Danbury United Methodist Church
November 13, 2011
New Consecration Sunday 3
Should I Be Scared?
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Ephesians 6.1
Jesus tells a story today. He is in Jerusalem, and the clouds are gathering, the powers aligning, that will lead to his crucifixion. This parable comes toward the end of a long discourse about preparing for the kingdom of God—and it’s not happy talk. Jesus gives a series of warnings about being ready.
Jesus tells us that a master was going away, and entrusted his property to three servants. The master had paid attention to their abilities, and each one received a different amount of money to care for in the master’s absence.
Then the master left. They didn’t know when he would be back, but two of them got right to work, and doubled their money. The third decided to play it safe and buried the money in a hole in the yard.
And then the master returned. He was very pleased with the first two servants. Even though one servant made much more money than the other did, the master reacts exactly the same way to both.
‘Well done, good and trustworthy [servant]; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
Words everyone likes to hear: “You did a very good job. I’m giving you a promotion. I’m having a party, and you’re invited. Come on in.”
Now the third servant is beginning to think he might have messed up. He has observed what happened with the other two servants, and maybe he’s a little sorry now that he just sat around all this time. He comes to the master with a defensive attitude—as if it is the master’s fault that the servant didn’t do anything.
‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
Back then it was perfectly acceptable to bury money to keep it safe. That’s what most poor people did with their savings. And according to the laws, if someone found it and stole it, the servant could not be held liable. He took the safest, easiest way out. He made no effort, and he took no chances.
The third servant says he was afraid to do anything, because the master is harsh and unfair. Where did he get this idea? Let’s take a look at the master’s actions up to this point.
· First, the master gave each servant a huge amount of money. We think of talents as being something we’re good at—a talent for music or writing or knitting or bike riding—but the original meaning was a unit of weight, the largest in the Hebrew system. A talent of silver was a working person’s wage for 15 years. So the five-talent servant got at least a million and a half dollars; the two-talent servant $600,000; the one-talent servant $300,000. The master is generous. The one who got the least still got a lot.
· The master is observant and compassionate. Jesus makes it clear that the master gave this money thoughtfully. He knew his servants, and gave each of them a large amount of money “according to their abilities.” The one-talent servant wasn’t clueless or incompetent. The master understood that this one-talent servant was not likely to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company anytime soon, but the man had some abilities. The master gave each servant responsibility, but not more than they could manage.
· The master entrusts the servants with a fortune, and then gives them great latitude in its use. He trusts them—he doesn’t hang over their shoulders, doesn’t tell them what to do. He delegates the responsibility, and then he’s out of there. Any of you who supervise anyone—even parents who are trying to teach children—you know that letting go of the job is the hardest part. I once had a supervisor who would give the staff assignments, tell us to do whatever seemed right to us, and then refuse to accept what we came up with. The master in this story is a better manager than that.
· And then the master is generous when he gets back. He’s not a bean-counter—both of the servants who worked and risked get the same reward. Lavish praise, a promotion, and invitation to the party. The master promises to be even more generous in the future—to the three-talent servant, he says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things [$1.5 million is “a few things?”]; I will put you in charge of many things.”
What more could you ask?
So what’s up with the third servant? Why does the one-talent servant feel that the master is harsh? Why didn’t that harshness come to light earlier?
The answer, of course, is that this characterization of the master is unfair and wrong. The master, encountering faithful service, is more than fair—he’s extravagantly generous. The master is harsh with the third servant, but that seems to be exactly what the third servant expects.
As fascinating as all this is, what does it mean to us? Why did Jesus tell this story?
This parable is an allegory—the people and things and actions in the story correspond to another reality. We have to “decode” it to learn what it means to us. So, here goes.
· The master is Jesus.
· The servants are us.
· The money is all our resources—our time, our talents, and our treasures. The use of the word “talent” to mean something valuable or useful actually comes from this parable.
· The master going away is Jesus’ ascension into heaven after the resurrection; his return is Jesus’ Second Coming, which we are still waiting for.
· The settling of accounts is our judgment. Those who use their talents to do the work of God will receive a great big wonderful reward. Those who don’t…well, how do you like weeping and gnashing of teeth?
But wait a minute! When we examined this passage at Bible study on Wednesday, there were a lot of objections. People were very worried about the fate of the poor third servant. Isn’t Jesus being a little harsh here? After all, the third servant didn’t lose anything. And anyway, I thought God loved everyone!
This parable threatens our complacency. I have to say, we’re pretty good people around here. We’re the good guys! We’re the ones who come to church and give our money and our time, the ones who help others. But what if we’re not as good as God expects us to be? Maybe we haven’t exactly buried our talents, but are we really using them as fully as possible? Perhaps we could be so much more!
The problem is not with the master—it’s with the third servant. He has a twisted view of the master. He does not trust him, and does not love him. He just wants to sit on what he’s got. He doesn’t do the master’s work; he doesn’t take any risks. Maybe he thinks that if he does something, the master will expect even more of him. Maybe he doesn’t want a promotion—doesn’t want to be in charge of anything. Maybe he’s afraid of the unknown, and would rather leave well enough alone.
It is his own fear and lack of love that gets him thrown into the darkness. Jesus uses his own words against him: “You knew, did you, that I am a harsh master? Fine, if that’s what you want. For you I will be harsh.”
The party is for people who want to come to the party. The joy of our master is only joy for those who are ready for it.
The first two servants expect support from the master. As they serve him, they expect love, generosity, excitement, and fun. They are happy that the master approves of their work—but they go about that work without any fear. While they certainly made the best of their opportunity, they also took a risk. They could not have acted so boldly had they not trusted the master. If they had believed that the master would punish them for every mistake, they would not have felt free to do what they did. They act with confidence, not just in themselves, but also in their master.
The one-talent servant, however, acted in fear. He has no affection for the master, is concerned only for his own security, and does not aspire to serve the master well. He buried the money, assuming that this would protect him from criticism, and that’s all he wanted.
The joy of the master is for those who are ready for joy—and the third servant isn’t ready. Maybe some good teeth-gnashing time will help. Perhaps the third servant will look over from the darkness through the windows into the party, and decide that he wants to be there. But to come in, he will have to give up his fear and resentment, his need to tightly hold on to everything he’s got. Because that is the price of coming in to the party.
How about us? How do we get ready for the party? How do we prepare for the joy of our master? By serving our master well—using our talents.
God has given each of us something to work with––talents or abilities or resources––and God expects us to use those things to further God's kingdom. We’re not investing money—the commodity we are trading in is love. We share what we have, and use it to bring others into the love of God. That might mean giving money so that the church stays open. It might mean giving gloves to someone whose hands are cold, or a meal to someone whose belly is empty. It might mean giving our time to be present for others—in church on Sunday, at home when someone is grieving, at a service project, helping a neighbor rake a yard.
And we do these things with enthusiasm, “at once,” as the first two servants did. They didn’t wait until they had everything all figured out. They didn’t stash some of their talents away, and use what they felt they had to spare. They went out at once, and used everything they had.
In this way, we practice not being afraid. Because fear keeps us out of the party. We use what we have, and learn that we still have enough. We begin to see what God can do through us. We catch the excitement of being part of something big and wonderful.
The pastor and scholar William Barclay said, “A saint is someone whose life makes it easier to believe in God.” We celebrated All Saints last week, remembering people, living and dead, who lives make a difference. Some just changed a small circle around them; others changed the world.
Let’s get ready for the party. Let’s use what we have been given—our time, our money, our talents—to make a difference. Not everything we try will work—but we have to try. Like our master, let’s be generous, extravagant, joy-filled.
Let’s live lives that make it easier for people to believe in God.
14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’