A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 13, 2011.
Psalm 90:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30
There’s a real temptation for me to take it easy with this sermon. What I mean by that is that there is a surface-level meaning to this parable Jesus told, the one we read a moment ago that is recorded in Matthew’s gospel, and we could deal with it right there on that obvious and safe level. As an artist might do with a piece of clay, we could knead it, work with it a bit, skew it somewhat to fit our purposes, talk about it for awhile – not more than twenty minutes, don’t you know! – clear our consciences with it, and then go out for a noon meal, forget we even came to church, and keep on doing things as usual.
We could do that.
Or, I could encourage you – that’s a euphemism, by the way, which really means I could make you feel guilty – to consider how God has blessed you with material things, as the master in Jesus’ parable has done with his servants, and tell you that Jesus wants you to practice good stewardship by giving back from your abundance. And, of course, the only place to give it back is to this church.
In addition to the stuff you own and the money you may or may not have in the bank, you’re a talented bunch of people who obviously have it going for you – and we know all what “it” is – so you have no need to apologize to anyone for the way you live. We could spend our time this morning simply doing a little spiritual-gifts inventory, recognizing that this is the fall season and everybody knows that this is the time of year when churches everywhere encourage their folk to be good financial stewards of their possessions and abilities because it’s also the time when the church is working on its next-year’s budget, not to mention filling their committees.
We could think about how the master in Jesus’ story affirms the two servants who went out and grew their investment, and encourage you all to support our congregation by giving more to our offerings so we can collectively, as a corporate congregation, do as these good and faithful servants did by multiplying that which is placed in our hands.
We could do all that. But if we do, we may very well miss the point.
Clarence Jordan used to say that a parable from Jesus was like a Trojan horse… you let it in, and Bam! – it’s got you.1 Well, to be honest with you, I’m not sure we’ve ever really let this one inside our gates.
The context of this parable is not stewardship. It is readiness. Just prior to this story, Jesus tells of the five wise bridesmaids and the five foolish ones. The bottom line of his story is found in his admonition, “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” He’s not speaking of the annual budget campaign. He’s talking about that inevitable moment when God will come and make a claim – a huge and final claim – on your life.
The parable that follows the story of the master and the servants is one we should be more familiar with. It has to do with the sheep and the goats, those who minister to the sick and hungry and naked and imprisoned, and those who fail to do so. Jesus concludes this parable with talk of eternity – both eternal punishment and eternal life.
In the parable of record for today, the talk is of talents… unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” because you know what we generally think of when we hear the word talent. Simon Cowell and American Idol come to mind, or maybe Dancing With the Stars. But that is not what Jesus means here. In Jesus’ day, talent meant one thing pure and simple: money. Actually, lots of money.
If you and I were in conversation and I said to you, “You have a lot of talent,” you might think I was referring to your ability to sing or play a musical instrument. But in Jesus’ day, if someone acknowledged your talent, you would start holding on to your pocketbook, afraid you were about to be hit up for a loan.
How much money? Going back to early Jewish days, the talent represented the heaviest weight in the Hebrew system. It was used to measure gold and bronze and iron. By the time of Jesus, the talent was used less as a measure than it came to refer to a specific amount, 6000 denarii. A denarius was the average daily wage of a common laborer. That means one talent was worth 6000 days of labor, about nineteen years of hard work. That’s a lot of money in anyone’s book.
Understanding this helps us with our perspective when it comes to Jesus’ parable. A man – probably a wealthy landowner – is about to go on a journey. So, he summons three of his servants and informs them that he is going to entrust them with a substantial portion of his goods. He gives to one servant five talents (or almost eighty years’ wages for a common laborer), to another he gives two and to a third servant he gives one. All told, he puts in the hands of his servants a lot of money.
We know what they did, don’t we? The first two servants double their master’s trust in them, the third, being afraid of his master, buries his in the ground for safekeeping. That means, of course, that while the man’s money is safe, it has not grown in value. And for that reason, while the first two servants are blessed by their master, the third is punished severely.
There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus had never seen this kind of money. When he made his point with the Pharisees and Herodians in the temple that they were to render to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, he had to “borrow” a coin from one of them. No, Jesus wasn’t one to handle a great deal of money, if any at all. Unfortunately, he left that up to Judas, and we know how that turned out. So the amounts he mentions in his story come from his vast imagination.
Or do they? Maybe they come from his knowledge and understanding of the kingdom of heaven. You see, this parable is really about the kingdom, not the stewardship of our financial resources here on earth. And while money is central to the story, the story is not about money.
Jesus is talking about how much the kingdom is worth and the kind of value we attach to the good news – the gospel – of the kingdom. How much is the kingdom worth? More than you can possibly imagine. It is worth as much or more as the pearl of great price or the treasure found in the field. Jesus is trying to get us to understand that the kingdom exceeds anything we can imagine or understand.
There are some people for whom my annual salary – and yours – is a weekend’s pocket change. It’s hard, if not impossible, for us to get our minds around that. Such sums of money do things to the people who have them, not all of them bad, to be sure, but not all of it is good either. Most of the time, that is determined by how the money has been procured.
Lottery winners, for example, have dismal records. As hard as it is to understand, many of them go through the money like it’s water. Others are so besieged by sudden friends and family wanting a piece of the action, that they turn to bitterness and despair. Few of them know what to do with the money they suddenly find in their pockets.
A few years ago, a Baptist church in east Arkansas was the recipient of a windfall. A retired schoolteacher, of all things, died and left her church $7 million. Boy, what we could do around here with that! Well, let’s reconsider. I knew the pastor at the church. He wisely made an appointment with the head of the Baptist foundation. When they met, the pastor said to him, “Help us. This money is going to ruin our church!”
They could have buried the $7 million, like the third servant in Jesus’ parable. Despite the punishment Jesus affixes to the man, people tended to do that kind of thing back then. Doubling one’s money, as the first two servants did, was a huge gamble. They stood the risk of losing it all in speculation. What would the master think of that? The third servant was really quite prudent in what he did and no doubt expected to be commended for having done so. But he got a tongue lashing instead.2 Why?
Well, it could be that Jesus’ story is not intended for individual believers but for the church as a corporate body of believers. One pastor has suggested that what Jesus is saying is that “an astonishingly ravishing gift has been unloaded on an unsuspecting church that has not the faintest notion how to handle it.”3 And it’s not $7 million. It is the kingdom. In other words, we don’t have a clue as to just how wonderful the kingdom really is. It is beyond anything we could possibly imagine. Yet, we just go on doing church as usual, acting as if we have pennies in our hands while there is a fortune under our feet, a fortune that is not measured in dollar signs.
“We populate church committees with the best people for the task at hand, and in meetings they confidently offer insights from their education and professional experience. But maybe what God needs is people who will huddle up, shake their heads and confess, ‘We just have no idea; the treasure is too big, too heavy.’ Maybe then, and only then, we can dare something for God.”4
I wonder if the master’s response to the servants’ stewardship has less to do with how much they accumulate as it did with the enthusiasm with which they did it. I can just see the first two servants rushing out the door, ready to take a risk and increase that which had just been put in their hands. And then there is the third servant. The only thing he does is look for an available shovel.
The most telling thing he says to his master is, “I was afraid… I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”
The gospels are full of people like this fearful third servant, those who look out for themselves and never consider that they are a part of a larger world where their gifts are needed and their courage is required. There is the older brother of the one called the prodigal. He refuses to welcome his brother home because he resents what his brother has done and resents even more his father who lets him get away with it. There are the vineyard laborers who have worked all day and are angry that those who worked only part of the time have been paid the same amount as they’ve been given. There is the son who tells his father he will help him in the fields, but then does not. There are the thoughtless maidens who are unprepared for the delay of the bridegroom. There are those who refused to see the needs of others and did not respond in a way that is in keeping with the kingdom’s purposes.
There are the religious authorities who seem on every page of the gospels to be confronting Jesus because he relates to God on a different level from anything that is comfortable to them. They keep the rules and this upstart Galilean rabbi does not, and they resent him mightily because of it.
All these are people who have no clue that there is an unseen but present kingdom available from which to draw the kinds of resources that lead to eternal life.
My friends, let’s not be like them. Instead, let’s be willing to take the risk that comes from following Jesus. As John Shedd has said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.” Ships are for sailing the open sea, taking the risk that all will be safe in order to accomplish an overriding mission. If following Jesus boldly leads us into uncharted waters, so be it. There is more out there for us to hold in our hands because God, in his eternal wisdom and grace, wants to give it to us. The question is, will we receive it? And if so, what will we do with it then?
Lord, you have placed in our hands the presence of your kingdom. Help us, when we go out these doors, to take that wonderful gift and risk it for you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1James Howell, “Living By the Word: Trojan Horse,” The Christian Century, November 1, 2005, p. 19.