I have never liked the parable of the talents. The handling of the third servant has never rested well with me. Tossing that servant into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and the gnashing of teeth. I have never liked it. I have questioned my whole life is this how God treats his people?
I mean this servant was being faithful. He kept in trust what was given to him. He kept it safe for the master and on the masters return he gave back what did not belong to him. If you read the parable the master at no point instructs the servants to invest the money. At no point does he say take this money and go invest it wisely until I return. We might assume this was understood. The third servant certainly does, he says to the master I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed. So it is implied that the master is a shrewd, perhaps even ruthless business man. But never did he say take this money and invest it for me. So why is the third servant punished?
Is this how God treats his people? How is this story reconciled with the rest of the gospel? Where is the grace in this message? All we have is a hard man, punishing a servant who was afraid. Punishing a servant who was lazy.
My heart bleeds for this servant. I feel that the master in the story was unduly harsh to him. That he was treated unfairly for doing nothing wrong. No great crime is committed, no atrocious sin to forgive. So I can relate to this third servant.
If I am honest with myself I empathize with the third servant because the servant reminds me of myself.
I think if we are all honest, we see a part of ourselves in that third servant.
Talents – Audio Sermon
It is easy to bury our abilities, our talents in the ground. It’s the safe route. There is zero commitment involved, we just go about our daily lives as we always have. When the master returns we’ll just show up and hope for the best. It’s not an inspiring thought is it? I don’t think it is what any of us want for ourselves. However, we take the route of the third servant because it is easier. We take the route of the third servant because we are afraid. Not of what the master might say or do. No we are afraid of failing. We are afraid of not doing enough and falling short. We are afraid we might embarrass ourselves. We are afraid that the task we undertake might be too big. That we might bite off more than we can chew. That is why we relate to the third servant.
Of course this doesn’t remove our sense of unease with the parable. The treatment of the third servant is still problematic. His being sent to the outer darkness is unsettling. However, might I suggest that this is where the servant was all along.
The third servant chose the outer darkness long before the master cast him out into it. The view the servant took of the master was formed out of his own perceptions. He allowed darkness, resentment, jealousy and fear to fill his heart. So when the master sends him out to the outer darkness all he is doing is sending the servant back from whence he came.
Now I begin to think that maybe I’m not as similar to the third servant as I did at first.
But what of the master? The master deserves our consideration. The master is described as ‘a harsh man’. In Greek the word used here is ‘skleros’ and in this context it means ‘to be unyielding in behaviour or attitude.’ In dealing with others hard, strict, harsh, cruel, merciless. In the words of the third servant, the master was not a nice man. The master also confirms these character traits when he says to the servant “So you knew that I reap where I do not sow…” Many have often drawn the comparison to the master and God. Yet, are these the words you associate with God? They aren’t the words I use. So should we draw a parallel in our story between the master and God?
The master in this parable is not God. The master in this parable is not Jesus. This parable is part of a series about the Kingdom of Heaven. However, the parable of the talents is not like the Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, our reading links back to verse thirteen which is the verse immediately before the ones that were read today, which reads “therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.” Verse fourteen continues “For it is as if a man, going on a journey…”
The kingdom of heaven is like a master who goes away and will one day return. The talents given to the servants are the way in which Jesus asked the question, what are you doing while the master is away? What are you going to do while you wait for the kingdom? What is the old expression, when the cat’s away the mice will play. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, preparing them for a time when he would no longer be with them. He is asking them how are you going to use your time until my return? That is what Jesus is asking. What are you going to do until the Kingdom comes? That same question he asks of the disciples, is the same one that he asks of each and every one of us.
How are you going to use your time?
There is a tendency to get distracted when we read this parable. To focus intently on the talents that are given to the servants. To talk about how that money or those gifts are used. And by the way a talent was an extraordinary amount of money. The servant who got five talents, that’s more money than the servant could spend in his lifetime. About 100 year’s worth of the average wage in that time. It is easy to get hung up on the talents that the servants were given. It is easy to use that word ‘talent’ in a modern context and equate it with your abilities. What is the mantra you will hear around stewardship in the church: time, talent and money.
Uh oh. Here he goes, some of you were wondering when I’d start talking about money. I considered it, I mean what does this parable mean to us in light of an economy which is growing slowly after the financial crisis in 2008? I thought about what this parable means in light of those who preach a prosperity gospel, you know the guys on TV with the nice suits. I thought about this parable in relation to all the Occupy movements that were occurring a few years ago. This parable can very easily be abused. To be taken to an extreme that I’m not sure was ever the intent.
Does God give us gifts? Yes, creation is a gift to us. All that we have is a gift to us from God. God protects us and looks after us. In Jeremiah we read “for I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” In the Psalms we read “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” So yes, God certainly gives us gifts. God certainly lends us aid.
So what of the talents? What part do they play in this story? We know that Jesus was telling this story to emphasize that we do not know when the Kingdom of Heaven is coming, that we should be using our time wisely. What is it we should be using our time on? Ah, the talents of course. And what of that third servant, the wicked and lazy one. He did nothing with the talent that was given, he wasted his time. The other servants did well, doubling what had been given them. They were not lazy, they took risks. They had faith.
But I still have a problem with this parable, aren’t we saved by God’s grace? By the sacrifice of Christ on the cross? Isn’t that the new covenant? What do I have to do anything for? I can’t save myself! It has already been done for me.
Which makes me wonder, are we given talents to show our strengths or expose our weaknesses?
Friends, I don’t honestly think it is either of those options. We are given and we use the talents that God gives us because we are in relationship with God. Just as we use our abilities to help our spouses, parents, children and friends. We use our gifts to help God because we are in relationship with our creator.
We didn’t create anything found in creation. We just take part for a while. Like a pebble dropped in a clear lake. Our coming and participating in creation has waves, marking our presence. But the lake remains, it doesn’t go anywhere. After we are gone others will drop their pebbles in the lake and where those waves meet, is where we meet others in life. Part of what this parable does is to remind us to live life as Christians. So what is Christian living?
Eugene Peterson has a suggestion for what that might look like and he goes to the Greek language to explain it. In Greek, there are different voices. There is the active and the passive, we are familiar with those. The boy throws the ball is an example of the active. The boy was hit by the ball is the passive.
But the Greek language also has a middle voice. With the middle voice the subject enters into an action that someone else started and that someone different will finish. Imagine floating down a river. You didn’t make the river or cause the current to flow. The river will continue flowing to its destination even if you get out of the water. But in the meantime you can jump in, float along, steer yourself, position yourself to avoid rocks and other obstacles.
Peterson suggests that Christian life is like that. We are saved by God’s grace, but then we are given the opportunity to jump into an already flowing river of grace. All that we do while in the river is ultimately the work of God. Our actions in the river wouldn’t be possible if it were not for God.
Friends, the third servant missed all of this. This servant missed the fact that the handing of these talents was an act of grace. That everything that happened afterwards was a result of that grace. We demonstrate our understanding of that grace by living a Christian life. The motivation behind the talents is not to fear that we might fail, it is not to fear that we take on too large a burden. The motivation behind the talents is the joy that comes in the knowing that we were given those gifts in the first place. It’s a question of working within God’s grace with what has been accorded to us.
Or we can be like the third servant and miss the true meaning of the talent and hide it away. But what value is there in that?
Near the end of C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” Aslan the Lion takes Lucy, Edmund, Peter and everyone to the New Narnia–to what we would call “heaven” or the New Creation. It is a place of astonishing light and beauty; a place where every blade of grass seems to mean more and where every creature sings for the sheer joy of the Creator. It is a place where everything is just so real in depth and color that the mere sight of a daisy takes your breath away and makes you weep for the sheer beauty of the thing.
But then, in the midst of all the splendour, the children see a group of dwarves huddled together, convinced that they are sitting in the rank stench of a barn–a place so dark that they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. Lucy is so upset that the dwarves are not enjoying the New Narnia that she begs Aslan to help them to see. Aslan replies, “Dearest Lucy, I will show you what I can do and what I cannot do.” Aslan then shakes his golden mane and a sumptuous banquet instantly appears in front of the dwarves. Each dwarf is given a plate heaped with juicy meats, glistening vegetables, plump grains of rice. Each also receives a goblet brimming with the finest wine anyone could ever imagine.
But when the dwarves dive in and begin eating, they start gagging and complaining.
“Doesn’t this beat all,” they lament. “Not only are we in this stinking stable but now we’ve got to eat hay and dried cow dung as well!” When they sip the wine, they sputter, “And look at this now! Dirty water out of a donkey’s trough!” The dwarves, Aslan goes on to say, had chosen mistrust instead of trust and love. They were prisoners of their own minds. They could not see Aslan’s gift of the New Narnia for they would not see it.
Might something similar be going on with the third servant in this parable? Could it be that he just could not see the goodness of his master, choosing fear and suspicion over hope and joy?
And so we come full circle. We realize we’re not like the third servant at all. We recognize the goodness that God offers us in creation. We embrace and cherish that gift and we walk in fellowship with God, using those very gifts that have been bestowed upon us. How will we use our time while we wait for the master to return? We will use that time, we will use those gifts in joyful service to God. Walking hand in hand with those that we love, spreading the glory of God’s creation. Sharing in the grace that is God’s gift to each one of us.
I leave you with this quote form Bil Keane “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
Friends I invite you to walk with God, to enjoy the grace accorded to each of us. Work for the kingdom knowing the grace given will expand and increase bringing further joy into your life. Amen.
Text: Matthew 25: 14-30