11/15/20 “Many Happy Returns”

Matthew 25:14-30

When we read our passage for today—what’s known as the “Parable of the Talents”—we’re likely to feel one of two ways. We may feel a little smug, because we’re confident that we have a lot in common with the first and second slaves. Or, we feel a little nauseous, because we’re afraid we have more in common with the third slave. We either look confidently toward the day of our Master’s return, or we look forward to it with a feeling of trepidation. If you’re in the third-slave group, let me put your mind at ease. There’s a happy ending to this story, even though Jesus doesn’t include it.

As we reflect on this story, it’s important to remember what parables are and what they’re not. We like to make parables digestible by turning them into allegories, where everything and everyone in the story is a stand-in for something or someone else. And, Jesus does occasionally use them that way. But more often, Jesus tells parables to get us thinking. He uses them to upset our comfortable assumptions and to stretch our understanding of what it means to live as his faithful disciples. As the theologian Karoline Lewis has said, “Jesus tells parables not for explanation but for exploration. Not for answers but to engage the imagination. Not for certainties about faith but for discoveries about how faith works.”

The story is a familiar one.  A man prepares to leave on a journey.  He summons his slaves and, in Matthew’s words, “entrusts his property to them.”  This may sound odd to us, but in the ancient world, slaves often had great responsibility and authority in their masters’ households and businesses.  And the master has just made his slaves responsible for a lot of property.  One talent was the equivalent of about 33 kilos of gold. I checked the price of gold this week, and if the story had taken place today, that one talent of gold would be worth more than 2 million dollars. In those days, one talent was about what a day laborer could expect to earn in 15 to 20 years.  Today, for someone working fulltime at Ohio’s minimum wage, it would take more than 115 years to earn 1 talent. The point is, the master entrusted his slaves with very valuable property.

Then he went away.  As Jesus tells the story, the man doesn’t give his slaves any details about his travel plans—not where he’s going or why, not even when or if he’d be back. He doesn’t give them any instructions on what to do with the property he has just placed in their care. He simply trusts them to take care of it in his absence. Then, he up and leaves.

The first slave wasted no time. At once, Jesus tells us, he traded his five talents and doubled what he’d been handed.  The slave with two talents did the same.  They achieved a phenomenal return on their investments, which they would be able to offer to their master upon his return. But the slave with one talent took what was entrusted to him and buried it in the ground for safekeeping.  No risk, but also no reward.

The master returns and calls his servants in for an accounting.  The five- and two-talent slaves proudly return to him what they had been entrusted with and all that the extra they’d made in the master’s absence.  The master is delighted and praises them, inviting them to share his own joy in the enlargement of his property.

Then the one-talent slave comes forward.  I always wonder if at first, when he was summoned to appear before his master, he felt pretty confident.  After all, he’d done the reasonable and prudent thing.  He had buried his talent—the accepted way of safeguarding your money in those days.  He hadn’t lost a dime (or, rather, a denarius) of his master’s money.  Maybe he was anticipating how pleased his master would be.

But then the first two slaves go forward, and he sees the reception they get.  He gets a sinking feeling that he’s called this one all wrong.  He confesses his fear of his master and of the responsibility he’d been given.  But the master is not moved and chastises the slave in the harshest possible ways.  He takes away what had been entrusted to the slave and shuts him out of the master’s life.

This story is often preached as a stewardship story to encourage people to give more money to the church. But this is not really a story about money. It’s a story about what we’ve been entrusted with, and what we do with it. It’s also a story about relationship—our relationship with God. And it’s a judgment story—how we will be judged when our Master returns.

Think about the outlandishly large amounts the Master entrusted to his slaves. The Master has at his disposal seemingly limitless resources and he lavishly places them in his servants’ hands. Even the one-talent slave was entrusted with an enormous amount. We, too, have been entrusted with our Master’s property, as individuals and as a congregation—abundant property. We’ve been entrusted with talents—maybe not the money kind (although compared to many people, we have), but with abilities, experience, connections. When you’re tempted to think that what you have and what you are is too small, know that as your Master’s servant, whatever you’ve been given is of enormous value.

The master of the parable didn’t tell his slaves what to do with the money he’d left with them. But the first two seemed to know what to do. Maybe it was because they had worked alongside their master and took their cue from him. They had watched and learned, and once he was gone, they picked up where he left off. And they were eager to do it. Jesus tells us that the first two slaves went at once to begin their work on behalf of their master. There was no hesitation. Just a sense of urgency.

Apparently, there wasn’t any fear, either. They must have been willing to take some risks with their master’s millions. They did gain a 100% return on their investment, after all. They trusted that their master would be more interested in what they did than in what they earned or lost. They weren’t worried that they would be punished for making a mistake, so they were free to act boldly. The fear of loss was outweighed by their anticipation of offering their master the fruit of their faithful actions, guaranteeing him a very happy return.

But then there was that poor third slave. I imagine him, after the master had handed him his talent, paralyzed by the responsibility he’d been given. He’s afraid he’ll get it wrong. He’s afraid that he doesn’t have the experience, or the knowledge, or the contacts he needs to invest what has been entrusted to him. He’s afraid he won’t make the best choice. He’s afraid that what he chooses will end badly. He’s afraid of his master’s reaction if he takes a risk that doesn’t pay off. So, he buries his talent. Not only does he not do anything with it, he puts it where no one can even see it. Of course, that means no one can benefit from it either.

This story challenges us to recognize what has been entrusted to us and to use it—now. It challenges us not to wait until opportunities to use our gifts come to us.  The first two slaves of the story went off at once to use their talents. They sought out opportunities. Who knows where they went or what they did? Maybe they invested in people and places that weren’t in their comfort zones, because that’s where the greatest potential for happy returns lay. Faithful servants don’t confine their efforts inside office buildings or church buildings or circles of friends. They go off in search of ways to use their master’s property to benefit the master’s kingdom, even when it’s risky, even when it’s requires a leap into the unknown, even when it’s a little scary.

What frees us to invest our talents with abandon is our relationship with our Master. We trust in his love for us. As we read in the first letter of John, “Perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.” Our Master doesn’t entrust us with talents and then give us a quota we have to meet. We are only expected to use his property for the benefit of his kingdom. Whatever results we are able to offer him will be met by his joy—a joy that will include us as well.

But what of that third slave, and what of those of us who, in our secret hearts, worry that we’re more like him than we wish we were? His problem was a relationship problem. He didn’t trust in his master’s care for him. He didn’t understand what kind of master he was serving. It seems he didn’t know his master at all. He said that he “knew that his master was a harsh man.” He thought his master was someone who would exact a terrible penalty if he couldn’t produce certain results. And so, he was afraid, as we might be afraid if we believe that God will only love us if we live up to certain criteria and condemn us if we fail.

But nothing else in the story suggests that the slave’s master was anything but a loving man. And the good news of the Gospel is that our Master is a loving God. Our God loves us—loves us and the world so much that he sent his only Son that we may have eternal life. Jesus loves us so much that he was willing to go to the cross for us. We have nothing to fear from our Master if we trust in his goodness and his good intentions for us.

Yes, there will be a judgment day. But the good news for those who put their trust in the Master is that, when we stand before him, it’s not what we did or didn’t do that he’ll see. What he’ll see is what Jesus did. He’ll see that Jesus covered our sins with his body and washed us clean with his blood. He’ll see that Jesus lent his righteousness in place of our sinfulness and that Jesus met our weaknesses and failures with his victory. It’s only our fear and our lack of trust that can keep us in the outer darkness. Jesus was willing to die so that we could enter into the joy of our Master, if we’ll only trust him as our Lord and Savior.

Trust in our Master allows us to use our talents without fear of failure. Trust in our Master enables us to invest ourselves and all that we’ve been given in making this world look more like the kingdom. Trust in our Master empowers us to use the gifts we’ve been given, boldly and with a sense of urgency until that happy day when the Master himself returns and we enter into his joy.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young