Last week I did a teaching on the parable of the talents from Matthew 25:14-30.
On the surface, it’s a fairly simple story. The master leaves large amounts of money with three servants. The master comes back expecting his servants to have made good use of the money and ready to show a profit. He rewards those who do and he punishes the one who doesn’t. The one who fails doesn’t invest and lose the money, he simply does nothing with it. He assumes the worst about his master and his fear paralyzes him, so he buries the money. His master banishes him from his kingdom for his lack of initiative.
I’ve taught on this parable before, and frankly, early last week, I was dreading delivering another boring, guilt-inducing treatise on how we need to get busy showing a profit for the Lord.
But this is why I love parables. They’re open to being interpreted on multiple levels. The deeper I dug, the more gospel I found, until by Friday, I couldn’t wait to share what I had learned.
But first, I had to dig through a few levels of hard soil that have been used to grow so many sermons that it has been depleted of life-giving nutrients.
There’s the straightforward interpretation that we should be good stewards of the money that God entrusts to us. It’s God asking the question: What did you do with all the money I gave you?
Go one level deeper and you get a story about being a good steward of whatever talents or abilities God has given us. This has been such a historically popular interpretation that the English word “talent” is derived from this parable. It’s God asking: What did you do with the talent I gave you? What did you build, teach, organize, or create?
Keep digging and you hit some richer soil that yields a story aimed at ancient Israel. Jesus is critiquing Israel’s poor stewardship of the blessings that God gave them. Blessings they were supposed to share with the rest of the world. It’s God asking Israel: Why have you not been a light to the nations?
Dig a little deeper and you’ll hit what they call in the movies “paydirt.” Here we find a story addressed to those who had started following Jesus as he preached about the Kingdom of God. To be a follower of Jesus is to be entrusted with the message of the Kingdom. It’s a message of love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, hope and justice.
While he is away, Jesus expects this message to be set loose in the world and to spread like yeast through dough or to grow from a small seed into a large tree.
Jesus gives the good news of the kingdom to each of his followers in abundance. If you’re keeping score at home, then yes, not everyone gets the same amount. Some people need more grace than others. Some require more mercy. Some need double the love to flourish. I bet you have some of these people in your family, or maybe in your church.
Is it possible that the “5 talent guy” in the story is actually the biggest sinner who needs the most grace?
Regardless of the amount received, each person is expected to share the message of the Kingdom so that it grows and multiplies.
Imagine having a conversation with God someday and being asked: So, what did you do with all the love I gave you? What do you have to show for all the grace and mercy I showed you?
There will be many who will show God exactly what they did with his grace. There will be story after story about how they shared his love and goodness with others. Those who have been forgiven much will love much. The Kingdom of God will be twice as large, twice as deep, and twice as beautiful because they were good stewards of the good news. Their joy will continue to multiply as they sink deeper and deeper into the goodness of God and the new world he’s creating.
There will be others who will have nothing to show for all the goodness God sent their way. They were never able to trust him. They couldn’t believe that he was as loving as others said he was. To them, he was always a harsh taskmaster who was looking to catch them making a mistake. They serve him, not out of love, but fear.
Because they believed the worst about God, they buried the good news of the kingdom and refused to put’s God love, grace, and forgiveness into circulation.
The great irony of the story is that the end up getting the God they were afraid of disappointing. They are excluded from the party not because they made mistakes or misused what they had been given, but because they refused to do anything with it at all.
They miss out on the joy of the kingdom, the life of the party, because even though they were entrusted with the good news of God, they have no joy or life in them.
What a sad story. What an unnecessary ending.
I wonder if the thing that frustrates God more than anything else is our failure to trust his goodness?
He trusts us with so much. He gives us so much grace; so many opportunities. There is no limit to his generosity. He invites us to partner with him in putting a broken world back together again.
How many of us never fully throw ourselves into the project because we can’t quite shake the idea that maybe God is setting us up for a fall? How different would our response be if we really believed he was setting us up for a life of unspeakable joy and an invitation to the party of a lifetime?
I love how Robert Farrar Capon summarizes the message of this parable. He says, “The only reason judgment comes is that there will always be dummies who refuse to trust a good thing when it’s handed to them on a platter.”