Scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30
Last week we looked at a pair of scripture readings from I Thessalonians and Matthew that had to do with being prepared for the coming of Christ.
This week again we have a pair of readings from I Thessalonians and Matthew, and this time the focus is on not the coming of Christ but on what we need to do in the meantime… how to live our lives between now and the time we meet Jesus.
Both of today’s passages describe a contrast between (as Paul says) “children of darkness” and “children of light” or as Jesus says in Matthew, between good and wicked servants.
Words like these can make us uncomfortable because we don’t like to think of people as being ‘children of darkness’. But the fact is, when God gave human beings free will, he gave us the ability to say ‘no’ to what is right. God gave us the ability to dislike God, to rebel against God, or to damage God’s creation. And in these two readings that’s what we see happening.
Let’s take a look at Jesus’ parable in Matthew. This is a familiar story: a story of a man who has three servants. He entrusts them with his estate while he goes on a long journey. Two of the servants do well and make a profit and they are rewarded; but third servant does not and he is punished. Even though we don’t have servants in our day and age, the story makes sense. Employees, for example, are expected to look after the interests of their employers – anyone who’s ever held a job understands the scenario.
But there’s a huge question mark in this story. As employees (or as retired employees in some cases) we know that not all employers are equal. Some employers are generous, others are stingy. Some are fair, others play favorites. Some care about their employees, others don’t. If all employers were good, if all of them lived by God’s values, labor unions would never have been needed. Workers’ pensions would be secure instead of being unstable and in some cases, missing.
In Jesus’ parable, the question of whether this particular employer is worthy of his employees’ loyalty is not addressed directly. So we are left to ask: are the two loyal servants just playing along, getting their share of the pie? Is this employer worth working for? Or is the third servant right? Is this employer a harsh one, greedy, turning profits where he hasn’t invested?
This week as I was thinking over this passage I thought, what if this story took place today? What would it look like in our world? What if it was, let’s say, an episode of The Apprentice – the reality show where Donald Trump hires up-and-coming executives and pits them against each other to see which are the best and then fires the rest? This parable actually does remind me of that. On the show, Trump presents a business challenge, and the young people who come up winners are the ones who take his seed money and invest in a project, and bring all their skill and experience to bear to turn a profit. The ones who lose are the ones who waste time forming alliances, cooking up schemes to bring the others down, manipulating others into doing work they themselves should be doing. And they always have someone else to blame when their plans don’t work out. Some of them even mouth off at Donald Trump, blame him for creating an unfair competition. You can see it coming. Trump looks at them and says, “You’re fired!”
But the TV show never answers the question, ‘is this employer worth working for?’ Is he fair? Is he generous? Are the projects he invests in worth spending a piece of your life on? Where it comes to The Apprentice I’ll leave it to you all to answer those questions. But these are the questions being raised in Jesus’ parable. So what do we know about the ‘boss’ in this parable?
Since Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, the ‘boss’ in this story is God. The servants are all of us; and the talents are gifts and abilities and opportunities that we’re given in life: that little tiny part of the universe over which we have control, and for which we have responsibility. God gives each person a piece of his estate; a wee bit of God’s property; and God, as our master, has instructed us to care for it. Depending on what we’ve been given, some of us might be caring for the environment; or raising children and grandchildren; or teaching; or building – houses or businesses; or protecting the country; or protecting the community; or running an honest business that produces things people need and provides jobs; or visiting the sick or people in prison.
As a side note I’d like to suggest that one of the greatest pieces of celestial property God gives us in this life is time. I was reading some Jewish theology recently and the author, a rabbi, was explaining that in Jewish spirituality what happens in time is more important than what happens in space. In other words, how we spend our time is more important than what we physically do or make. That’s why parenting, for example, is such an important job – because it’s investing time in another person’s life.
At any rate there are so many ways to invest what God has entrusted to us! Those of us who love and honor God want to find ways we can use the gifts God has given us to invest in ourselves, our homes, our families, our communities, and our churches.
So in Jesus’ parable, the first two servants respect their master and invest their part of the estate wisely, taking well-calculated risks, and they turn a profit. The third servant tells a different story. He doesn’t squander God’s property, he doesn’t lose it – he hides it. Buries it. He doesn’t use it at all. Jesus doesn’t tell us what this third servant does do with the rest of the time his master is away. The master is away for a long time, so what is he doing with all this time? We don’t know. But again, if I re-cast the story into modern day, into our fictitious Donald Trump scenario, I can imagine what might have happened. Servant #3 would have taken Trump’s money – the ‘seed money’ he was given to build a business with – and hid it somewhere. Then he would start talking business deals, trading on Trump’s name rather than on the actual money, living the high life and producing nothing.
So the third servant then projects his own guilt and selfish motives onto the master! He says: “master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow…” when the truth is it’s the third servant who has been reaping what he did not sow, living on the generosity and trusting natures of other people.
One more side note: the word “harsh” the third servant uses to describe the master struck me as an odd choice of words, so I looked it up in the Greek. The Greek word is “skleros” – which means “hardening”. Today we find the word in medical terminology: scleroderma – hardening of the skin; atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries; multiple sclerosis – hardening of the nerve cells in the brain. Skleros implies a hardening of something that should not be hard, and it’s a hardening that leads to suffering and ultimately death. Servant #3 is accusing God of the very hardness that is in his own heart… projecting his own pathology and mortal nature onto God.
Servant #3 goes on to say, “and I was afraid, and I went away and hid…” In this story he hid the treasure, but we’ve heard these words before: in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve ate the apple, they heard God coming and they hid. Genesis 3:10 – Adam says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid.”
A wise old Christian once said there are two reasons a person might be afraid of God:
- God is so much greater than we are, and we are so small and powerless by comparison. A person who fears God for this reason IS in touch with reality! Because this is very true: God is great, and we are small by comparison. But people who feel this way haven’t yet taken to heart the words of today’s reading from I Thessalonians. Paul writes, “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” That’s why Paul says “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation.” Faith, hope, and love are what protect our hearts and minds from fearing God in an unhealthy way. We believe in God, we have hope in God, we know that God loves us and we love God. Secure in the knowledge of these things we don’t need to ever be afraid of God’s greatness.
- The other reason a person might be afraid of God is because they’re ashamed of what they’re doing, or aren’t doing. They may have been squandering God’s property, refusing to invest in the people in their lives. Maybe they have mistreated God’s creation. Or maybe they’ve been lazy, living on the work or the wealth of others. Or maybe they’ve been harsh, abusive… all things servant #3 accuses God of being.
The amazing thing to me is God actually answers Servant #3’s accusations, and with real restraint. God does not set out to defend his own character; or assert his rights as master of both the servant and the assets. Instead God quotes back the servant’s own words and says, “if that’s really the way I am, you should have invested the money with the bankers so at least I’d have interest.” ‘If you knew I was so mean, why weren’t you wise enough to make just a little bit of profit to cover your own tail?’ Even self-serving motivations tell us it’s not wise to provoke God to anger! But Servant #3 lacks even that much wisdom, and ends up losing what little he has.
This parable makes me a little nervous sometimes. When I read it I sometimes wonder: how can I know if I’ve done enough? How can I know if I’ve managed to double God’s investment? I look around at other Christians and I see them going on mission trips, or bringing dozens of people to faith, or teaching Sunday School for thirty years….
Here’s the thing: when God gives us talents to use, our instructions are not to compare ourselves with others. The servant who has two talents is not expected to make five. The servant with two talents is honored by God when he makes another two. All this talk about talents isn’t a competition – it’s a challenge. God gives us what is appropriate to us: “to each according to his ability” as it says in verse 15. God’s expectations are realistic and fair and perfectly tailored to each person. As Jesus himself says, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This doesn’t mean life will always be easy, but it means the talents God gives us fit who we are perfectly.
A few weeks ago I read a book written by a man who passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. I imagine if anyone ever had an excuse to give up and say “I have nothing left to give” it would be him. He was dying, his mind was going, and he couldn’t always remember what he had said or done a day before, or even a minute before. But he was a believer, and he wanted to keep on serving the Lord he loved as long as he could. So, with his wife’s help, he wrote – or dictated, as the disease progressed – a journal of his experience having Alzheimer’s disease. He wrote down what the symptoms were, what the doctors said, what treatments they tried, how friends and family were effected, what his emotions were, how he and his wife fought the depression that often comes with the disease, what parts of his mind still worked when other parts started to go, and how he and his wife learned that everyone is a valued child of God no matter what condition their body or mind is in. The book has become standard reading for people who train as chaplains in hospitals and hospices. What a gift! Each one of us has gifts to give, and a purpose in life… no matter where we are in life or what our circumstances are.
One more thing comes to mind when I look at this parable. All this talk about serving God, investing in the kingdom, raises an important question: aren’t we saved by faith? Believing in Jesus? Yes, we are. But if we love God, we say ‘thank you’ for what God has given us by putting it to good use. And we do this with joy, because discovering and using what God has created in us is the greatest joy life has to offer. “Enter into the joy of your master,” Jesus says. God has given us a piece of the heavenly homestead, and it’s good.
So the greatest goal in life is not “whoever dies with the most toys wins”. The goal is not to do more than the person next to us. The goal is to invest whatever gifts we’ve been given, working from hearts that trust in God’s love. And we look forward to the day when we will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a little, I will put you in charge of much. Enter into the joy of your master.” AMEN.