Lessons; Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90; 1 Thess 5:1-10; St. Matthew 25:14-29
I had a parishioner come to me this week to ask me to clarify something that I said in last week’s sermon. First let me tell you how encouraging it is to know that folks are listening and trying to apply the Scripture preached.
His question was important and perhaps one that some of you have asked yourself so I want to share with your our conversation. He said to me, “If I understood you correctly you said that I had to develop my own relationship with Jesus, that no one can give me theirs.” To that I said “Correct.” He then said to me, “I’m not saying you are wrong but that is easier said than done. I start each day praying to do God’s will and to have the wisdom to see where He is leading me, but then the day gets filled with so many distractions and gnats to get rid of that by the end of the day I don’t know if I have done His will at all!”
This was my response. “The fact that you are beginning each day by praying to do God’s will and seeking wisdom to see where He is leading you, already puts you way ahead of the game.” He said, “So I got on base?” I said, “I think you hit a double. Sadly too many people go about their day-to-day lives as if God has nothing to do with them at all. But secondly I think you need to have the faith that even in those distractions and gnats, God is answering your prayer. For example I begin each day asking the Lord to help me to say what He wants me to say, to go where He wants me to go, to be what He wants me to be and meet with whom He wants me to meet. After praying that you called and asked if we could get together today. You were not on my calendar. Was that a gnat or distraction or was it God answering my prayer? I believe it was God answering my prayer.”
As if having a kind of epiphany he said, “So doing God’s will is not about the big stuff or being a superstar?” I said ‘No, Jesus modeled for us that it is about servant hood. He said ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.’ So being obedient in the everyday behind the scenes things of life is how we serve and build a relationship with the Lord.” That seemed to really help him and I hope that if you have been asking a similar question it helps you also.
I also bring up this conversation because you will notice how this discussion fits very well with our Gospel lesson today. The theme is what it means to be a faithful servant.
If you were to ask me what my personal life’s goal is I would tell you that it comes from this parable. My life’s goal is to hear the words, “Well done good and faithful servant….enter into the joy of your Master.” But to hear those words I must become faithful and this passage tells me how.
Let’s set the scene. We have three servants. One is given 5 talents another 2 talents and another 1. We don’t have to feel badly about the servant who only received 1 talent. 1 talent is the equivalent of 20 years of wages for a working man. The average wage in America is about $44,000 so one talent would be $880,000. So don’t feel badly for the servant with only 1 talent. But I worry that if I was the servant who received 5 talents the Master would need to look for me in my villa in Tuscany. So besides revealing my sinfulness, what are the lessons for us from this parable so that we are found to be faithful servants? There are several.
First, and this influences everything else, is to recognize that the talents belong to the Master. They are not the possession of the servant. People will say, “This is my money and so I will do with it whatever I want.” That is not correct.
When we present our offerings to the Lord what do we say? “All things come of Thee O Lord and of thine own have we given Thee.” Do you know where that comes from? It is a quote from 1 Chronicles. King David knows that his son Solomon will build a temple for the Lord and so David is gathering the resources to make it happen. I just told you that 1 talent is the equivalent of 20 years of wages. Well from his own wealth David supplied 5 thousand talents of gold! I don’t have enough fingers and toes to cipher that figure but let’s say it’s a lot. And even though this came from David’s personal treasure, as He was blessing God for all that had come in to build the temple he said, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” David understood that what He possessed in actuality came from the Lord and belonged to the Lord.
When we give our offerings we are not really giving to God what is ours, we are simply returning to Him a portion of what His all along. The wise servants understood that it was not theirs and therefore they were diligent to invest it so that when the Master returned they would be able to return His wealth and then some. The foolish servant acted as if it was his money so he stuck it in the ground and forgot about it.
A second lesson from this parable is that we are not to compare. The Master did not leave equal amounts to each servant. He was the opposite of a Marxist. Not only did he not make everyone equal, he took from the guy who had the least and gave it to the guy who had the most. Is that fair? It certainly is from the point of view of the Master. Unlike with us, He has the right to do whatever he wants with his money.
Notice when the Master came back and saw what the two faithful servants had done that he said the same thing to both. He did not compare them to one another. He did not rebuke the second servant for not coming up with the same amount as the first servant. The servant with 5 produced 5 more talents and the servant with 2 produced 2 more talents and the Master was equally happy with them.
The comparison game is a tough one, especially for clergy. I meet fairly regularly with a group of Pentecostal ministers for fellowship. They are really admirable servants of Christ but I have to tell you that it stretched my limits one day when one of the young pastors started complaining that no matter what he does he is not able to break through to 1,000 in attendance on Sunday morning. I told him that we have had the same problem at St. Patrick’s (and ever shall be, Amen.) It pushes all the wrong buttons for me when clergy start comparing numbers and I know it is my fault for having the buttons so here is what I tell myself.
There are several problems with the comparison game. First you are not acknowledging that it is the Master’s prerogative to give some more and others less. There will always be some with more than you and others with less than you. This is true about numbers and money and looks and smarts and on and on.
Second, comparing can fill you with such envy that you get discouraged with what you do have and like the unfaithful servant you do nothing with your talent. If you think that you have to have a voice like Stephanie DeWolfe in order to sing in the choir, then you are asking the wrong question. The question is not “Am I as good as Stephanie?” the question is “Has the Lord called me to sing in the choir?” If He has then you bring to Him your sacrifice of praise.
A third problem with comparison is that it quickly leads to coveting and that’s in the big 10 of thou shalt nots. Coveting has us want what the Lord has not provided and opens the door to all manner of sin. It is a big reason that even Christians are drowning in consumer debt and unable to give to the kingdom of God as they should. The lesson then is do not compare. The Master does not so then neither should we.
Another lesson from this parable is to understand THIS IS A TEST. Have you seen the bumper sticker that says “Life is not a dress rehearsal”? Well they are wrong. That is exactly what life is. This parable tells us that the rewards we are given in the life to come are directly related to what kind of stewards we have been with the things given to us in this life. The Master says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many.” In a similar parable in Luke Jesus says, “If then you have not been faithful in unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you true riches.” To the Lord, what we call wealth on earth is really monopoly money. How we steward it will depend on what kind of true riches we will receive in the fullness of the Kingdom.
Please don’t misunderstand, I am not talking about salvation by works. We are saved by grace through faith. But the kinds of rewards we receive once we are in His Kingdom are connected to our stewardship in this life.
I think that it is also important to point out here that while this parable is about money, faithful stewardship goes well beyond money. It also involves time. This in fact is the most important treasure that we have because you can always make more money but none of us can make more time.
When I was in seminary the Dean one morning challenged us to think about tithing our time to the Lord. I don’t think that he meant for us to literally look for 2.4 hours in the day to give to the Lord. But did make me think and become more aware of how much time I intentionally was giving to serving and ministering to the Lord. Of course the goal is to give all of your time to the Lord by doing whatever we do as unto the Lord. In this way our life is not dissected into sacred time and secular time because all of it is sacred.
That said, it is still worth considering the Dean’s question from the point of view of service in the kingdom and in your parish. How much time are you giving to reading Scripture and to prayer? How much time are you committing to serving others? How much time are you dedicating to ongoing training and discipleship? Are you setting aside time to regularly receive the Sacraments? These questions are important because how we use our time determines the priorities of our lives or… visa versa. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg but I do know that we cannot be faithful stewards without answering those questions. There is an important prayer in the Scripture that touches on this. “Teach me to number our days that we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom.” (Ps 90:12).
Similarly stewardship involves talent. God has given each of us gifts and we need to be deliberate in using those talents for the Kingdom. St. Gregory of the 6th century said, “Hiding a talent in the earth means employing one’s abilities in earthly affairs, failing to seek spiritual profit, never raising one’s heart from earthly thoughts.” Our talents have been given to us by the King and so it is only right that they are used in service of the King.
Another lesson is that we need to see how the servant’s view of the Master influenced his behavior. Because he saw his Master as harsh and even unjust, reaping where he did not sow, he was filled with fear and so he buried his talent.
How we view the Lord will have a significant impact on what kind of stewards we become. If you view God as harsh and unjust then you also will be filled with fear and it is difficult to be faithful when you are paralyzed by fear. If you see the Lord as generous and full of compassion then you will be willing to take a risk, make an investment and even be willing to fail.
When I first came to Middle Tennessee to plant a church I have to admit that I was scared to death. It really helped me in a meeting of the missioners when the Bishop said, “We are building the plane as we fly it.” It made me realize that I don’t have to have everything figured out and that there will be mistakes along the way but at least by the grace of God we will get the thing in the air. Getting rid of the fear and trying to do it perfectly allowed me, along with you, to do a successful plant.
If you have an unhealthy fear of the Lord then your stewardship will be drudgery, if you do it at all. But if you see the Lord for who He really is, full of compassion and mercy, then you will do what you do with joy. You will find your cup running over. You will discover that it a privilege to be a faithful servant.
Speaking of faithful servant, there is one more point that I do not want to make but I believe that I must. Our lectionary has dropped the last verse of the parable. Verse 30 reads, “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
My guess is that they dropped this last verse lest someone think that this parable is saying that if you are not a good steward then you are going to hell. I have empathy if that is the reason but I find it unfaithful to try to keep the Master from saying what the Master said. We might not like what He said but we don’t have the right to edit Him.
It is important to remember that this is a parable, and because a parable is an extended metaphor, every word of it is not to be taken literally. That is why I do not think that this parable is teaching that we will go to hell if we are not good stewards. What sends us to hell is the rejection of Jesus Christ.
Bishop NT Wright in his commentary on this passage reminds us that among Jesus’ audience are the Scribes and Pharisees. These men were given the great treasure of the law but instead of using it as a blessing and using it to bless others, they buried it by hoarding it for themselves. In putting the light under a bushel they were unable to see the True Light when He came into the world. Their rejection of the True Light is what will have them cast into outer darkness if they do not repent.
That said, there were also regular folks in Jesus’ audience. We are Jesus audience. In ending this parable on such a sober note Jesus leaves us with no room possible to believe that being a faithful steward is optional for us as Christians. And since Jesus ending His teaching on such a sober note, I will do so as well. Amen.