This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. The text is Matthew 25:14-30.
Last week when the church council met, one of the topics we discussed was stewardship, since it is that time of year. Upon reading today’s gospel, my reaction was, “Oh good! This is about stewardship!” Well, the more I studied, the more I realized that stewardship, as we envision it, is not the thrust of what Matthew is saying to us.
Looking at the cultural context, let’s see if we can get a handle on what this parable is about. First of all, what is a talent? Doesn’t talent mean that someone can sing or dance or do stand-up comedy well? Isn’t that why we have shows like “America’s Got Talent?” In Jesus’ time, a talent was not an ability, but rather a very large sum of money—between 75-96 pounds of silver. One talent was equal to 15 years of a laborer’s wages. Five talents would be more than a lifetime’s wages.
Not all disciples have the same amount of responsibility as we see in this parable of the slaves. They were all given talents “according to their ability” (v. 15). As God’s children, we are obligated to participate in God’s mission “according to to [our] ability” (v. 15).
The master called his slaves and “delivered over” or “gave over” his possessions to them. That’s the meaning in Greek of the word translated as “entrusted.” It seems to imply “giving up control of.” The talents were not simply on loan to the slaves to look after in the master’s absence, but became truly theirs.
One slave was given five talents and the other two. Each of these slaves went and made more talents, so that when the master returned “after a long time” (v. 19), they were eager to show him what they had done with the talents given them. They had taken the risk of obedience and faithfulness and were successful. The master praised them as “good and faithful.” This is not a stance of “theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and risk” (Boring). The master rewards the faithful slaves with his joy, changing the relationship with them to one of equals.
What does it mean for us to “enter into your master’s joy” (vv. 21, 23)? Joy comes as the result of what God has done in sending Jesus: speaking the Word, the coming of the kingdom, saving the lost and the resurrection—in other words, the gospel—the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ. We may understand the “talents” as the gospel—the great treasure God has given the church. If, like the third slave, we try to protect it, or save it only for ourselves, we risk losing it (Stoffregen).
Two verses each are devoted to the master’s conversation with each of the first two slaves. When we come to the third slave, four verses are spent on that conversation alone. The first two slaves aren’t so much “characters in the story as foils against which to compare the third servant, whose actions are unique, whose speech is unique…, and whose condemnation by the master serves as the climax of the story” (Mark Douglas).
The third slave accused the master of being harsh and of reaping where he didn’t sow seed and gathering where he hadn’t scattered seed, in other words, harvesting from someone else’s field, which sounds scandalous, doesn’t it? The slave had no basis for his description of the actions of the master. In insulting his master, this slave blamed the master’s perceived harsh character for his own failure to increase his talent. If anything, the master was very generous. He placed great wealth at the disposal of all the slaves, including this one.
However, the master deemed this slave to be wicked and lazy (v. 26). The unfaithful slave’s “sin is not merely that he fails to use his gifts faithfully, but his failure to see the gifts as precious and, most importantly, his failure to know his master” (Douglas Hare). The motivation of the good slaves was to do the work of their master. The motivation of the bad slave was fear. His problem wasn’t as much his actions as his fear. Because he saw the master as an immoral taskmaster to be feared; the master became exactly what the slave imagined him to be. This parable warns us against fear that “the God we face is the one we imagine” (Douglas). If we imagine fear, we will receive fear. If we imagine grace, then grace is what we will receive.
What made the difference in the master’s pleasure or anger with the three slaves? Was it because of overall output? That can’t be it because the master said the exact same thing to the slave who had been given five talents and to the one who had been given two. He was equally pleased and told them to “enter into the joy of [their] master” (vv. 21, 23).
Did you hear what was different about the slaves’ response to his master’s return? The first two slaves were confident, showing the master what they had done, while before showing the master anything, the third slave declared the master to be harsh. Therefore, he was afraid, burying his one talent.
Now the fact that he hid the talent wasn’t that big a deal. In that day people did bury their money for safe keeping. The real issue which drove his behavior and caused the master’s anger was his view and image of the master. The slave saw him as a harsh man that should be feared. Fear had paralyzed this slave from stepping out and taking some risk.
The master does not judge on the basis of outward appearances, but on the basis of their relationship to or their perception of him. He gave no clear instructions of what to do during his long absence, so faithfulness was not merely obedience to directions.
With whom do you and I identify with in this gospel passage? We are the slaves, but in which one do we recognize ourselves? It is up to us. How will we use our time and God’s generosity while waiting for Christ’s return? We might ask ourselves about the attitude that characterizes my relationship with God. Do I dread God’s wrath or do I have confidence in God’s mercy? Am I able to follow Luther’s advice to “Sin boldly, but believe even more boldly still?”
Rather than thinking of today's gospel as primarily a stewardship parable, we should consider it a parable of the graciousness and generosity of the master and our response to that. Even the slave that received only one talent received a whole lot of money.
This parable is also a disturbing story about what Christians do or don’t do with the gospel as they wait for the coming of the kingdom of heaven (Long). What would life be like if we were as concerned about increasing the spread of the gospel of God’s grace, as we are about increasing the return on our financial investments? In recent weeks, when investments weren’t doing so well, people were very concerned about them—more than most people have been about growing the gospel for the sake of the Lord.
Jesus is a completely different kind of master and lord, offering hope to those who fail.
Being a follower of Jesus is all about relationship-our relationship with God, our relationship with each other and our relationship with our community. Fear paralyzes God’s children and warps their view of who God is. One who is not a child of God should be afraid because a day of judgment is coming. As negative and depressing as that may sound, it means justice will be meted out.
We often feel like bad things keep on happening and the perpetrators are not punished. God pays attention to consequences of evil, injustice, greed and other personal and corporate sins. Many live in the “outer darkness” of extreme poverty, terrorism, racism and prejudice.
What good news can we offer those on the margins of society and those who are oppressed? What global and local ministries demonstrate our faithful living as children of God who embrace others out of our abundance, offering tangible signs of God's grace and salvation? Locally, we have St. Susan’s Center, UCAN, the United Christian Advocacy Network, the Addiction Response Ministry, the GA Home and many other agencies. Nationally and internationally we see the work of Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Advocacy, ELCA world hunger outreach and many others.
Those of us in relationship with Jesus, can fearlessly work for God’s kingdom. Living a fearless faith, we can take off to various places to help victims of natural disasters. Living a fearless faith, we can work to fight the drug epidemic in our country and city. Living a fearless faith, we can better share our stories of what God has done in our lives. Living a fearless faith in the Lord Jesus, it just might make a difference in the life and growth of our congregation. We dare not be like the “respectable” people of whom Bonhoeffer said, “The sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
Advent will soon be upon us. Emanuel, God with us, is one of Matthew’s main metaphors and names for Jesus. He came in the flesh to always be with us and for us. This Advent and Christmas season, let us check our assumptions of Jesus against the image and promise of the Christ child. It may take time and may be difficult, but let us allow our images of God to be reshaped and reformed. May we realize that God meant it when God called us. Then we can fearlessly proclaim to all the world that God is a God of love, who entrusts us with great gifts and riches, who is eager for us to make the most of them and is always inviting us to enter the joy of our Lord (Lose).
Eugene Boring, Matthew, New Interpreter Bible).
Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2.
Douglas Hare, Interpretation: Matthew, p. 287.
Steven C. Kuhl, Text Teaser, Nov. 14, 2017.
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion.
John Petty, progressiveinvolvement.com.
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com/brian.