A Homily from Matthew 25:14-30
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
November 17, 2002 (33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Taken by itself today’s text offers a terrifying image of what it means to be a Christian. It is therefore a popular text among those whose entire theology is one of fear and retribution – those who would rather picture the hand of Jesus closed in a fist rather than open on the cross.
Fortunately, this short passage is not the sum of our understanding of the teachings of Jesus. Matthew has intentionally placed it after two texts that talk of the mercy and generosity of God; and also at the very end of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. The almost unreasonable threat at the end of the passage – therefore – is not meant to define our understanding of the nature of God or our relationship to God.
It is a story about a rich man, money, and his slaves. As such, it reminds us strongly of the two similar stories that precede it. In this one as in those, the rich man represents God. Why we never get a story where a rich woman represents God – I don’t know. If there were any that circulated in the early Church, they weren’t included in the Scriptures. Perhaps it’s simply that – at the time – an image of a powerful, authoritative woman was too foreign to be practical. Regardless, God is certainly not constrained to a particular sex, so feel free to substitute a rich woman if that’s a more comfortable image for you.
Even still, that may be the only comfortable thing about this particular wealthy landowner. In the earlier parables, the wealthy patron is a figure of profound generosity and mercy. In the first one [Mat 18:23-35], the patron is a king who summons a slave who owes him a huge amount of money – 10,000 talents. Interestingly, that story is the only other passage besides today’s text which uses the monetary denomination “talent.” One talent alone would have taken the average laborer fifteen years to earn. The slave in that first story owed the king 5,000 lifetimes’ worth of money – and the king forgave it all.
In a parable a couple of chapters [Matt 20:1-16] later, another rich man hires workers for a fair wage – only to give the laborers who came at the end of the day the same amount that he gave to those who had put in a full day. It is a story of surprising generosity, even if it is not quite as extravagant as the first.
Both stories perhaps influence our expectations for the one Jesus tells today. At the end of His ministry, Jesus is talking about the end of time. He has already warned his followers to be ready, and after this story he will remind them of the coming judgment. At first glance this story might seem to be a respite from those stark images. Jesus tells us that the end of time will be like a wealthy man who entrusts his wealth to three slaves before leaving on a trip.
Money, slaves, and a rich man. Perhaps the disciples were expecting a third story about God’s generosity. It would make sense in this context. They might even have skipped ahead in their minds – just as some of you might be doing with this sermon. “Sure Jesus, we get it. When the man comes back, it won’t matter what the slaves have done with the money – he’ll still reward them all; just like God will reward us.”
Let’s see if that’s what actually happens. We are told that each slave was given a different share of the wealth to care for – and that the amount of their share was determined by their ability. Interestingly, the money was given to them in “talents” – as with the first parable. As a consequence, the word “talent” came to mean (in English) “God-given ability.” When we speak of someone’s talents today we are speaking literally of the wealth which God has given them.
For the purpose of the story, though, a talent is simply a coin. The first slave is given five of them. That slave promptly earned another five of them, doubling the master’s investment. The second slave, whom the master apparently considered less able, was given only two talents. Yet that slave did just as well as the first, and managed to use shrewd investments to likewise double the money with which he had been entrusted.
The third, however, was afraid – apparently with good reason. Perhaps managing money wasn’t his thing. Perhaps he simply wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. For whatever reason the master had only given him one talent to care for. Apparently the master thought him to be the least able of the slaves.
The slave agreed with the master’s assessment of his abilities. Maybe he looked at what the others had been given and said, “They’ve got so much more than I do. Even if I double what I have, it’ll still be no more than my friend started with, and still much less than my other friend was given. At my best, I’m still worse than them at their worst.”
Maybe he simply didn’t see a point in even trying. Perhaps every other financial venture he had tried had ended in failure and he didn’t see the point in bothering to try again. Maybe he was even insulted by the master’s lack of trust, and decided that if he was worth so little to the master then it wasn’t worth it to him to be a good steward of the master’s wealth.
Whatever his reason, the third slave took the talent, dug a hole, and buried it. He didn’t steal it or spend it, he simply chose not to risk it in the hopes of making more wealth for his master – as his friends had. He also made sure that no one would know what he had. To the outside world, he seemed just another penniless slave.
After some time, the master returns for a reckoning of what the slaves had done with what they had been given. I can imagine the tension that must have been in the room. The first slave, who was probably already something of a teacher’s pet, was probably bouncing in his seat he was so eager to show the master what a good job he had done.
The second slave was probably equally eager, perhaps even more so. He may not have made as much money as the go-getter next to him; but – considering what he had been given – he had done every bit as well. Maybe next time he would be the one to get the largest share.
Finally, in the corner of the room, trying to blend into the shadows, was the third slave. He was likely fidgeting, waiting for it all to be over. Perhaps he was even clutching to his one, measly coin – afraid that at the last moment he would drop it and have nothing at all to show his greedy master.
The master approaches the first slave and – upon seeing the 10 coins – congratulates him warmly and calls him “good” and “faithful.” He tells the slave that – since he was faithful in a few things – the slave will be put in charge of many things. Good news indeed – perhaps the slave even permitted himself a glance at the man next to him to gloat.
If he did, he quickly realized that it was pointless. The master grants the same praise and reward to the second slave (even using the exact same language). The second slave may not have started with as much – and consequently had not earned as much – but he had worked just as hard and was rewarded accordingly.
Then the master gets to the third slave. Although most certainly that slave would have been very anxious, nervously running his fingers over his sole coin – it’s unlikely that Jesus’ original listeners were. If Jesus chose to follow the pattern of the earlier parable – the master would graciously grant the same reward to the third slave.
But this is not one of those parables. When the master stands in front of the third slave and holds out his hand – instead of seeing hard cash he hears a pretty reasonable excuse. The slave explains that he knows what a reputation the master has for aggressive and even unethical business practices. He was afraid, and his fear of his master – and perhaps his fear of defeat – had kept him from taking advantage of the master’s gift. The slave desperately hopes that is enough.
It’s a feeling a child has all the time. In a world run by adults, trying to act according to adult rules that they don’t really understand, a child stands before their parents hoping that they’ve gotten it right – that they won’t get in trouble. I’ve experienced that as an adult, too, when starting a new job or trying some other new venture.
It turns out that the slave’s concern is justified. The master is furious. He asks, “Why didn’t you stick it in the bank? Then I would have at least gotten the interest back!” I’m sure the slave paused at that moment to wonder “Hmmm…why didn’t I think of that?”
Angrily, the master snatches the coin out the slave’s trembling hand and gives it to the slave who had earned the most. Then, he orders that the slave (whom he deems “worthless”) be thrown into “the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” – Hell.
This is a long way from the other two parables – and surely it got the attention of Jesus’ listeners. The slave’s only crime – if crime it was – was that he failed to take full advantage of what his master had given him. He had acted out of fear, and had hidden his gifts rather than push them to their limit. He paid for his caution with his life, when his greedy master decided that simply holding on to what he had was not good enough.
To tell you the truth, if that were all there were to our faith or to God, I wouldn’t be a Christian. If we were expected to simply scurry about in abject fear, never sure if we had done enough – it would seem terribly cruel, arbitrary, and unfair. That’s why I believe Matthew waited until the end of his gospel to share this particular story. It’s not intended for people who have not heard the other two. It’s not intended for those of who have not seen the amazing mercy and compassion of God lived out in the story of Jesus’ life.
But this story is for those of us who have paid attention, who have decided that the life of a believer is the path we wish to follow. For those of us who have already experienced the forgiveness of God, this is the other half of the equation. Accepting the gospel of Jesus means obligation as well as absolution. It means work as well as peace, and action as well as acceptance.
So then, what have we been given? Some of us surely feel like the third slave – untrustworthy and poorly equipped to bring about any real change in the world. Others may have the confidence of the first slave, but the same results as the third. We simply hang on to what we have – be it money or skill – rather than risk it to accomplish more.
Our medieval ancestors in the faith were so moved the implications of this story that they coined the word “talent” as a term to describe any ability that God might have given us. It was a reminder to them – and to us – that our skills and our insights, our minds and our bodies, our interests and our specialties are all resources that can be used to change the world. It is also a reminder that these things, alongside any material wealth we might have, are not ours. They are not a birthright. They are a trust, given us by the One who has created us.
And that One expects … demands … a return on that investment.
We are not Christians because of what we believe. We are not Christians because of where we go to church. We are Christians because of – and only because of – whom we serve; and we demonstrate that service by our actions. It is tempting, then, to dwell upon the ominous ending to today’s text. It’s a common preaching tactic – the old fire and brimstone tactic to get people so scared that they act. That way, when the offering plate comes around or they’re looking at the work-day sign-up sheet, all they can see are the flames of the abyss.
Ahhh…fear…the great motivator and a very big hammer in the minister’s toolbox. Yet it was fear that paralyzed the third slave in the first place. As Paul reminds us [Romans 8:15], we are not heirs of a spirit of slavery and fear; we are children, adopted and claimed by the spirit of God.
Perhaps, then, the question is not “What have we been given?” Most of us know where our special gifts and talents lie. We know that there’s more that we can contribute to the mission of the Church than money. The question isn’t what do we have. The question is “What is stopping us?” And make no mistake, something is. As a congregation, and as individuals, something is stopping us. What are we afraid of? Looking silly? Sounding like a religious whacko? Embarrassing ourselves?
Whatever it is, we must get over it. If we were worth dying for, we’re worth doing something with; and our text for today is a strong reminder that God expects to do something with us. If you sit there in the pew feeling worthless or broken, use this text to take heart. God trusts you enough to bring you here. God trusts you enough to make you a part of a sometimes broken body of believers. In return God expects you to try.
On the other hand, if we come here in smug certainty, we must allow this text to do its job and shake us up a little. Maybe God expects more than we thought. What are we afraid of? Whatever it is, is it really worth someday standing before the Almighty Creator of the Universe and saying “Well, um, we didn’t think you’d be able to handle it so we didn’t try?”
We are called by God, called as surely as if She summoned us into Her office and gave us an order, to be different and to make the world a different place. If we do not use our talents, and use them in that way, then what does it mean to be a Christian in the first place?