St Bartholomew’s, Granite City—Matthew 25:14–30, Zephaniah 1:7, 12–18, 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11
We’re winding down Year A of our three-year cycle of scripture readings for the Eucharist. Next Sunday is the end of the church year; two weeks from now, Advent begins, and we’ll be in Year B of the lectionary. So, we’ve been making our way methodically through the gospel of Matthew in Year A, and, for the last several Sundays, the gospel reading has been a parable told by Jesus. When I taught young children in a parish day school early in my ordained ministry, I told them that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Indeed, we have yet another parable this morning, as we will next Sunday as well.
For the Kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.
Now, it’s not always, or even usually, possible to interpret a parable as an allegory, with A representing X and B representing Y, and so forth. But in this case, it kind of is! The wealthy man who is preparing to go on a long trip stands for God. The fact that the man is going on a journey represents God voluntarily “stepping back” in order to allow us—humankind, the crown jewel of his creation—to allow us to exercise free will, which is one of the marks of the image of God in which we have been created. It also reminds us of the delay in Jesus’ return to earth, this time not so much to be a savior as a judge. (We saw this same theme last week in the bridegroom being delayed in his arrival at the wedding celebration, which spelled disaster for the five bridesmaids who had not thought to bring extra oil for their torches). The man’s entrusting to his household staff sums of money—denominated as “talents” in the parable—represents God entrusting to us gifts of time, ability, and material resources—not as unconditional gifts, but with the expectation that we will be good and faithful stewards of what has been entrusted to us, and with the understanding that we will someday be called upon to render an accounting of our stewardship.
To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.
We each are endowed differently. Some have a long life and some a shorter one. We have different amounts of time over which to be stewards. Nobody does everything well. All of us do one or two or a handful of things well. We have differing abilities, and our English word “talent,” which is how we talk about these different natural abilities, comes from this very parable. Some of us inherit wealth or find the opportunity to acquire great wealth. Others, not so much. We have varying degrees of treasure for which we will someday have to give an accounting. Time, talent, treasure.
He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.
The money that was “given” by the man wasn’t really a gift. It was a trust: The servants were to consider themselves stewards, trustees, fiduciaries. They quite properly understood that they would be held accountable for what had been entrusted to them.
Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
This was not a surprise. It may or may not have taken longer to arrive than the servants had anticipated—we’re not told one way or the other—but it wasn’t a surprise. It was expected. They knew the day was coming. And this settling of accounts, in the symbolic grammar of today’s parable, represents what we commonly call Judgment Day—you know, that to which we refer when we confess in the Nicene Creed that we believe Jesus will return to “judge both the living and the dead.” I suspect it’s not a concept that we like to think about very much! But judging is part of God’s nature. It’s part of who he is and what he does. In the reading this morning from Zephaniah, the prophet is at pains to portray the LORD as fully reliable in his execution of judgment, not at all complacent:
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’ Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.
In other words, God’s going to be God, and it’s crazy to think otherwise.
In today’s second reading, St Paul writes to the Thessalonians along similar lines:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
Complacency appears not to be a good idea!
Continuing now with the parable:
And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
And then ditto for the one who had two talents. Good stewardship is rewarded! More to the point: initiative and risk are rewarded. You don’t double your money without actively surveying opportunities and taking some risks, right? Good stewardship, faithful discipleship, involves taking initiative and risk.
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
You and I are, because of the way we’re conditioned culturally—we are tempted to feel sorry for this fellow. We empathize with his fearfulness. Yet, we miss the point in doing so. His fear is rooted in the sin of sloth—laziness. If he wanted to be conservative, he could have put the funds in a passbook savings account or a money market CD. He wouldn’t have doubled his money like the others, but at least there would have been something. He was a bad steward and therefore a “wicked” disciple.
So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Again, these feel like harsh words to us. But we need to push past that initial emotional reaction. Instead, we should be grateful that Jesus is warning us that we will be judged as stewards—which is to say, as disciples—we will be judged according to the level of initiative and risk we take—the initiative we take with whatever has been entrusted to us: time, talent, treasure, relationships, ultimately the gospel itself—the initiative and risk we take for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Passivity and fearfulness are tantamount to the sin of sloth, certainly on the part of individuals, but especially on the part of communities, like church communities! For sloth we will be judged. For faithful stewardship we, both as communities as well as individuals, we will be rewarded. Some of that reward will come in this world and some in the next. But reward is as much a part of judgment as punishment is. All the talk of punishment is meant to sober us up and motivate us to fly right, but it’s the reward that we should be focusing on. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.