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Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30, Deuteronomy 26:1-11
We often forget that the reason Jesus was crucified is that most of the powerful people of his time were offended by the stories and sayings that have become familiar to us. The parable of the talents may well be one of those stories. In the Gospel, it is one of four warning stories that Matthew presents as a set – in case one of these stern cautionary tales is wasted on us, there is another one to back it up.
It is unfortunate that the Greek word that gives today’s parable its name is translated “talent.” A “talent” in the parable has nothing to do with abilities or aptitudes – it has to do with money. In fact, a talent was a truly interesting sum of money. It was the largest denomination of currency, and represented about 15-20 years of wages for a typical worker. The guy in the parable who got five talents to work with was entrusted with one and a half million dollars; even the amount given to the one-talent guy was nothing to sneeze at. So a talent is money, and lots of it. I know that a frequent complaint in many churches is that “all the church ever talks about is money” – well, that’s partly because Jesus talked about it so much! Whether his meaning was literal or figurative, Jesus talked more about money than any other subject except the kingdom of God – and he used monetary metaphors to illustrate the kingdom.
The parable tells us about three slaves, or servants, whose master gives them some money to be stewards of in his absence. Maybe we could use the terms “boss” and “employee” instead. There are really only two types of employees here, “good and trustworthy” and “wicked and lazy.” The “good and trustworthy” employees bring the boss a return on his investment; the “wicked and lazy” one does not. Rather than going out and putting the money to work, he has buried it in the ground, where he could forget about it until the boss’s return.
Notice that the boss does not seem to have set any standards of performance for the investment of the money. It was not a contest. Yet the third employee, the one who buried the money, is condemned for his cautiousness.
The judgment on the lazy employee seems very harsh. Burying money in the ground was actually quite common in those days before banks were widespread. But notice: the lazy employee in the parable seems to have a pretty low opinion of his boss. He describes him as “a harsh man,” someone who drives a hard bargain, a sharp dealer who profits at the expense of other people. This employee clearly has no love of his boss – he fears and respects his power, that’s all.
Yet there is nothing in the parable to justify this employee’s harsh assessment of his boss. In fact, the boss seems just the opposite of the employee’s description of him. He entrusts his employees with a whole lot of money while he goes away, money they are given free rein to play with in his absence. And he praises them lavishly when they show a return on the investment. Masters did not normally praise their servants just for doing their job, so this boss is exceptional. Not only that, he suggests that the benefits of their good stewardship will not accrue to him alone – he invites them to “enter into his joy.” Is he going to have them over to his house for a celebration? Is he going to give them part of the profit? The parable doesn’t say, but clearly the boss has benevolent intentions toward his employees. The boss is generous, trusting, gracious, and willing to take a risk. His values are diametrically opposed to those of his lazy employee.
The problem is not the boss, it is the employee’s cramped, fearful view of the world, a view that says everyone is fundamentally a cheater, that all you can do is keep a tight hold on what you have, and the only way to get by is to do the safe, easy thing. With his warped view of the world, the third employee condemns himself to living a stunted life. His goal is safety and security, not service.
The “master,” or boss, of course, is God, and the parable invites us to take a look at our own view of God. Do we see someone who is harsh, exacting, and punishing? Or do we see someone who is generous, gracious, and willing to take a risk with us? Will we live the stunted life of the third employee, making our decisions out of fear and distrust, living in such a way that we keep God at arm’s length? Or will we catch some of God’s own generosity and daring?
Our passage from Deuteronomy gives us a different view of God from that of the third employee in the parable. The description of the offering of the first fruits of the harvest shows us an ancient worship ritual – something like an Israelite Thanksgiving service in which the participants were invited to pretend that they were among the generation that first came into the Promised Land,[i] a land of freedom and abundance, “flowing with milk and honey.” The Israelite liturgy was meant to evoke remembrance and gratitude for the land they had been given, and for God’s safely leading them to it. This ritual, with its tangible offering of the gifts of the harvest, was an offering of praise and gratitude for all they had received.
The ancient Israelites were not people who believed they were self-made. They knew that without God they would still be groaning under a load of bricks in Egypt or perishing of hunger and thirst in the desert. When they sacrificed the first of their harvest, they were not only expressing their gratitude to God, they were also asking God to bless all the rest of the harvest. That, by the way, is the idea behind the tithe – by setting aside one tenth of one’s crops or other personal income for God, you’re saying you trust God to bless the remainder. The Israelites brought their tithes and offerings knowing that they could give freely because God would continue to care for them and provide for their needs.
When you think about it, the quality of generosity has a lot to do with our own sense of freedom – freedom from fear, anxiety, and distrust. And it has a lot to do with how we have experienced the generosity of God. From the beginning to the end, the Bible is the story of a wildly generous God who has taken enormous risks for the sake of human beings. The cross of Christ, that world-shattering event that upset human calculations about who God is and what God does, shows us just how much a generous God was willing to risk for us.
The word “stewardship,” which is the theme of our worship today, implies the careful management of resources; but without generosity, stewardship can too easily become an act of cautious hoarding, burying our treasure in the ground where nothing can happen to it, and where nothing can happen with it.
God has entrusted precious gifts to our care. On this Dedication Sunday, or “Giving Sunday,” we can be free and open-handed in our response to God, as the Israelites were, and put our gifts to work, as the “good and trustworthy” servants did.
This is how we announce the coming kingdom of a generous God among us. This is how we “enter into the joy” of our Lord.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
October 25, 2020
[i] Thomas W. Mann, Deuteronomy, Westminster Bible Companion Series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 138.