St. Paul’s Congregational Church
November 15, 2020; Matthew 25:14-30 –proper 28A
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
It’s always a challenge to preach about a parable like this one because we know the story so very well: but like every parable there are multiple layers – we can often hear and learn something new. These parables are really timeless lessons for us, aren’t they – and this one is front and center these days.
It’s a story about inequities. Some get so much more than others – yes, it strikes us as being unfair, but it’s certainly not contrary to the way of the world – we sure know that – it’s much too obvious, it’s much too real, isn’t it.
It’s a story about abundance. Even though the last servant had control over only one bag, it was full! A talent would be equivalent to roughly 15 years of wages for a person engaged in hard labor – now, that’s a lot of value, even if it is only one.
It’s a story about blessings – it reminds us that blessings are not only about money – today we recognize a talent to be any one of a variety of ability or skills that we either learned or naturally possess – each week we dedicate our gifts of time, talents, and treasure – we are all blessed in some way.
And we have come to recognize this is a story about stewardship – what do we do with what’s entrusted to us? Two of the servants do very well and make handsome returns. But the third simply holds onto his resource. Not only the amount of what the servants have, but also what they do with it all, is of great interest to the storyteller and the listener.
And finally, it’s a story about judgment. What we do and what we don’t do with our talents matters. The master returns and evaluates what his servants have done – he rewards the two who have served him well and punishes the servant who has not. Gifts and opportunities call for action, and there are consequences of those actions.
Take the themes of abundance, stewardship, and judgment: maybe there’s a warning here that’s especially appropriate 11 days before Thanksgiving: is there a difference between counting our blessings and being thankful? Do you think that God is satisfied in simply hearing that we like what we have, that we do remember who gave us these things? I’m thinking God would rather hear, in fact, demands to hear, what we have done with what we have, how we have served others with what we have. The judgment of the parable in which the talents of the third servant are taken from him because of his inactivity just might serve as that Thanksgiving warning for all of us. If we are indeed thankful for what God has done for us, we will show our thanks through our actions and not just our prayers, our words. Living in an attitude of gratitude means we are led to action, to sharing.
How about the theme of abundance and inequity? We all recognize the inequities of life, but maybe too often we’re bothered by how much more others have than we are by the fact that so many have so much less. And the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” widens every day. In a world of striking inequities, we have such an abundance of gold, talents, and blessings of every material category: but maybe we forget that our abundance demands of us greater responsibilities. The parable is a hard pronouncement: the greater the level of our wealth and abilities, the heavier the burden of our responsibility, our accountability.
Let’s look at this parable for a minute with its theme of judgment against the parables of God’s grace – we know many of them: a shepherd leaves the flock to hunt for one lost lamb; An owner of a vineyard pays the same wages to those who worked one hour as he pays to those in the fields all day. A father receives his wandering son who returns from a foreign land after squandering his inheritance. We need to read Jesus’ parables in balance, don’t we: grace and judgment – unrestrained love and accountability – neither theme can be rightly understood without a view of the other. Here we have a story of God’s judgment in our lives – let’s hear it, receive it as we have heard and received the parables of God’s limitless love – for it is judgment that interprets grace and grace that interprets judgment. Grace and responsibility are not contradictory but are two sides of the same covenant God has made with us.
But here’s the thing: so often we’ve focused on the third servant – who lost everything, the one who stood pat on the hand he was dealt.
What about the first two servants? Do we ever think about the fact that they did not produce their return by not taking some risks with their resources?
What if they’d lost the money that had been given to them? What if in their attempts to double their investments, the financial winds had blown the other way? What if things had gone sour? What if the stock market had tanked, their accountant had embezzled their funds, the bank had gone under? What if?
They took risks – they had to have done that to have their investments perform so well – the parable ends happily for them. But, what if?
And isn’t that a question we ask ourselves so often!
Maybe what we’re learning in this parable is this: if we are truly investing the blessings, the abundance God has bestowed upon us, risk becomes critical to our discipleship. That’s what the Christian life of discipleship demands from each and every one of us.
Forgiving and seeking forgiveness though we fear it might put us at a disadvantage in a relationship.
Inviting someone to worship here, to participate in our mission, our ministry in the community because you have found a fullness of life, a new meaning to life here in this community that you want to share. These invitations aren’t always easy to make, are they.
Our life of discipleship includes trusting someone in spite of the chance they might not come through.
Loving someone unconditionally.
Reaching out to the stranger in our midst. Treating everyone we meet with dignity and respect – after all, we are all created in God’s image. All of us.
Disagreeing with someone but not being disagreeable.
Speaking out against injustice – including those times when we witness someone bullying another person.
Acting against injustice, oppression: maybe giving up a couple of those expensive exotic coffee drinks and using those resources to buy peanut butter and jelly for a hungry child served by our local food pantry. Maybe writing letters to our senators, our congressional delegation insisting that the ones most poverty stricken no longer suffer in the midst of such great abundance.
Can we think of a single calling we have as Christian disciples that can be accomplished without risk? Loving. Caring. Forgiving. Peacemaking. Evangelizing. Giving. Trusting. Witnessing. Hoping? All of these are risky behaviors at times, aren’t they.
Maybe more than any other act, as Christians attempting to live out our faith , we are called to take risks and respond like those first two servants. We’re called to love where there is not love. We are called to forgive where there is only festering resentment. We are called to trust where there is only suspicion. We are called to hope when the clouds are the darkest. And we are called to risk whatever the odds.
The last servant could not bring himself to take the risk. Didn’t he want to serve well? Of course he did. His stumbling block was not the lack of good intentions. It was fear.
He answered the master, “I knew you were a hard man.”
He was afraid of failure. He was afraid of the what ifs.
Putting nothing into his investment, he got nothing back, and in the end, lost it all. He buries what he has and ends up gaining nothing.
The parable of the talents is not a lesson about our degree of ability or productivity – it’s a lesson about our attitude and responsibility – about stepping out with God’s treasure in our hands and risking it all for the sake of others – for the sake of God.
We get afraid too, don’t we. Those “what ifs” are always part of our lives. This is an age of great fear, great anxiety –maybe this is when being part of a church community can help. When our faith is tested, challenged, we need each other. And when our faith is sustaining us, giving us such joy, we need each other too. We need to come together, care for each other, support each other, challenge each other, love each other.
We’re all on this journey together. And there’s some wonderfully good news in this: God keeps trying to pull us along – God hasn’t and won’t give up on us. God is calling us to be open, to be willing to risk, to be willing to change, even maybe to give up what we may have. Can we be willing to look ahead, beyond what’s stopping us? Beyond our worry about tomorrow and what it might or might not bring, what risks we’ll face?
Someone very wise told me this week, if we put God first we don’t have to worry. God’s in charge – not us – and isn’t a relief! We’re never alone on this journey.
Let’s take that risk both as individuals and as church to take that giant chance – let’s step out in faith, let’s each of us turn toward the God who creates us, who cares for us, who loves us, and say, here I am. Send me. Use me. Mold me. Make me your servant. And may we hear loud and clear the promise of the parable: “Enter into the joy of your master.” Enter into the joy now and always. So may it be. Amen!