by The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth
Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
24Then 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;
25so I was afraid, and I went
and hid your talent in the ground.
Here you have what is yours.’
I love a good story. Stories remind us of who we are, of where we came from, of where we’re going. Stories can shape us and re-shape us. We read stories to our children each night before bed. Stories teach us lessons; right from wrong, wise from foolish. I love a good story. Well, as a preacher, I’ve learned to tell stories too. But most of all, I’ve learned to listen out for stories. Every Wednesday morning since I’ve been in the ministry, I’ve had a chance to meet with a group of other clergy around me to study the stories of Jesus and to talk about our sermons for that week, and yes, to tell some of our own stories.
And I want to share one with you this morning that heard a few years back. I don’t know any of the names of these folks involved and that really isn’t important anyway, but I want you to know that this story is true. We were all sitting down at the table to begin our weekly study session, and one of my colleagues said that he just had to tell us something that happened to him earlier in the week. He said that one of his parishioners called him and told him that he needed to come over to his house right away because he wanted to make a donation to the church. Somewhat taken aback the pastor told his parishioner to simply put it in an envelope and place it in the offering plate during worship on Sunday like everybody always does. But the man insisted that he come over to his house right away because, as he put it, “I got about $50,000.00 cash sitting on my dining room table that I want to give to the church, but I don’t think it will fit in one of those little envelopes or those wooden plates!”
My friend told him he would be there in a matter of seconds. If you’re pondering making a similar gift to the church, you just let me know and I’ll be there in a matter of seconds too. So when he entered the dining room, scattered there on the table were some muddy mason jars and some very old bills of various denominations. This guy had hidden away over $50,000 in mason jars in his back yard. I think he had a slight mistrust of banks. As they unscrewed the lids of these muddy jars, it became apparent that some of it had been in those jars for twenty years or more, and unfortunately the lids were not rust-proof. Some of the jar lids had rusted out and water had gotten to the bills, rendering the serial numbers unreadable and the bank couldn’t accept them. The man had over $60,000 buried down in a hole in the back yard, but several thousand of it had rotted away and recycled itself. But, my friend was still happy to accept on behalf of his church such a generous gift–even if it had been buried in mason jars for twenty years. He told us that it wasn’t every day that you got to walk into a bank and tell the person at the desk that you needed some help carrying in all the cash in your trunk. What a wonderful picture of generosity and fear all wrapped up in the same person! That’s an awesome story, huh?
Well, Jesus was quite fond of telling stories too, and he tells us one quite similar to my friend’s story this morning in Matthew’s gospel. We are told of a wealthy master who went away and gave his money to his three servants to oversee until he returned. The first servant was given five talents, the second servant was given two talents, and the third was given one talent. And we know how the story ends. The two servants given the most doubled what they started with, but the servant with one talent went off and buried down in a hole in some mason jars because he was afraid of his master and he didn’t trust Bank of Israel, I suppose. It didn’t turn out so well for him, did it?
So, what are we to make of this story? What does it have to say to you and me today? Well, like the rest of the Bible, it is important for us to figure out first what it meant to Matthew’s original audience, and then and only then can we figure out how it might apply to us. And guess what, it turns out that the historical context of this story isn’t that different from our world today. The economic systems of the ancient near east were volatile and unpredictable; making some rich and making others paupers. The story also reminds us that there was a lot of fear at play, especially with regards to jobs and money. All of this collides in the person of the third servant given the one talent. The markets were unpredictable and unstable, the servant was fearful of losing money and maybe even his job. So he makes the move that most economic commentators say the people of the world are making today by buying US Treasury bonds at almost no interest—hiding what he was entrusted with in the ground, the only safe place where he wouldn’t risk losing it. We would call this servant prudent, cautious, fiscally responsible, judicious, practical, careful. But the master in this story calls him none of those terms; instead he calls him “wicked and lazy.”
I can’t help but wonder what the master’s response would have been if one of those first two servants had told them that they had invested the money as wisely as possible but that they lost some or all of it. We’re not told how long the master was away, but it must have been a while. I spoke with one of my friends who manages about half a billion dollars with First Bank. He is in charge of approving all the loans that come through their bank, and I called him up to get a banker’s perspective on all this. Keep in mind, that the Greek word “talanton” which is our word “talent” in this story was the equivalent of someone’s life savings. It’s unfortunate that the translators of the King Jimmy Bible didn’t translate this word any better. We think of the word talent in terms of some rude, British guy judging a singing competition on television. Talents are gifts or abilities we have. But the word talent here in the Bible this morning means a brick of gold that weighed about 85 lbs. The eight total talents entrusted to the servants would have been like all the money Bernie Madoff handled. And my friend the banker told me about the rule of 72. He said that he thought the master must have been away for about 15 years because if the first two servants got a 5% yield on their investment than it would take them 14.5 years to double their money. Regardless, he said, those first two took some huge risks with their investments. What does any of this matter to what Jesus is telling us, you might ask yourself? Well, it matters a lot.
You see, not only do we have to figure out what the story would have meant in Jesus’ time, we also have to look and see the bigger context of where the story is told. And as it turns out, this story is one of four parables in chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew that all deal in one way or another with the return of the master, or what we might call “the second coming of Jesus.” Matthew’s gospel is written to folks about fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are fearful about all kinds of stuff. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans after a Jewish revolt in 70 A.D., about ten years before Matthew’s gospel was written down. Their world was in turmoil. They wanted to know when Jesus was going to come back and set it all straight, like he had promised. Yet things looked bleak for them. Many of the apostles of Jesus had died, none of them from natural causes or old age. When was their master going to come back and settle accounts?
Matthew puts together for us these four stories to consider as an answer to that question. He recounts Jesus’ stories about ten bridesmaids, five foolish and five wise, all waiting for the coming of the bridegroom. Only half of them had acted appropriately in making sure they had enough oil for their lamps if the bridegroom was slow in coming to them. The ones who weren’t prepared were left in the dark and the door to the banquet was shut.
He tells the story of a slave that was put in charge of a master’s household and who thought his master wouldn’t return any time soon and did whatever he wanted; beating the other slaves, drinking all his master’s wine, throwing parties for himself and his friends while not giving the other slaves a fair portion of food. When his master returned and caught that slave unaware, he cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.
He tells the story of a fig tree. He tells the story of Noah. He tells the story of the thief in the night. He tells the story of three servants entrusted with a lot of money—our story this morning. All of these stories are there as an answer to the question and the problem of Jesus being delayed in coming back and what the appropriate action is for us in that between time.
So, how are the followers of Jesus supposed to act while we wait on his return? Are we to be scared of our master? Well, this story Jesus tells gives us the picture of a master generous enough to entrust his servants with riches beyond imagination and to invite them to enter into the joy of their master. It is the unfaithful servant that chooses to enter into the fear of his master. The fearful servant is not the one we are called to act like. There is no place for fear in the Christian life.
But aren’t we supposed to be cautious and responsible with what our master has entrusted us with? My banker friend told me that most people just don’t realize how extremely risky it can be to invest your money in something that could double it in a situation like the first two servants in our story. He said that maybe one tenth of the time it will pay off, and nine tenths of the time you’d probably lose it all in such a risky investment. He said the only time he’s seen people invest in something that risky is when they have an absolute love for something. He said that love is the only thing that will make a person invest in something like that even when he advises them against it with all that he has.
One of my favorite authors is C.S. Lewis. As I read his books in high school, I found myself more and more drawn to the place where I am today. So be careful if you read them. But he says this about love:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket safe, dark, motionless, airless it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell. (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960], p. 169.)
When is Jesus coming back? I don’t know. But I do know this, if you have any 85 lb. bricks of gold lying around, you better grab a shovel and invest them in something you love. And, if you need some help carrying it, I’ll be there in a matter of seconds. Amen.
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