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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 16, 2014

 What We Do With What We Are Given

Judges 4:1-7; Matthew 25:14-30

              Of all the parables Jesus ever told, this may be my very favorite. That doesn’t mean that I like it because it is easy or comforting – quite to the contrary; I like it because it is so challenging and so powerfully true. It is part of what T. Dale Bruner calls Jesus’ Sermon of Judgment – four parables Jesus tells in a row in Matthew on the kingdom of heaven, or the anticipated return of the Son of Man and the final judgment.

             Jesus told all of these parables just as the high-risk adventure of His own life was coming rapidly to a close. Jesus’ decision to take that final trip to Jerusalem was deliberate, and He knew it was dangerous and fraught with great risk – but as Luke put it, “Jesus set His face to Jerusalem” and went nonetheless believing this was necessary for Him to remain faithful. Jesus was “all-in” on doing the Father’s will.

             The parable Jesus tells us here has three parts to it. First, a master is about to depart on a journey, but before he goes, he entrusts his property to these slaves. He must be a very wealthy master, because he entrusts to them a great deal of wealth. A talent, “talanton” in Greek, was the largest unit of accounting in money of the day. F. Dale Bruner, noted New Testament scholar, says a talent represented ten thousand denarii – a denarius being one day’s wage for a common laborer – so one talent would be about forty year’s wages for a minimum wage worker. This would make one talent a lifetime of wages for a common laborer. To one was given five talents, to another two talents, and to another one talent. None of them have earned this great trust they are given, so the issue of fairness is not on the table. The amount is almost unimaginably large, so for all three of the slaves, the parable begins in generosity. While the master may have different regard for the abilities of the three slaves, he is hugely generous and gracious to each. Notice as well that he gives them these huge trusts without a whole lot of direction or control. This master allows his servants to use great freedom in what they do with what they have been given.

             In the second part of the story, Jesus tells us what the three slaves did with their master’s money. The one who was given five talents “went off at once,” and so did the one given two talents. The word for “at once” can also be translated “immediately.” They wasted no time in getting to work with their treasure! They “went off” with immediacy and “traded” with the wealth entrusted to them. Both doubled their money over the time the master was gone – to do so they both doubtless had to engage in great industry as well as take appropriate risks with their master’s money. There is no other way to get those kinds of returns except hard work, wise decisions, and intelligent risks.

             The third slave, the one talent slave, “went off” and “dug a hole in the ground” and buried his master’s money. He played it safe. He also took the lazy man’s, or the fearful man’s way out. On April 8, 1974, forty years ago, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record, hitting his 715th home run in Atlanta off of Al Downing. Al Downing, a veteran left-hander, was asked how it felt to be the pitcher who gave up that record breaking homerun. “If you don’t want to give up homeruns, don’t pitch,” he said. Well this fellow was afraid of losing what his master had entrusted to him, so he didn’t pitch. He played it safe.

             The third part of Jesus’ brilliant parable is the longest and most detailed. It begins with the words, “after a long time the master returned.” Just as the bridegroom was delayed in the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids that we encountered last week, so the slaves must deal with “a long time” before the master comes home. Once again, this clearly refers to the delay of the return of the Son of Man in glory, or what the Church calls the second coming of Christ. The parable is all about how we live the life of faith between grace and judgment, between great generosity and inevitable accountability.

             The first two give their accountability with eagerness and confidence – and they should, for they have acted with fidelity and taken responsible risk. The master responds enthusiastically to the first two slaves. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave, enter into the joy of your master.” You almost get the feeling that he is going to throw a grand feast or party for them. Note that the first two slaves get precisely the same commendation and reward. John P. Meier says, “What the Lord values is not one’s accomplishments in a quantitative sense, but the fidelity of one’s commitment, as mirrored in one’s whole-hearted activity.” The point here is not about doubling one’s money. I would like to think that if one of them had worked hard and invested and risked wisely and lost some money, the master would have treated him the same – but we will never know. (It is, after all, Jesus’ story, and not mine, or yours, to tell!) The point is about living. The point is about really investing yourself in something that matters. It is about taking risks. It is mostly about Jesus Himself and what He has done with what God has given to Him. Mainly though, I think this parable is about what Jesus hopes for and expects for us to do when He is gone, as we await His promised return. I think it is a parable, maybe THE parable, about what it means to follow Jesus faithfully.

             Which brings us to the third slave. He regarded his master as “harsh.” Where he gets this idea, we don’t really know. I have my theories, but Jesus never tells us why this man assumes his master is a harsh man. But he admits, “I was afraid,” so “I hid your talent in the ground.” He allowed his fear to paralyze him. Indeed, it did more than that. It affected his judgment. Even though the master entrusts to him a lifetime of wages to use freely, he regards his master as “harsh.” And because he has made this miscalculation about the master, he loses what he has, and it is given to someone who will use it. He is called “wicked” and “lazy” by the master, and cast into “outer darkness,” along with the foolish bridesmaids who hadn’t prepared for the bridegroom’s late arrival.

             The greatest risk, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care passionately enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away, and in the process to risk everything. The greatest risk, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live life so cautiously that you never really live at all. Jesus’ warning here, lovingly offered, is that the outcome of living fearfully, of playing life safe, is something akin to death.

             Jesus is inviting us to be His disciples, literally “to follow Him.” That means recognizing how deeply God believes in you, and how graciously, how generously God has abundantly blessed your life. For Matthew, the god we face may well be the one we imagine, so what we believe about God, our faith, is important. The one talent slave got the harsh, peevish little god he believed in! But the first two slaves figured out early that God is gracious, generous and full of abundant blessings, given so that we will make faithful, joyful, passionate use of them.

             To follow Jesus is to be bold and brave, to reach high and to care deeply, to risk what has been entrusted to you in order to bless this world. So let me close with Jesus’ words to the two faithful slaves: “Enter into the joy of your master.” Please!

                                                                                     Amen.

 

 

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