“Lazy or Faithful?”
November 16, 2008 - Twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Several years ago my sister gave me a gift certificate for my birthday. It was for twenty-five dollars with a mail order seller of discount Christian books. I just let it sit on my desk… for a couple of years, until it expired. I could have used it for commentaries or theology books that I wanted. But I was used to ordering on-line or over the phone with a credit card. For this I had to fill out a written order and mail in the certificate. I just never got around to it. I let the gift my sister paid for with her hard-earned money go to waste.
Jesus’ parable for us today is about a similar sort of waste, but of much greater magnitude. The “bags of gold” entrusted to servants in verse 15 were literally “talents.” A talent in the ancient world was the highest monetary denomination, about 60 to 90 pounds of precious metal. At the price gold was on Friday, that’s a minimum of $700,000 per talent. Alternatively, a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii. Remember from a few weeks ago that a denarius was a day’s wages for a laborer. At Oregon’s minimum wage of $7.95/hour for an 8 hour day, that comes to more than $380,000 for a talent.
However you figure it, huge amounts of money were entrusted to the servants of the man going away on a journey. For the guy who got five talents, in our terms it was millions of dollars. Each one of the three was handed an awesome responsibility to do well with the master’s money. Two of them performed excellently, while one wasted the opportunity.
Most sermons on this parable go in the direction of the dreaded Christian “S” word, “stewardship.” I had that pretty much in mind when I first saw I could connect this text today with our pledges for next year of “time, talent (there’s that word!) and treasure.” The problem I discovered as I seriously studied this parable for the first time is that making this text into a story about stewardship is a load of another, less Christian, “S” word.
As I mentioned last week, this parable is one of three closing illustrations in a sermon on the second coming by Jesus. It’s about what will happen when our Lord comes back, and what we do in the interval. Stewardship may be part of the picture, but if we make it the whole deal here, we’ve missed the boat.
Those sermons you’ve heard from this parable about putting your own, individual, God-given talents to good use are really off the mark. It’s through just that kind of preaching that we got our modern English word “talent” sometime in the 14th century. People began to talk about natural ability in terms of this parable and began to call those abilities “talents,” comparing them to the bags of gold in the story. But the parable is literally about the use of money, precious metal, not about giving God your talent for music or for business or for writing or for basketball or for carving cute little frogs out of bars of soap. Jesus just wasn’t talking about that sort of thing.
On the other hand, He wasn’t really too concerned about money here. Those sermons (I preached one once) that take this parable to be about wise spiritual investment through faithful giving are also off track. The amounts here are ludicrously large. This isn’t about how ordinary people handle actual amounts of money. It’s a caricature, a cartoon in words that’s makes a point about how we as Christians handle a much greater responsibility than mere dollars or gold. Or mere human talents, for that matter.
What’s the first line of the story in verse 14? “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey…” And what’s the crisis point of the whole thing in verse 19? “After a long time the master of those servants returned…” A guy leaves and he comes back. Now, in the middle of Jesus’ talk about the second coming, what does that remind us of? Duh. The master of the servants represents Jesus. He’s not God the Father bestowing abilities and talents on each of us. He’s not the hand of providence providing us with financial resources that need to be carefully managed. The master is Jesus—dying, rising and ascending into heaven and entrusting His disciples with gifts to work with until He comes back.
It’s clear the owner who leaves in verse 14 and returns in verse 19 is Jesus. It’s not clear just what the “talents” are, just what Jesus left for His followers to work with. But it’s not money. Jesus had to borrow a denarius when He needed one. It’s not natural abilities. Peter, James, John, Mary and Martha are ordinary people with ordinary levels of human talent. No, the gifts our Lord left us to work with are something else.
The parable is deliberately vague about what the talents represent. Jesus wanted us to wrestle with this, to think carefully about what spiritual resources He’s given us and whether we are putting them to good use.
What do the talents represent, then? The Holy Spirit and all His spiritual gifts is a good possibility. The Gospel itself, the good news of God’s Kingdom coming to us through Jesus Christ is another fine candidate. In our church constitution we pledge to make good use of the means of grace, the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Table, along with God’s Word in Holy Scripture. Those are another possibility. Paul makes a great deal of faith, hope and love. Those precious gifts show up in our reading from I Thessalonians 5 today. These are all blessings that shouldn’t be buried. But we don’t need to figure out exactly what our spiritual resources are. We just need to put them to work.
What distinguishes the first two servants from the third? It’s not that they are incredibly successful. Doubling their money is just a bit of exaggeration to heighten the drama. The key is in verse 16 where we’re told that “The man who had received five talents went at once and put his money to work…” And verse 17 says the one with two talents did likewise. They used what they had received. On the other hand, the man with one talent just buried it in the ground.
We will come back to the commendation and reward the first two servants received when their master returned, but for right now let’s focus on why the third servant didn’t put to use what he had. Let’s think about why we may not be using the spiritual gifts and resources Jesus has entrusted to us.
In verse 24, the man with the single talent explains himself. “Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” In other words, the owner is a typical, hard-nosed businessman, pinching every penny possible and scraping profit out of the smallest investment. “So I was afraid,” said the third servant, “and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”
Sometimes this parable is preached as though the servant were afraid of risk. He hid the money in the ground (a common practice in those days) as the safest thing to do, rather than putting it to work in some risky financial venture. So we’re told that the lesson is to dare and risk great things for God, rather than playing it safe.
Yet listen to what the master says to this man in verse 26. He doesn’t say a word about fear or failure to take a risk. He calls him, “You wicked, lazy servant!” It’s not that he didn’t take risks. It’s that he didn’t do anything at all. He didn’t work. The master even gives him a safe job in verse 27. Put the money in the bank, draw a little interest and his master would have been pleased even with that. It’s not doubling the money that’s important. It’s doing something, anything—even playing it safe and getting a cent or two interest on the dollar—that matters. It’s doing absolutely nothing that is wicked and lazy.
That word “lazy” points to the heart of the third man’s problem. He was afflicted by a spiritual problem identified and understood later in Christian history. This servant was guilty of the sin of “sloth.”
We don’t grasp sloth very well because we imagine it’s means inactivity. We think of being lazy in terms of its symptoms. The wicked servant didn’t work. The slothful, lazy person is one who just sits around, not doing anything. But the sin of sloth is deeper than mere laziness and unwillingness to work. It’s rooted in an attitude about spiritual life and activity that is a killer. That’s why sloth was called one of the seven deadly sins.
The spiritual root of sloth is in the words, “I was afraid.” It’s not fear of judgment. That might get a person moving. It’s a fear that spiritual life and practice are pointless. It’s the feeling that none of what we do really matters. It’s a kind of despair. We don’t do or we quit doing anything for Jesus because we begin to believe, deep down, that it makes no difference. We’re no different, the church is no different, the world is no different. All this Jesus stuff is nice, but it doesn’t really amount to anything. So we give up.
Sloth is ultimately a mistaken and ugly attitude toward God. No wonder the master in the story is so angry in verse 26. “So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” The servant is calling him tight-fisted, stingy old miser who’s going to get whatever he wants anyway. So what does it matter what the rest of us do? That’s how sloth views God. And God hates being seen that way.
Taking great risks for Jesus can be awesome. Like those first two servants, you may find blessings pouring out all over, your spiritual capital doubled in no time at all. Yet all the Lord is really asking is that you not give up, that you not become afraid. What you do does matter. He wants whatever you can do.
Bill Cosby talks about how mothers receive presents. “Mothers cry for anything. You can find a raggedy old piece of wood in the gutter—you don’t even have to wipe it off. Just an old piece of wood. Take your little penknife and make a nick in it and then just carry it on home to her and say, ‘Look, Mom, see what I made for you.’ She will say ‘Oh my heavens [sniffle, sob], you made this for me? Come here, I forgive you for everything!’” That’s how Jesus is too. He loves you so much, He will be pleased with whatever you do for Him. The only thing that bums Him out, is if we do nothing, offer Him nothing, take His grace and love and bury it in the ground.
Measly half percent passbook savings account interest would have made the master in the story happy. All he wanted was a little sign that his servant cared, that he didn’t think his master was too mean to appreciate whatever he could do.
Yet the temptation to sloth is always present for us. You can be the busiest person on earth and be guilty of sloth, of spiritual despair. All your activity and work just conceals your secret fear that none of it counts, that none of it is any good, that your Lord will not accept you. We work ourselves to death because in sloth we’ve lost our faith that Jesus will make something big out of our small lives.
Sloth causes us to bury the gifts of an amazing grace and a glorious kingdom. I’ve heard people say, and felt myself, that it’s pointless to give help to the poor because it’s just wasted. As we will read next week in the parable after this one, Jesus didn’t worry about what the poor would do with our gifts. He only worried about whether we would give them.
In regard to church offerings I’ve occasionally had someone tell me she can’t give an amount that really matters, because she has so little. Yet Jesus taught that even the tiniest gift does the giver good. And even the price of a white board marker means a Sunday School student will see good news written before his eyes. We’re not to despair because what we give is small.
Others of us feel like we’ve got too little time to do much good. We haven’t got a couple hours to pack food for the needy or go to a growth group or study the Bible seriously. Yet five minutes of prayer in Jesus name can bring healing to someone, can influence the course of events, can change the world.
We worry about having too little ability to lead. We don’t want to be put in charge. We fear the responsibility and commitment. Yet the answer is not to do nothing. Even taking on one small task and doing it well is a way to avoid the sin of thinking we can’t serve in ways that matter. Even washing the windows, if it’s done in love for Jesus, is good service.
Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to slide off into talking about stewardship after all. Jesus is not just looking for good management of your time and resources. It’s not about what we’re offering Jesus. That can be pretty pitiful. It’s about what Jesus has offered us—and what we do with it. There’s are all sorts of good ways to receive and respond to Jesus’ gifts. There’s only one way to go wrong. That’s to ignore and bury it.
When you’re suffering from sloth, from spiritual despair, one inclination is to simply go to sleep. Everything seems hopeless, so let’s just do nothing. I’ve felt and done that more than once. But the epistle lesson from I Thessalonians 5:6 says, “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.” The verse 9 says, “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Harsh words of wrath end our text in verses 28-30. The master takes away even the one talent from the lazy servant and then throws him out “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That’s the possibility if we give into despair, but it’s not the appointment Jesus wants to make with us. “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have an appointment of joyful salvation with Jesus if we only stay awake, stay at whatever work He’s given us. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That’s what the master says to each of the first two servants. It’s a commendation not for hard work, not for brilliant investment, but for faithfulness. That’s what we want to hear. “You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.”
Jesus is not looking to us for risky, giant endeavors that produce great spiritual return. It’s not about the results. It’s about faithfulness. Faithfulness is what’s rewarded, not the amount of profit that’s generated.
Last month I heard an old Catholic deacon talk about Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles. Ripken was a great player, a good hitter. But no one remembers him for his batting statistics. No one recalls much about his performance on the field. What made him a legend was the fact that in 16 years he never missed a game. He played 2,632 consecutive games. It was faithfulness that made his fans love him. It was faithfulness that let him enter so much into the joy of baseball.
It’s by faithfulness that you and I will enter into the joy of our Master. It’s not doing big things or great things or even a lot of things. It’s simply doing something in the name of Jesus and doing it faithfully. I pray that we each can discover what we may do for Jesus and keep on doing it until we hear those precious words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj