I imagine today’s parable is a familiar one, so much so that I fear this will be a sermon in which it is difficult to say anything new. The moral of the story is probably as plain to you as to me, but the circumstances in which we confront it together are entirely unfamiliar, so perhaps that will afford us some small inspiration. In fact, I will argue that alongside a familiar moral there is another. The first two slaves in today’s parable from Matthew teach us a clear and familiar lesson. The third slave I think teaches us a slightly different but no less important lesson.
Matthew’s parable tells of the master of a household who entrusts considerable sums of money to three of his slaves to manage for him during a long planned absence. The term “talent” in modern English—as well as in modern Italian and French—takes its meaning from this parable. So we cannot help but think metaphorically about this parable, that it concerns natural aptitudes or abilities.
That may be, but in the first instance, at the most literal level, a talent is simply a measure of weight applied to precious metal, a large measure in fact that implies substantial value. We see this in verse 27, the word we translate as “money” is argyria, which means literally silver but by extension means all money.
Slaves in this cultural setting would certainly have had an obligation to promote the wealth and health of the household to which they belonged and would have often been afforded the opportunity to do so with some independence—but never on this scale. Even one talent of silver is a fortune; five are a king’s ransom.
So the parable is about money, but the symbolism of money is sufficiently open to many possible interpretations, and the scale of the money involved suggests to us that this not a parable about a real economic situation at all but about how we are to behave with respect to what God has given us as members of the kingdom of God while our Master the Lord Jesus Christ is apart from us and during the “long time” he has given us to serve him.
At a minimum I think the implied principle is that people have different gifts and resources. This perhaps reflects the diversity of giftings in the kingdom of God. Not all are given equal amounts, but all are expected to make best use of what they have been given.
Notice that the achievement of the first two slaves is praised by the master in identical, word-for-word terms: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”
The first two slaves then are praised in the same terms though they have achieved different results. Each has doubled his talents, but each started with a different number. The point is that it is not the amount of success with which their efforts meet but the degree to which each has made the most of what he had to start with. The first two slaves are therefore rewarded with two things.
First, each will receive an even greater degree of responsibility for the advancement of the household. Faithfulness in a little does not yield a break from responsibility but in fact increases it.
What this suggests to me is that while there is a time in our lives for retirement from worldly labors, for rest from the ordinary demands of life, there is no retirement from the life of Christian discipleship. This holds true even in death, if you can believe it. In the prayer for the whole state of Christ’s church we pray for the departed in exactly these terms: “we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service.” Did you ever pause to consider what that means? It means that even in death we ask God to grant to the departed ongoing and ever greater opportunities to love and serve God. Serving the master is a lifelong calling, and even in paradise we anticipate yet further love for and service to our master.
Second, the first two slaves are rewarded with a share in the joy of their master. The opportunity for further responsibility to advance the master’s household is not a big bummer—what, more work?—but rather a blessing. It is not drudgery to serve in his household but a source of joy.
This spiritual reality is perhaps suggested by the intriguing detail that often goes unnoticed in verse 28. The master takes the talent from the third slave and gives it to the slave who has ten talents. The text implies that the slave with the ten talents has had them returned by the master to him. I said five talents is already inconceivable for a slave. Eleven is beyond all calculation, and it suggests that a life lived well in the kingdom of God, a life of dedicated service to the master, is one that has an inconceivably great reward. As Jesus himself also says in Matthew’s Gospel, “every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”
This then is the familiar moral of the story: Be faithful and diligent in what you have been given. Use your gifts and resources in service of the kingdom of God. Expect to be rewarded for your faithfulness with further opportunity for service and joy.
Which brings us to the third slave. It seems to me that the problem with the third slave is that he has forfeited both of the rewards promised to the first two slaves.
The third slave has misperceived the master’s harshness and shirked his own obligation. He has excused himself from the responsibility of advancing the master’s household and has blamed the master for his own dereliction.
The perceived harshness of the master though is not really an excuse, and the master himself is not buying it because he turns the third slave’s words against him. If it’s really true that the master is such a demanding person, then why not have put the money on deposit? There it would be almost as safe as burying it in the ground, would earn interest for the master upon his return, and not require much in the way of work or risk on the slave’s part.
Yet even this he has not done. He has not failed because he met with less success than the first two slaves. He has failed because he did nothing at all.
The New Testament scholar Edward Schweizer wrote that the moral of the third slave’s story is “aimed at those devoted to their own personal security. Jesus is saying that a religion concerned only with not doing anything wrong…ignores the will of God.”
The Christian faith, however, calls us to more than “not doing anything wrong,” more than risk-avoidance. On the contrary, we are called to a life of responsibility, and responsibility entails risk.
Because the third slave is unwilling to take a risk he loses out on the chance for further responsibility and a chance to share in the master’s joy. This is the second, less familiar moral to today’s parable. Whatever you do, do not do nothing. Embrace the risk of faith, accept responsibility in the kingdom, do not just play it safe.
I will admit to you today that I am finding it under current circumstances difficult to live out these lessons. I said already that there are times at which we must refrain from ordinary activities, but our responsibilities in the kingdom of God never end. Kingdom work does go on here at the Advent. At no time this year have the parish clergy failed to say the mass in this place, at least privately, and of that fact we can all be proud. We can be equally proud that brave volunteers have continued to serve the needy and hungry every Tuesday night without fail, for which many of our guests have expressed thanks, as others have stopped serving free meals. We will have further opportunities to assist the homeless and needy this holiday season through the donation of clothing and gift cards. We can all continue to prayerfully consider our pledges and support the kingdom through our giving. We are also carrying on with educational programming for adults and children alike. All of this is praiseworthy.
Yet there is much else that we are not able to do, and I am sure you feel the loss of all that as much as I do. For my own part, I find it difficult to acknowledge the gifts I still enjoy. I find it tough to be diligent and attentive to those tasks yet before me. In my work during the week I am largely alone, a situation in which it is hard to be productive. I have no easy answers here, and I know others have it worse than I. In these circumstances though, let us remember that the worst we can do is nothing at all. It may take some creativity and fresh thinking, but we must be alert for opportunities to continue our service to the Lord no matter how daunting it seems. We will not be judged for the paucity of our achievements, only for failing to strive and serve where and when we can.