Preached by Leslie Ruo and Patti Polowick on November 12, 2017.
The Good and Faithful Servant
A parable is a story meant to convey or illuminate a truth that is often not immediately understood by the audience or the reader. The Gospel of Matthew 25:14-30 is often referred to as the parable of the talents, though some translations call it the parable of the bags of gold. What is Jesus trying to tell us and how does it relate to legacy?
In this story, the master gives three servants some property to manage on his behalf. We are told he gives one servant five talents, another two and another one – “each according to their ability.”
When the master returns, he is quite pleased that two servants took their talents and multiplied them – returning double to the master. However, he is dismayed that the servant who had one talent buried it in the ground.
At first read, one might think this parable is about growing your money, and indeed, it is sometimes used at financial planning and wealth management seminars to encourage or justify the building up and accumulation of wealth and possessions. It’s easy to understand why.
Sometimes people don’t think this is about money at all and focus on the message that people should be industrious, work hard and to use their God-given talents, skills and abilities to make a better life for themselves and those around them. And it’s easy to understand this reasoning too.
Let’s look deeper and see what we discover about what Jesus is really talking about.
The Greek word for talent is talanton. It has two equal meanings: that which is weighed, and a sum of money used by ancient Romans and Greeks. Jewish sources explain that the word for talent is kikkar. It was worth about 3000 silver coins and weighed approximately 95 pounds. A kikkar is the largest unit of weight in the Bible. A single talent would be equal to 15 years of earnings for a labourer.
To give you an even better sense of the kind of money we are talking about, the average Canadian earned about $50,000 in 2016. If we multiply that by 15 years of labour, the sum of one talent would be $750,000. So, in the world in which Jesus lived and preached, a single talent was quite a weighty sum of money. The servants who received two and five talents received today’s equivalent of $1.5 million and $3.75 million respectively. And even the servant who received one talent, received $750,000! So, not only is the text talking about money, it’s the kind of money that most people would never earn in their lifetime. Think about this for a moment.
What if three people here this morning were given these sums of money? What would you do with it? Would you put it in the stock market, trying to double it? Or buy a home to renovate, flip and double the original investment? Would you deposit it in the bank? Or would you hide it in a coffee can in the freezer?
The third servant buried his money in the ground. And the master was furious with him. He called him lazy. He scorns him and shunned him for keeping his money safe. I’m not sure why he isn’t more empathetic. I don’t know about you, but I’d have been cautious too if I were asked to look after $750,000 on behalf of someone else. How else could I guarantee it wouldn’t be lost? Sure, I could have put it in the bank, but would the interest really make that much difference – and the master already had lots of resources. Why such a scolding if this parable isn’t about financial gain or financial success?
There are two other details in the story that can give us clues. First, we are told each servant was given the money according to their abilities. So the master may have known that the first and second servant would take more risk – perhaps they had entrepreneurial spirits, or experience in making money. He might have known that the third servant was more cautious, – but that it was possible for him to do something with the money – the servant could have at least invest his talent in the bank it could earn a little interest. When the servant buried the money in the ground, it is almost as if he was scared to admit – or wanted to deny – that he had been entrusted with any of the master’s goods, he didn’t even put it in the bank.
The second thing we learn is that the third servant sees the master as “a harsh man”. Perhaps that is also key. The third servant only saw bad things about the master and he was fearful. He didn’t see the master’s abundance or generosity, only judgment and wrath, and so he didn’t recognize the generosity of the master or the responsibility the master was giving him – nor the opportunity to share in his joy.
These Master’s gifts – the five talents, two talents and even the one talent – were so exaggerated in the ancient world that people would have known that the story had more significance to it than just a lesson about making money.
I think this story is about how we use or don’t use the resources we’ve been given to advance God’s work in the world. The money in the context of this story symbolizes both a huge amount of potential and God’s generosity. Will we be faithful stewards and put the resources God has given us to work helping others? Or will we allow our fear of scarcity, our need for financial security to overtake us – to the point that we deny that God has given us anything?
Today material possessions and money in the bank can make us feel like we are owners of our resources: I own my home, I own my cottage, I own my car, and all my other things. In our consumer society, with messages like, “freedom 55” and “because you’re worth it”, we are repeatedly told that we deserve to accumulate wealth. The accumulation of possessions makes us feel safe and secure, and may even provide meaning for our lives. The truth is, building up our wealth and buying more stuff for the sake of it – even if it was “earned” by our labour – is as good as burying our talents.
This parable is about creating a different world. It’s about realizing the extravagant generosity and graciousness of God. Remember, like the servants, we are stewards; caretakers of what we’ve been given. As followers of Christ Jesus we are called to live out the gospel – not to idly bury our treasurers in the ground. We can use our resources to show people what God is all about – so that they will know God’s love. In the end, if we haven’t shared our resources and blessings, what good are they?
What if we take this parable in context with the other teachings of Jesus? Will we use our treasures to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, offer shelter, treat others with the same grace and unearned kindness that God has shown to us?
The servants in the parable who grew their talents were not growing them for their own sake. They put their gifts to work and returned to the master more than they’d been given. God provided unimaginable abundance and the first two servants responded in turn by creatively generating more abundance and returning it to the source. They were given more and were invited to enter “the joy of their master”. The third servant was scared. He didn’t see the master as abundant and giving, but as ruthless and taking. He didn’t see that the resources were given to him as an opportunity to do the master’s work.
So, how can we be faithful servants? We recognize that God has given us many gifts: time, talent and money, and also opportunities to do creative things with all we’ve earned or achieved, according to the values Jesus taught: loving our neighbor, caring for the marginalized, the vulnerable, the outcasts in our midst with our skills, talents and our money.
The parable challenges us to grow our wealth and accumulate possessions for the right reasons. Part of doing God’s work and stewarding generosity is being responsible to the people in our lives. We should take care of family, friends and others we care about. But we should also recognize that there are opportunities to do more. There is enough for all.
The legacy of being a faithful servant is also about how we’ll be remembered – whether we have lived an abundant and generous life, or one of scarcity and fear. And, when our lives are finished, each of us must decide what will happen to our possessions. It’s our final chance to act in this life and it gives us a blessed opportunity. If we don’t make decisions about how our estate will be used, the government will make them for us – distributing our assets by a formula that doesn’t necessarily represent our values. With good planning, we can look after our families and leave a legacy that puts God’s resources to work.
The Raw Carrot
Several years ago, George Van Beek gave a gift of stock to the national church to fund new experimental ministries. George and his wife Evelyn contributed to this fund during their lives, and then left generous bequests in their wills. These gifts have been making dreams come true across the denomination.
One of these dreams was to change the world, one bowl of soup at a time. In 2013, Rebecca Sherbino and Colleen Graham of Paris Presbyterian Church in Ontario dreamed of hiring people on the margins –people on social assistance; people with various abilities and skills; people who experienced significant barriers to employment – to make and sell healthy, locally sourced, homemade soups and stews.
With support from their congregation and The Presbyterian Church in Canada, Rebecca and Colleen worked to realize their dream. The Raw Carrot Soup Enterprise received financial support from the legacy gifts of generous Presbyterians. By mid-2015 The Raw Carrot was selling about 100 litres of soup per week. If one litre of soup feeds about four people, then in 2015, this non-profit, social-justice-focused outreach ministry fed 20,800 people with 5,200 litres of soup!
There are seven full-time staff who would otherwise not have full employment. Through their work they gain dignity, community and employment. They are faithfully living out service to Christ – and they make absolutely delicious soup! The Raw Carrot has been so successful that it is expanding, with pop-up shops around south-western Ontario and beyond.
George and Evelyn lived out their lives faithfully by using their possessions to do God’s work in the world and to leave a legacy. Their gift has multiplied. Their legacy is making dreams happen, and changing lives.
Every gift given – no matter how big or how small – has the ability to impact more lives and carry out more of God’s mission and ministry in our church and the world than we could ever imagine on our own. Imagine what we can transform our accumulated assets into!
We all have more than we think we’ve been given. We need to use all of our resources prayerfully and wisely. When we put our resources to good use in God’s work and don’t bury them needlessly, we will surely hear these words from the master, “Well done good and faithful servant.”