The last time I preached, about a month ago, the gospel reading for the day was the parable of the great banquet. That parable, as you remember, ended with the underdressed guest being tossed into the “outer darkness” into the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” As I looked up the readings for this Sunday I saw that this passage, too, ends with someone getting thrown into the outer darkness into the weeping and gnashing of teeth. And I thought: Oh, Jesus. Do we have to do this again? Apparently, we do.
Now, in my experience, the only way to make sense of parables – if there is any hope of making sense of them, that is – is to let them work on us. To think about them, if you will, until our heads or our hearts explode – or both – and we somehow come out on the other side.
First we need to appreciate the shock value of this story. What Jesus’s listeners knew was that one “talent” – a unit of currency in Jesus’ day – was about a lifetime’s wages for the average laborer. Not just a week’s wages, or a year’s ages, but a whole lifetime’s worth of constant labor. Even if you earn a fairly modest salary we are talking, in modern terms, of a million euros. The highest euro bank note is 500 Euros so you have to imagine Jesus pressing about 2,000 €500 bank notes in the servant’s hands.
Why would any Lord and Master be so generous? What kind of a Master entrusts a lifetime’s worth of wages to his servants? What kind of Master can this be, who gives so much to slaves, who are – let’s face it – probably fairly unskilled and uneducated? If you had a servant, would you give them a few million to invest on your behalf, to be returned to you at some specified date? No, I didn’t think so.
So here is our first clue. We are not in the realm of human reality here, but of God’s reality. We are getting a lesson in Kingdom economics, not earthly economics.
Then, we get to thinking about the three servants. And frankly, the third servant: he reminds me of someone. Of me, if I’m being honest. Here is a poor man who is terrified by what he’s been entrusted with and what has been asked of him. He’s surely never held a whole lifetime’s worth of earnings in his hands, at all once. Just imagine how nervous you would be if this huge sum of money was placed in your hands for safekeeping. To tell the truth, we would probably do just what the third servant did: panic.
So what characterizes the third servant most – and what makes him so tragically, horribly familiar – is his fear.
For one thing, this servant is convinced he serves a harsh, unjust, unmerciful master. Listen to what says right to the Master’s face: “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.”
But there’s something strange going on there. Because the actions of the Master in the story make clear this isn’t the truth. The Master isn’t harsh! Look at this Master. He is generous beyond belief. He’s very trusting. He obviously respects and trusts his servants. But: he has a deep sense of justice. And he has extremely high expectations of his servants. He trusts them, and he entrusts them with a fabulous sum of money; but he expects great things in return.
And, look at what the Master says twice – twice! – in this parable: he invites the faithful servants to “enter into the joy of the Master.” A Master who invites his servants to share in his joy can’t be so bad.
But the poor third servant! Somewhere he picked up some pretty strange ideas about the Master. He thinks that his master is harsh and demanding. And not knowing the Master is where this whole story starts to go wrong for this poor third servant.
Second: he did not understand the value of what he had been given. It was unimaginably much. So much that the poor third servant could not, I think, wrap his head around the value of it. A lifetime’s wages! It is a ridiculous, excessive, unfathomable sum of money to give … to a servant. Somehow, instead of empowering him, the gift paralyzed him.
You know, I don’t think it is an accident that the amount of money entrusted to the servant in Jesus’s parable is worth exactly one lifetime’s wages. This sounds suspiciously symbolic to me. The master gives the servant one lifetime. One life – the most precious gift imaginable, and total freedom to do with it whatever he considers best in order to bring glory to the Master and return the investment. Invest it, double it, triple it…. or bury it in the ground for twenty years, watching the years go by, too scared even to try.
You know, you, too, have been given a great gift. In fact: hold out your hands for me. I’m serious. Hold them out.
Imagine you are a servant of the Master. Imagine the Master coming to you with a serious but remarkably loving and trusting look on his face. He is placing something into your hands. You are being given…. one lifetime. One life to live as Christ’s hands and feet on earth; one lifetime to experience love and community and the sunrise and sunset and to feel the breeze on your face, to laugh and to feel arms wrapped around you. You are given a personality – one wonderful, unique personality – and a host of talents and abilities. In other words you have been given YOU, the gift of being a special creation of God. And on top of it you are given new life in Christ, the right to be called a child of God, and – if we take Matthew chapter 28 seriously – the power of the Holy Spirit to preach, heal, baptize, convert, and make disciples of all nations.
Do you feel like the third servant now? Do you get it? Do you get how much we have, in Christ, and how much is asked of us? And do you get why the third servant was afraid? Because it is a holy and wonderful and terrifying and amazing thing, to be given your life, and to be asked to account for it.
I don’t always get the parables (neither did Jesus’s listeners) but this is what I think this parable is about. This is my best guess. Here are servants who have been entrusted with an indescribably beautiful gift: one life. One lifetime. One precious, holy experience of being alive and being truly human. And with it, the given total freedom to live that life in a way that will please and honor the Master. And their reward shall be entering into the joy of the Master, forever.
But then, as we listen to this parable, Jesus asks us to appreciate the crushing, tragic sadness of what happens when someone is so paralyzed with fear, so uncertain of his own gifts, so insecure in what he has been given, and so irrationally terrified of a Master that he does something horribly sad and wasteful. He buries his whole life in the ground. He buries his whole life in the ground thinking that it is better to hide this life than to live it.
Let’s be honest. We know a lot of people who are living like the third servant: who live in fear, rather than in joy, and who long ago buried their lives and the hearts deep in the ground where the sun never shines. Maybe they heard somewhere that our Master is harsh and exacting, and somewhere in our hearts they still live in fear of his rejection, instead of living in the freedom of his love. And because they don’t understand the character of the Master or the promise of his joy, they fail, again and again, to grasp how great is the gift of being alive and being called into faithful service for the Master’s kingdom. I will let you decide whether you feel that that is in any way applicable to your own spiritual life.
So where is the good news in this parable, you ask? There is good news. There is great news. And it is simple: You do not have to be the third servant.
That is, I think, why Jesus tells this story. Not to tell you that you are the third servant who buries his life in the ground, but to tell you that you don’t have to be. Jesus came so that we don’t have to be.
In fact, I see this parable as a promise that we have choices. And in that sense, it is full of hope. We do not have to bury our lives or our dreams in the ground, do not have to live in fear or darkness or shame. The Master has given us one life, and his hope and goal is that we live it to the full, investing every last second of it in each other and in the kingdom, and entering, finally, with overflowing hearts, into the joy of the Master.
Brothers and sisters, we know our Master and his love for us. And the Bible promises us that there is nothing that will separate us from that love. Nothing to keep us from living our lives in the daylight and not in the darkness – and embracing, without fear, all that God has planned for us, entrusted to us, and expected from us.
Here is the good news of this parable. We have been given a lifetime to live and work and love one another in Christ Jesus, and we do not intend to bury our lives in the ground.
Here are God’s assurances to you this morning and my suggestion is that you let them go straight to your hearts. I am taking this right out of 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. LISTEN!
“But you, beloved, do not need to live in the darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are the children of light and children of the day. So let us wake up! For we belong to the day; we are clothed in faith and love, and the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
Let us pray:
Loving Master, God of the light and of the day, we want to invest our whole lives in your service, multiplying your kingdom on earth, in the hope that someday we will enter with singing into the joy of the Master. Amen.
Sermon for Year A Proper 28 RCL – Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)