OUTRAGEOUS amounts of money to his servants. It’d be like if you were housesitting for a friend for one week and they give you $20,000 spending money. This is over the top unrealistic. Its excessive, generous, and overwhelming. The master sounds generous, trusting. We don’t know all the details, but it seems that the 3rdservant did not quite understand the master. He did not see the talent as a gift, he saw it as a burden. While the other servants were excited by the money, the 3rd servant was crippled with fear.
Fear of failure, fear of success. Above all, he wanted to make sure that the talent was his, and his alone, so that it would be there, for absolute certain when the master returned. Most everyone has had this sort of experience, whether it be with a mother-in-law, a boss or a teacher, there are people you feel you just cannot please, you can feel their disapproval and anger seething out of them. So like an ostrich that sticks his head in the ground, the 3rd servant buries that talent. Yes, its safe, but he also doesn’t have to look at it. He took the gift for granted. He can go back to gardening, farming, or lounging around the estate as though he never received the gift. But eventually the master came back. The 3rdservant might have not thought about that talent for a long time. In that instant, the wave of fear and worry flows over him, and there is nothing left but a feeling of overwhelming incompetence.
This parable, believe it or not, is not about money. Its not about how to spend, save or invest. No matter how important stewardship is and giving to the church, we miss something profound when we limit it to such a meaning. Like many other parables, this parable is meant to tell us about the kingdom of God. The kingdom that Jesus preached about is too hard to put into clear words. Rather, it has to be described through images and stories. In today’s case, Jesus tells a parable about servants receiving talents, and that’s supposed to be the Kingdom. The heavenly kingdom is like 3 guys getting talents.
If we think about it this way, its hard to conceive of the talents being just about the proper use of money. In the same way, Jesus talks a lot about farming but means so much more than how to plant seed appropriately. Nor can we think of talents as meaning the same as the English word “talent,” like a natural ability we have, like the ability to play music or run real fast. In the story they are given talents “according to their ability.” Whatever it is, its something you receive because of what you are born with.
So instead of asking what exactly the talents represent in this parable, perhaps it’s a better question to ask “What has God given us?” As inhabitants of the Kingdom, what have we received when the Master went on a journey? We have received something more generous and more precious than a mountain of money. We have received the gift of grace. The love of God, such that the Father gave his only Son, that we may be forgiven and redeemed. We have received the very ability to be called a child of God. That is a Master who loves us, who is generous.
And the gifts do not stop then. As disciples, as servants of Christ, we are given gifts and graces of the spirit. In baptism, we commit ourselves to Christ, we take on our new nature and new mission as part of Christ’s body on this earth, the church. And just like the 3 servants got different amounts of talents, we all receive various gifts. There is no one size fits all method for being Christian. Paul says that to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, that together make up the one body of Christ. As the church, we exist to be the church. To worship God, and to constantly witness to the works of God, and the presence of the coming creation.
How do we do this? Where’s the instruction manual? A key part is knowing the master. The 3rd servant did not know his master very well. He didn’t see the generosity staring him in the face. That made him afraid. That sucked all of will and motivation from him, it made him lazy, it made him wicked. Our master has given us more than we deserve. Ancient Christians held that it was a greater miracle that God forgave a single sinner, than it was for God to create the entire universe. Through Jesus Christ, Mercy and love rain down upon us, and if we are lucky enough to understand even the smallest portion of that love, we are overwhelmed.
The love of God is such a hopeful, joyous message. Yet, we are bound to this earth. Our world is still filled with evil, death and destruction. God’s love can be missed in the midst of such tragedy. That people truly fear the Lord in a world such as ours should not surprise us. A reverent fear is appropriate, but its easy to blame God for massive disasters and to fear him because of them. Its easy to fear God if he would ever allow a family member to get cancer. Where is God in this? This unresolved fear of God gets channeled into the way we speak about the gospel as well. I’m sure you’ve heard a “fire-and-brimstone” sermon, as if God cares nothing whatsoever about anything except for Judgment and Suffering. Believe in God, or you will burn! I would be TERRIFIED of such a God. I would take my salvation and hid it in my closet. I would take my baptism certificate and bury in so far underground, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t be able to take it back. I would try to make it all my own. Why risk sharing it with others if I could lose it?
This is not God. That would be an Angry God who “harvests where he has not sown.” Christ is our Judge, but he is also our Saviour. He pours out his love for us on the cross. This is our Judge, this is our King. What we have been given is a gift. Do not let the gift of God’s grace be a burden to you. The gift of salvation should not be something that makes you go get your shovel. The gifts of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the truth of Christ, to share the faith, to sing of God’s majesty are meant to be sources of joy for others and for God. God gives to us, and God gives us so much that we can give to others too. Discipleship is hard, but we have a Lord that carries the burden for us. Just as Christ needed help carrying his earthly cross, so we can trust that Christ will carry ours for us. And that sweet message, the gospel of the cross, the gospel of the resurrection is ultimately one of good news, begging to be shared with the world. Begging to be “invested” if you will. Its not at all the case that its up to us! God is forever in control, and its not as if God is in ultimate need of us to spread his word. And how much sense does it really make to receive a great gift, and do nothing about it.
It would be as if: a wealthy man went to his neighbor’s house. As the neighbor opened the door, the rich man said “I noticed you rarely mow your yard, I’ve bought you a brand new John Deere Lawnmower.” The neighbor was beyond happy to receive such an unexpected gift. As time passed, the rich man noticed his neighbor’s yard growing and growing. It got so tall, it began to grow past the house’s windows. The rich man was confused, and he walked over to his neighbor’s house and knocked on the door. “I’ve noticed you haven’t been mowing your lawn, is something wrong with the lawnmower?” “No, thank you again, I just cant stand to get the blades dull, you know lawnmowers, they get covered with engine grease, and then all those blades of grass get stuck to it. I’d rather keep it safe in my garage.”
This guy sounds crazy right? Why wouldn’t he use what he’d been given? As Christians, we use our gifts openly, freely because we want to, not because we need to. We use them, because why else would God have sent his Spirit? Why else would the church exist? We live by the example of Christ, because God allows us to, enables us to. He has forgiven us, not so that we may hide our story, hide our miracles. But that we may go forth and be a disciple by making disciples.
We stand between the ages. After the Death of Christ. Before his return. Christ will most surely return, as sure as the servants saw the Master coming down the road back to the estate, as they ran to get their talents. Yet, if we think of the return and nothing else, we can become crippled like the 3rdservant. The 3rd servant feared the utter darkness so much that he ended up being there himself! There is an element of harsh judgment here. He became wicked, not by evil deed, but by ignoring the grace of the master. This is what led the servant outside the saving grace of the Master into darkness. Some people of this world live day to day ignoring the presence of grace in their lives, the very grace that allows them to breathe. We must never forget the power of the Father, the grace of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We should keep our eyes on the light of God, lest we find ourselves in the darkness.
Therefore we must keep watch for the Lord with love for him. We cannot fall in apathy, as though we don’t expect his return. Nor, can we stop living our lives because the end could possibly be around the corner. We must wait for Christ like a child stares out the window waiting for the headlights of her Father returning home from work.
When our Master returns, how great, how wonderful, how amazing would it be to hear him say “Well done Good and Faithful Servant!” We are called to be faithful stewards of what God has given us. And, church, God has given us everything we have! God is not just generous. Generous by human standards is giving $20 to a charity, generous is letting someone else have the last piece of cake. God is absurdly generous.
As Paul says “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7). Through faith in Christ, we are transformed and renewed. As we work for Christ, the Holy Spirit is enabling us to do so. God is always there. So that, the small amount of things we do in this life, can be expanded beyond our imagining in the Kingdom of God. And the best of all, the servants are told to enter into the happiness of the master. This joy is the only joy there is. To be in the midst of the Lord, to see the Face of God. Through our meager faith and our meager hearts, may we all hear one day “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 210. “Rather, the parable is a clear judgment against those who think they deserve what they have earned, as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been give” (210).