“Sound Investments”

Matthew 25: 14-30 / Consecration Sunday /November 17, 2002 / Norman B.Bendroth

“Once upon a time in a far away land, David Perretti, the treasurer at the First Congregational Church in Winchester, was going to Disney World with his grandkids. Before leaving town, he gave Penny Sparrow a check for $5,000, Anne Hoenicke a check for $2,000, and Dave Weir a check for $1,000. He said, ‘This is all the money from the church’s endowment fund. See if you can double it before I get back.’ Penny bought some high tech stock in a bull market and made a bundle. Anne bought a certificate of deposit at Bank of America and got a modest return. Dave hid his in a New Century Hymnal.

When David asked to see the returns, Penny gave him a dividends check for $10,000, Anne gave him a cashier’s check for $4,000, and Dave said he lost his. David said to Penny and Anne, “Well done good and faithful homeboys, here are some tickets to a Stones concert at the Garden. Live long and prosper.” But with Dave he totally lost it and tossed him out onto Church St. where there were many parking tickets and the wailing of cell phones.”

I thought it might help our understanding of this parable if we modernized it a bit. It’s a story about the sound investment of our lives in God’s Kingdom. I wish to make two simple assertions about the teaching of the Parable of the Talents. First, God invests in us and, secondly, God will settle all accounts.

First, God invests in us. In our parable today, a businessman (literally, “chief”) going abroad hands over a sum of capital to three men in his employ. He’s got eight talents to work with and he wants them to invest them profitably in his absence. The literal expression here is “work with.” The master wants them to “work with” the money. It could be by starting a business, investing in stocks, or playing the horses—we don’t know—but they are asked to multiply it.  “Servants” or “slaves” in antiquity often managed a great deal of commercial business and were entrusted, as here, with responsible functions. Perhaps even a better word for slave or servant would be “steward”—someone who manages money and responsibility for the master.

The sums distributed are enormous. In the first century of the Greco-Roman world, a “talent” was one of the largest values of money and weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds. It was equivalent to about 6,000 denarii. Since a denarius was a day’s wages for a common laborer, and since such a person might work some 300 days per year, a talent would be worth nearly twenty years’ wages. Matthew has this penchant for exaggeration, if only to make a point.  It is obvious that the Master here is Jesus, and we are the servants, the Church. The talents are the extravagant grace of God poured out on each one of us.

Let me resolutely state up front that the talents and the returns on them are not symbols of good works. If we have learned anything in our study of the parables it is that God’s free acceptance is not for sale. It cannot be bought. It can only be received. Rather, the talents are faith-in-action, not the results of that faith. It’s the action that comes from believing God. It’s not activity that wins brownie points with God. The parable emphatically does not say that God is a bookkeeper looking for productive results. The only bookkeeper in the story is the servant who was afraid he was going to get audited, so he hid his talent. If the parable was meant to teach us that God cared about the bottom line, then why didn’t Jesus have the master take away the talent from the third servant and give it to the second to kind of even out the profits? Why this bizarre ending of enriching the already rich, if not to show God’s aversion to any counting at all? Here again, as in all the parables we’ve looked at, it is the unwillingness to put faith in the master that is condemned.

Instead of giving them equal shares, the Master assigns five talents to the first, two to the second, and one to the third. The first two worked with what they had and doubled their money. The third servant did squat—he buried the talent. He treated it as if it were dead, for that’s what you do with dead things—you bury them.

This seems self-evident, but it bears repeating: God does not give out gifts equally. I think it is fair to say that talents are more than money, even though the word didn’t carry that specific meaning in the parable. God has distributed talents, gifts, aptitudes, brains, and bronze at varying levels. Some folks are smarter than others. Not everyone has Olympian abilities. Some of us have perfect pitch. Others are fit as a fiddle until the day they day at 98 years old. No, the Dealer did not deal even hands. But we are all expected to play the hand we’re dealt as best we can. While it may seem unfair that some got three aces while another couldn’t even put a pair together, God never treats one different from the other. God delights in each one. To both the man with the five talents and to the one with the two God says, “Well done my good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master.” Same praise. Same reward.

Secondly, in this regard, note in v. 15 that the talents were given to “each according to his ability.” God doesn’t give us more than we can handle or ask us to do more than we are able. This is reminiscent of the catalog of gifts found in Romans 12: 6-8 where Paul says, “We have different gifts according to the grace given us.” God doesn’t give us anymore than we need or any less than we need.  It’s a reminder that all of us have limits, but that God can do wondrous things through us even within those limits. It’s like an off-speed pitcher who suddenly tries to become a fast ball pitcher. When he pitches harder than he can or should, he usually loses control of the ball.

You see, God would have accepted anything the third servant might have done with the money. Even if he had put it in one of those ridiculously low interest bearing savings accounts (what are they paying today, 11/2%?).—that one talent might have produced something as a result of faith-in-action. But he didn’t do squat. He didn’t live up to his ability. He didn’t exercise any faith. He didn’t trust the master.

This brings us to our second point. God will one day settle up. The text tells us that it was “after a long time” that the master returned to settle accounts. “The long time” is a reference to the time between the first and Second Advent of Christ—the time between now and the end of time when God will sew the whole show up. Contrary to what the folks who right the Left Behind series think, God is in no hurry to pack up this world. There are billions of people who have not heard the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. There are millions of hurting, hungry people. There is too much injustice. There is too much suffering. There is too much work yet to be done. God is not yet through with this world, but is working in and through us to redeem it. Don’t get any delusions of grandeur—even our best efforts are often botched and only approximate what God has in mind, but nevertheless the wheels of history are inexorably grinding towards that great day when God will be all in all.

So, as I said earlier, the first two servants present the results of their investment and the master seems quite pleased with both of them. To both of them he says, “Well done, good and faithful 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.” The good works and good results in this parable are praised, not as ends in themselves, but as signs of faithfulness-in-littleness. They are kind of sacraments, outward visible signs of God’s invisible grace. The first servant is not given more commendation because he made more with his talent. They both exercised the capacities and gifts that God had given them. They both received the same reward.

You get the impression, reading this parable that this master loves to throw his money around. He loves giving out dough and seeing what people will do with it. It’s the theme of the divine party again that we’ve been looking at in these parables over the past month. It’s the joy of the bridegroom at his wedding. It’s the fatted calf served up for the prodigal son who did nothing but come home in faith. It is the free champagne and caviar for wedding guests who did nothing but trust the king’s insistence on providing fancy costumes and party hats. It is the full pay for next-to-no-work-at-all given to grape pickers who just said yes to a last-minute promise.

Finally, the last guy comes forward and offers up the wimpiest speech you’d ever hope to hear. “Here sir is your coin which I have kept bright and shiny buried in my back yard. Because, you see, I was afraid. I know you. You are a hard man. I know you grab everything, even if it doesn’t belong to you. So I thought to myself, ‘Watch your step, George; if he keeps track of every penny like that, even when it’s not his, just think how mad he could get if you should happen to lose something that was his.’ And so, Sir, here I am and here’s your money, in full and on time. Tell me I’m a good boy.”

“No!” roars back the master twice as mad as anything George ever imagined. “I will judge you out of your own mouth. You are not a good boy. You are not even a good weasel. If you thought I was such a tough customer why didn’t you at least put my money into a savings account? What? You thought I’d be mad at a measly 11/2%? You think I’m not madder about 0%? But you know something? That’s not really what ticks me off. What ticks me off is that I invited you into a fiduciary relationship with me. That’s fiduciary, son—from the Latin fides which means faith. In plain English, I didn’t ask you to make money, I asked you to do business.  I asked you to enter into a relationship of faith, of  trust with me. I wanted you to trust that I meant you well and that I wouldn’t mind if you took a few risks with my gift of a lifetime. But what did you do? You decided you had to be more afraid of me than of the risks. You decided. You played it safe because of some imaginary fear. And you have the audacity to crawl in here and tell me I couldn’t be trusted enough for you to risk a couple of bucks living life, that I’m some kind of legalistic type who goes only by the books? Boys! Show George the door.”

George’s problem was that he was afraid of God so he acted out of prudence instead of out of faith. The parable never said that the master was a hard man. That was the servant’s perception. If you read the master’s reply it is, “You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow…” He does not repeat the servant’s words that he is a harsh man. Instead, I think the meaning is, “So, if you thought I was such a scoundrel then why didn’t you at least put the money in the bank and make some interest?” The point being, if you had trusted me and taken me at my word you would have found that I wouldn’t have cared if you lost it all playing the horses. What I cared about is that you would have trusted me enough to take a chance.

That’s what we’re talking about today on Consecration Sunday—trusting God enough to take a chance. What has God invested in you? In your assessment you may include such things as finances, degrees, genetic endowment, family history, talents and abilities. Do you trust God with those things so that you might dare to take a risk in building God’s kingdom? Do you trust God with your money? What are you afraid of? That you might not have enough? That it’s a lousy investment? That God will get you if you don’t give enough?

So often we fearfully try to deal with God on the basis of what we think God is like rather than on the basis of what we know God is like because of what we see in Jesus. We spend our lives living in fear of this false image of God we have created—a demanding, harsh, unfair God who reaps where he does not sow. And all the while God is beating us over the head with balloons of grace. God isn’t trying to hurt anyone; God isn’t even mad at anyone. The only reason judgment comes at all is the sad fact that there will always be dummies who refuse to trust a good thing when it’s handed to them on a platter. But in the end, it is all about joy rather than fear. Without shame or fear we rejoice to behold Christ’s appearing because we have decided to believe him when he says he wills us nothing but the best. The only business that we, just like the servants in the parable, ever have to do is to trust Jesus in his grace and let the results be whatever we can manage to make them. Good, bad, or indifferent, we are home free, just for the believing.

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