Matthew 25: 14-30
Click here to watch the full sermon for November 15th, entitled "Recipients."
The Biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine reminds us that Jesus’ sixty or so parables were not meant to entertain us, but to disturb us. Jesus’ parables challenge us profoundly, because they upend our settled world. Jesus introduces to us a New World, a new way of being. Something bright and glorious has entered into our world so flat and gray. Imagine God announcing, “Let there be light yet again.” That’s what Jesus’ parables provide: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a seemingly simple but stunning story. The kingdom of God is kind of like this: while the cat’s away, the mice will play. But what happens when the cat comes back? As Desi Arnaz used to say, “Then the mice got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
Now there are three things I want to suggest about this parable. The first is how we should NOT interpret it. The second is the standard way we hear this parable. And the third is the way I would like us to consider this parable, a way that truly astonishes us if we have ears to hear.
First, how NOT to interpret this parable. This parable is certainly not a celebration of a transactional system, where endless buying and selling chases elusive profits. It is not about an annual sales meeting where we hear the report of the year’s earnings. It is not about stocks and bonds, banks and compound interest. It is not about enriching the owner in a kind of pyramid scheme. It is not about awarding the winners who doubled their initial investment and taking from the losers what they squandered. It is not about the servant’s frantic efforts to please their master who is a hard and exacting accountant. It is not about the punishment dished out to the wicked and lazy, the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Actually, it could be worse. In Luke’s version of this parable (Luke 13) the recalcitrant subjects are slaughtered at the feet of the returning nobleman. If that is the sole point of this parable, then we should say to our church’s Investment Committee: “If you double our portfolio, then you will be called Titans of Wall Street and more importantly you will hear these words: Well done, good and faithful servants!”
Now really, if that is all Jesus is talking about, how could this be good news? That is not the announcement of a New World dawning. That is simply a description of what our world already looks like-a competitive dog eat dog world, where winners are celebrated and losers are dismissed. Is that all the Kingdom of God offers our world? Oh my, I hope not!
So let’s examine a second way of hearing this parable, the usual Sunday morning fare. The typical analysis follows the rule of “end stress” in the interpretation of parables. That is, we focus on the third and final character, the “wicked and lazy servant” who fearfully buried his one talent in the ground. You know this sermon like the back of your hand-the impassioned reminder to use your gifts, offering faithful service and making the most of your time and talents. Most of all, don’t bury your talents for you are accountable. Because this parable is in the context of the final judgment, you are solemnly warned that you must stand before Christ and give an accounting of your stewardship. Thus the punch line is always this warning: “So don’t just stand there, look busy!” We all know this sermon well.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is an important message, one I need to hear and no doubt one you need to hear. What am I doing with my life-my gifts, my talents and my time? Especially in a pandemic where so much of our life has been turned upside down. So this is a useful exercise: Look in the mirror and ask yourself today, “What AM I doing with this precious gift of life?” All well and good. But not entirely what I want us to focus on today.
I want us to focus on the beginning of this parable-the preamble, the premise, the prelude. “For it is as if a man going on a journey summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them.” Linger there for a moment. Consider the owner’s amazing trust in his servants. He entrusts to them the keys to all his belongings. Does he worry that they may run off and squander his gifts in riotous living in the flesh pots of Egypt? Apparently not. Amazing trust!
Consider also his amazing generosity to these servants. They no doubt receive from the owner more than they have ever had before. All three servants receive money according to their abilities as in “to whom much is given, much is required.” Before this gift, all three were just poor servants. Now their master’s money is burning in their pockets as well as the keys to his property. Never before had they ever received so much and never before was so much expected of them. Amazing generosity!
So let’s marvel at this landowner. He turns over his estate and his money to his servants and goes away. Once their hands were empty. Now they are filled with gifts, gifts they did not necessarily deserve or merit. But now they are graced and they are responsible. In the German language there is a nice word play that describes their new reality: Gabe und Aufgabe. Gift and Task. And they can never forget how this happened. Their master trusted them and entrusted to them his estate and his money. Amazing grace!
I am reminded of a bank commercial I heard years ago that I wish all fiduciaries would remember: “We never forget whose money it is.” The servants must never forget that this is someone else’s money clanging in their pockets. And the keys to the farm belong to another. They have been entrusted with something that fundamentally does not belong to them. And that’s why they will have to give account of how they handled their master’s trust. Perhaps they keep repeating to themselves in wonder and awe: “No, this is not my money. No, these keys don’t belong to me. I have a gift and I have a task.” In other words, all that I am and all that I have-it’s all gift. It’s all grace. It’s not mine.
Now this all can sound terribly offensive for those who think of themselves as self-made men or self-made women. Folks who can rightly point to just how hard they have worked for all they have. True enough. There is nothing in this parable that undermines our work ethic. The issue is not how hard working you are. The issue here is much more fundamental. It is to ask yourself, “How did all this come to me? How did all this fall into my lap?”
Recently I’ve been engaged in a conversation with several colleagues about white privilege. I took an online test regarding my privileged upbringing. I graded out in the 95th percentile. To use an old baseball adage, it’s like I was born on third base, but I imagined I hit a triple. I was born into my advantages-the color of my skin, my male gender, my college educated parents who when they died left me an inheritance, etc. etc. I could go on and on and probably you could too. In other words, I was born standing on the shoulders of others, resting comfortably on third base. So who am I to boast?
The prophet Ezekiel holds in scorn the Egyptian Pharaoh whose pride and arrogance knew no bounds. In fact, this king of Egypt has the audacity to claim, “The Nile is mine, I made it for myself!” (29:3) Imagine the hubris! That is the ultimate self-made claim of all time: “The Nile is mine, I made it for myself.” Then God laughs in the heavens at our absurd pretensions. This God who made the heavens and the earth, as well as the Nile.
The opposite attitude is found in I Chronicles 29 when David is offering a prayer of thanksgiving, which we will pray at the end of this sermon. He acknowledges gratefully God’s goodness in supplying the bounty that the people then offer for the temple. In one of the great lines of the Hebrew Scriptures, David says, “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” And thus our hymn, “We give Thee but Thine own.” We offer our gifts to God with gratitude and praise, because they were given to us in the first place.
Paul in I Corinthians 4:7 asks this magnificent question which I leave with you, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Keep asking yourself that question. All that you have and all that you have worked for-how did that come about? Where did your education and talents come from? Where did your opportunities come from? Where did your energy and your motivation come from? Did you make the Nile? So may I ask you again, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Before God, on this Dedication Sunday let us gladly confess: It’s all gift. It’s all grace. The overflowing mercy and kindness of God. We are all of us recipients. Thanks be to God. Amen.