All You Can
Scripture Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Preached by Tracey Leslie on January 4, 2015
One of the things I always say about interpreting scripture is that “it can’t mean now what it didn’t mean then.” For example, it’s ridiculous to think that Jesus would have told a story or parable that would have been incomprehensible or irrelevant to the average first century Palestinian Jew. Without a doubt, Jesus knew his audience. And, there were two things about Jesus’ culture that enormously impact how we need to hear and interpret this morning’s parable because, without this cultural understanding, we can reach different, perhaps even contradictory conclusions about what Jesus was communicating.
First of all, people in Middle Eastern culture didn’t think of themselves as individuals. As a matter of fact, they still don’t. They think of themselves as part of a group – their clan, their village, their religious or ethnic group, etc. They lived and breathed and carried out their daily obligations not for the betterment of themselves as individuals, but for the benefit of their group.
They also believed in something called “limited good.” The belief that there was only so much “good stuff” out there and God had allotted it to people as God had seen fit and it would be dishonorable, shameful in fact, for me to try and get more of something for myself because that would mean, first of all, that I was arrogant; and second of all, that I was taking stuff away from you… stuff that rightfully belonged to you. Perhaps think of it in this way… with a comparison appropriate in our culture. Imagine that we were attending a banquet and that dessert consisted of a pie brought to our table. Eight people would be seated around the table and the pie would be cut into eight equal slices. Imagine what you would think of me if, being the first to pick up the pie pan, I proceeded to place three slices of pie on my plate… and, let me tell you, I do like pie. But, that kind of behavior violates our cultural norms and values, right? And so, the ancient concept of limited good discouraged upward mobility or the pursuit of personal wealth. It encouraged people to remain in their divinely determined social and economic position.
Now, that’s a somewhat lengthy introduction to this parable. So let me cut to the chase – or cut through the cultural divide – and simply state that what those first two servants did in this morning’s story, while it may seem logical and even admirable to us as 21st century American Capitalists, would have seemed reckless and dishonorable to the people who heard Jesus tell this story. That these two gentlemen would become heroes; that they would be rewarded for risking their master’s assets would have shocked Jesus’ audience.
But here’s the thing. In the stories Jesus tells, while they often appear to be about ordinary things like farming, or shepherding or dinner parties, in truth those common everyday events serve as illustrations or examples for what life is like in the Kingdom of God. In other words, the stories Jesus tells are designed to reveal to us how our world could and should look if we were to take seriously allowing God and God’s values to govern our lives. The parables of Jesus paint us a picture of what life would be like if we allowed God’s values to direct our lives.
So, a little more about the parable… It begins by telling us of this landowner who, before heading out of town, entrusts his assets to three of his servants. Now what he entrusted to them was enormous wealth because it totals eight talents… which was a lot of money in Jesus’ day. A common peasant had to work about 15 years to accumulate one talent. So, to put things in terms we would understand today, without a doubt, this guy belongs in the 1% - right up there with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Now we don’t know how long the master is going to be out of town, but these guys react quickly. Two of them at once begin to speculate with their master’s money. This is a bold and dangerous plan. To put it in modern terms, they have no guarantees that the market won’t collapse and they would lose their master’s money. It really was a pretty presumptuous and risky thing these two guys did.
Now, servant number three does what would have been expected: he buried his master’s money. You see, in Jesus’ culture that was the common and acceptable way to safeguard your assets. It would be, today, like placing your money in a safety deposit box at the bank or in a vault. Under those conditions, you can rest assured that nothing will happen to your money; absolutely nothing. As a matter of fact, in Jesus’ culture, so acceptable was the practice of burying money that, if one buried money as soon as they received it, and something happened to that money, that steward or servant was absolved of any wrongdoing because they would be judged to have taken the most responsible course of action. Think of it as the ancient form of our modern FDIC. So, according to the cultural standards of his day, what this third guy did should have been considered honorable and appropriate. It was standard operating procedure.
But when the master returns, nothing seems to go as one would have expected… which is pretty common for the unfolding of these stories Jesus tells. They never end quite the way the audience would have anticipated. Upon the master’s return, when he calls these guys back into his office, he lavishes praise upon servants one and two who gambled recklessly with his resources. Instead of sitting on the money, they set out and got busy and took risk with the hope that it would bring profit to their master. And it did. And, as I said, the master lavishes praise on them. He demonstrates his confidence in them by rewarding them with even more of his assets to manage.
But then, servant number three steps into his office. Now, notice how this guy justifies his actions. He acted out of fear; fear based on the kind of guy he assumed his master to be. He assumed his master to be harsh and unfair, although the master’s behavior up to this point in the story doesn’t provide any evidence to support that.
So friends, what is it that this morning’s story can teach us? Well, if Jesus is the master over our lives, the first thing it can teach us is that we need to know something about the character or nature of our master. It’s pretty hard to please someone if you don’t know them. As a pastor, I can tell you, there have been numerous times in my ministry when I have encountered people who have lived their lives plagued by fear because they never really learned the true nature or character of their master, their Lord Jesus. At some point long ago, someone told them some erroneous and, frankly dreadful, assumption about God and how God deals with us and that misinformation has been a burden they have been dragging around with them for years. Now friends, the best way to come to know and understand God’s nature and character is to study the bible. John Wesley, founder of the Methodists, said that nothing is more essential for shaping our understanding of God than scripture. Surveys that are conducted consistently reveal that of all the religious actions and activities people can do to grow in their relationship with God, nothing makes a bigger impact than learning to know God through studying the bible. And, let me say “studying” means making use of good curriculum (like Disciple Bible Study, for example) or studying with someone who has been trained in interpreting scripture. I once had a friend who told me how much she loved her bible study group. Of course, I was eager to hear why. She told me that they met weekly and would randomly pick a scripture passage, and then talk about what they thought it meant. Friends, that’s not bible study; it’s “opinion swapping.” If we want to serve our Master well, we need to know him and not just have some blind, perhaps erroneous, assumptions about him.
Secondly, this morning’s story teaches us that Jesus entrusts the assets and blessings of God’s kingdom to us not because he wants us to bury them and sit on them; but because God wants us to be willing to take bold risks in order to multiply the blessings of his kingdom for the benefit of others. Friends, God gives each of us “talents,” resources, skills, abilities that we can take out into the world and put to use for him. Being a good servant who pleases our Master, our Lord Jesus, isn’t about passive waiting or even strict obedience to instructions. Good and faithful service to Christ means actions that demonstrate initiative, boldness and a willingness to take risks.
Friends, playing it safe, hiding in fear, zealously guarding and keeping secret the blessings and talents God has given you is not behavior that our Master, our Lord Jesus, approves of. We’ve got to be ready to take some risks and try some things we’ve been too afraid to try before so that the blessings of God’s kingdom are dramatically multiplied through you and me.
In just a few minutes we’ll be renewing our commitment to Christ through a Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service. One of John Wesley’s most memorable quotes was this one: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” In other words, be a servant of God who is worthy of his trust by using all of the talents God has entrusted to you to multiply the blessings of his kingdom for the benefit of others.
Friends, God doesn’t want us to hide or bury our talents because if we bury our talents, or hide them, we can rest assured, nothing will happen; absolutely nothing. And Jesus didn’t call us to do “nothing.” Now, some of us might not be sure what our talents are or how to put our talents to use but I can tell you, the best way to discover your talent, is to simply do something; something you enjoy and something you’re good at. Try something. Be bold; be creative. Don’t just sit around and play it safe. Don’t just wait around to see if somebody else steps up. Just do it. Take a risk because that’s what the Master wants you to do.
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