Last week I told you that chapters 24 and 25 are a second Sermon on the Mount delivered by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. The more familiar Sermon on the Mount was delivered early in the gospel on a mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee and was a series of teachings including the Beatitudes about how to live the life of faith. This second Sermon on the Mount is delivered to the disciples on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem near the end of the life of Jesus. Its topic is the end of time and how to live in preparation for it.
After a sermon warning the disciples that there will always be people claiming that this war or that earthquake or that astrological event will be the sign that the world is about to end, they should not be led astray by them because no one knows when it will be, and exhorting them to stay awake and alert and prepared, Jesus tells them four parables about preparation.
The parables need to be seen as a group, really, to see the different facets of preparation, rather than seeing any one of them as the whole truth. The first tells of a man leaving on a long journey and leaving one of his slaves in charge, who is to be responsible for the welfare of all the people in his household. He says that the one is blessed who is found taking care of those duties when the Master returns. But if the slave takes advantage of his authority and begins beating the other slaves and hanging out with drunkards, then the Master will return at an unexpected hour and the slave will be in big trouble.
The second parable is the one we looked at in depth last week, the wise and foolish bridesmaids. The wise bridesmaids are the ones who bring extra oil with them just in case the groom is delayed, so they will be able to discharge their duties of escorting the groom to the bride’s house with their lamps burning brightly. The extra oil represents a reserve of faith being built up by an active faith life of worship, study, prayer, mission, and fellowship. This kind of life is what can help us persevere in faith when two thousand years go by and Jesus still hasn’t come back. It is not a problem because we continue to grow and be active in our faith and our oil is constantly replenished rather than used up.
The third parable is the one I just read, the parable of the talents. It is frequently used for teaching about the stewardship of money, and rightly so because it is indeed a story about the stewardship of money; and it is also frequently used for teaching about the stewardship of talents because of the use of the word “talents” in the story. That is somewhat misleading, because the word “talent” here refers to a sum of money rather than actual talents. But it is not only appropriate to use in talking about talents, it is appropriate to use in talking about the stewardship of our whole lives and faith.
To set the parable in context, having just told a parable about the importance of always having a reserve of oil, of faith, to sustain you through dark nights and long periods of waiting, Jesus moves on to tell a parable showing that he doesn’t mean the life of faith is just protectively sitting on what you have and making sure it is always there. You’ve got to do something with what you have been given, you have to use it to make a difference in the world. Let’s look at it.
There is a Master going on a long journey again. Jesus is getting ready to leave them, or be taken from them, and it is uncertain when he will be back. Before leaving, the Master calls aside three of his servants and hands over sums of his money for them to look after. Jesus says the Master gives to each of them according to their ability, which we will return to shortly. To the first he gives five talents, to the second two talents and to the third one talent. He gives no instructions as to what they are to do with this money. He is not a micromanager, not a helicopter parent. It is up to each one what they will do with what has been entrusted to them.
I need to tell you at this point that we are talking big money. One talent was the equivalent of about 20 years of wages for an ordinary working person. If we said an average salary today was $20,000, then that would mean the servant given one talent was given the equivalent of $400,000 and the one with five talents was given $2 million. That would make me pretty nervous.
Well, the servant with five talents went out and got busy trading in the marketplace and in time doubled his money. The servant with two talents did the same. The servant with one talent dug a hole in the ground and hid the money so none of it would be missing when the Master returned. We might look at the wise bridesmaids in the previous parable hanging on to their flasks of oil and being unwilling to share any and thinking this last servant probably had the right idea. If an emergency comes along he will have some money for it. He’s not going to spend it and he is not going to risk a bad investment or a bad month for the DOW when the Master happens to return. By the way, nobody had a lock on their door in those days and there were no banks with vaults or FDIC insurance, so burying money in a secluded spot was a common way of protecting one’s money back then.
After a long time the Master returns, and of course he checks in with these servants about the money he left with them. The first and second both hand over the doubled amount, and the Master exclaims to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your Master.”
The third servant steps forward and immediately starts with excuses. He even blames his Master for what he did. He says, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is, every penny of it accounted for.” The Master explodes, “You wicked and slothful servant! You should have at least invested it with the bankers to make some interest. Take the talent from him, and give it to the servant who has ten, and cast this servant into the darkness.”
The key to the parable turns on how the servants view the Master. The first two servants, it seems to me, had observed the Master closely enough to know his practices, to know what he would do with that money. They have lived with him closely enough and watched him and learned from him, so they get out and get to work and do what he would have done. You pour yourself into life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you don’t leave anything in the locker room, you give it everything you have. They knew the Master as a trusting, generous man, and they believed the results of their actions would be pleasing in his sight regardless of the bottom line.
The third servant is fearful of the Master, and sees him as a hard man. I wonder if that could be because he has always been on the lazy side, trying to get away with doing as little as possible, staying as far from the Master as he could hoping not to be noticed. Tom Long says that “the one talent man pronounces his own judgment; he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see. The story is not about a generous master suddenly turning cruel and punitive; it is about living with the consequences of one’s own faith. If one trusts in the goodness of God, one can boldly venture out with eyes wide open to the grace in life and can discover the joy of God’s providence everywhere.” (Westminster Bible Commentary, Matthew, p. 283)
Is the parable about money or talents? Yes, but not entirely. It is about how we live our lives during this time when we wait for the Master to come back. When Jesus comes back he is not going to want to audit our bank accounts. He is going to want to know how we invested our lives, and what return there has been on that investment. I wish Jesus had told the parable differently. I wish one of the ones who invested the money had lost it all, because I’d like to know how the Master would have responded to that. I think if the Master saw that the person had acted faithfully according to what he had learned from him, there would have been no condemnation.
John Buchanan writes, “The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. It is about living. It is about investing. It is about taking risks. It is about Jesus himself and what he has done and what is about to happen to him. Mostly it is about what he hopes and expects of them after he is gone. It is about being a follower of Jesus and what it means to be faithful to him, and so, finally, it is about you and me. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, p. 310)
And this is made abundantly clear when we come to the last of the four parables, the separation of the sheep and the goats in the final judgment. The criteria for the judgment is whether you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave water to the thirsty, visited the prisoner. All of these are risky investments. Not a one of them will add a cent to the plus side of your financial ledger. But in the eyes of the one who truly matters, each such investment is doubled in value. Inasmuch as you did it for one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it for me.
So what do these parables show us about how to live our lives in preparation for the second coming? We are to make sure those in the household, and those in the church, are safe and taken care of. We are to practice our faith daily in such ways that the oil of faith is replenished rather than burning out. We are to take all the gifts given to us and invest them in the world in the way that we have learned from watching Jesus live. We are to be attentive to the needs of the least around us.
And that’s what it means to live in the light. A story is told about a man named John Rushkin, who lived in the days when English villages were lit by oil lamps that lined the streets. One evening he and a friend watched as a lamplighter moved up the street, lighting the lamps one by one. Rushkin said, “That’s what it means to be a real Christian. You can trace his course through life by the lights that he leaves burning.” (Homiletics, 8.1., p. 22)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 16, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church