November 19, 2017 – The 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
What are you doing with the life that God has given you? Are you using it to help God’s kingdom come, or are you hiding it in the ground? Today, in the parable of the talents, Jesus lets us know that, if we’re hiding it in the ground, we might as well be dead and buried along with it.
These are Jesus’ words to his disciples—not to the crowds, not to his opponents, but to his closest followers. We’re in Matthew 25, right near the end of his earthly ministry. By the time you turn the page and get to Matthew 26, we’re dealing with the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. That makes these some of Jesus’ last words to the disciples, and, in them, he’s not telling them how to get into the kingdom but how to live inside it. They already know what it means to belong to God. Jesus wants to be sure that they know how to live a life worthy of their calling.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” We know this parable. We know how it ends. But do we know why the story ends the way that it does? A talent represented a lot of money. It was a measure of silver that was worth about twenty years of hard work. What would you do if you were a first-century Palestinian slave and your master gave you more money than you had ever seen before?
A year or two after I was ordained, my boss and I went up to Sewanee for the seminary’s graduation. As the ceremony ended, that famous Sewanee fog began to creep in across the campus, wrapping us up in its damp blanket. We waded our way to lunch and then back to the car. After we said our goodbyes, my boss said to me, “Why don’t you drive back to Montgomery?” So I climbed behind the wheel of his car and eased my way down the mountain. Unable to see more than ten feet past the hood of the car, I gripped the steering-wheel so tightly with both of my hands that I strangled any residual life that was left in the cow that gave his hide to wrap it. I was so tight and jumpy that, when the remnants of a tractor-trailer tire came into view right in front of us, I jerked the wheel so sharply to the right that my boss thought we were going to go off the side of the mountain. “Maybe you should lighten up,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re going to kill us.”
What happens when fear grabs hold of our hearts and won’t let go? When the master in the parable returned, he called the slaves to come and settle accounts with him. The first had taken the five talents and used them to make five more. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave,” the master said. “You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” Likewise, the second slave came and disclosed that he had achieved the same result. Again, the master said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave.” The third slave, however, was the least business-minded among them. He had only been given one talent because the master knew that he lacked the skills of his fellow slaves. “Here, master,” the slave said. “Here is what is yours. I knew that you were a harsh man, and I was afraid that I would disappoint you. So I took your talent and hid it in the ground for safekeeping. Here it is, exactly as you left it.”
We know what happens next, but what we might not know is that hiding money in the ground wasn’t necessarily a bad strategy for keeping it safe. Some of us grew up with parents who had lost everything during the Great Depression and who never trusted banks again for the rest of their lives. Some of us have had to clean out their houses when they died, opening every envelope, leafing through every book, looking under every mattress because of the money that might be stashed away. Back in Jesus’ day, every investment opportunity carried risk, and, to a slave with no business sense, nothing seemed safe enough—especially when he lived in fear of his master. The only danger with hiding the talent in the ground was forgetting where it was buried, and the slave had come through. “Here is what is yours,” he said. “Aren’t you proud of me for not losing your money?”
“You wicked and lazy slave,” the master said. “You ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Notice that the master does not judge him because he did not earn the same return as his fellow slaves. Notice that he is not judged because of his lack of ability to make a sound investment. No, he is stripped of everything he has and thrown out into the outer darkness because of his fear—because he was so worried that he might disappoint his master that he forgot what it means to honor him.
How do we learn to trust that God is a gracious master who does not punish us if we come up empty-handed but in whose kingdom we cannot take part if we are hiding our blessings out of fear?
When I went to seminary, my parish encouraged me to travel overseas and study in England. Once the bishop said it was ok with him, I didn’t ask twice. Who wouldn’t want to live in England for two years? But no one told me how expensive it would be. My parents helped out with part of it, and the rest I financed with student loans. For two years, I lived right on the edge, not sure whether I’d have enough money to buy a Subway sandwich on the weekend when the seminary cafeteria was closed. As I finished up my second year and prepared to come back to the States, I began the process of applying to American seminaries, and I had to complete the financial aid forms, which asked how much support my parish would give me in the coming year. They had send me a few sporadic checks, so I called and asked the priest who had shepherded me through the process what I should put down on the form.
From the outset, he was confused. “Why do you need to fill out a financial aid form?” he asked. “Because I’m hoping to get a scholarship,” I replied. “Why do you need a scholarship?” he asked. “Because I don’t want to take on any more student debt than necessary,” I responded. “More student debt? I thought you graduated from college debt-free,” he said bewilderedly. “I did,” I replied, “but seminary in England for an overseas student is especially expensive. I’ve needed to take out student loans to pay for it.”
“How much?” he asked. I held the phone to my ear but did not say a word. “How much?” he repeated. I didn’t know what to say. Did he mean what I thought he meant? After another moment or two of silence, I told him what the debt was. “Give me a week and call me back.” I hung up. A week later, I called him, and he let me know that he had spoken to a few generous parishioners and that they had decided to pay off my student loan. All of it. “Where should I send the check?” he asked.
In that moment, my sending parish gave me two gifts, one short-term and one long-term. First, right away, they set me free from a great worry. At the time, I was engaged to be married. My fiancée was finishing up nursing school, and, as we dreamed of what our life together might be like, we wondered how long it would take us to pay off enough of those student loans for us to feel like we could afford to have a child. I wondered how long it would take me to show Elizabeth’s family that I would be a financially responsible husband for their daughter. Without even knowing it, I had been carrying around a tremendous weight of fear on my shoulders, and with one check my sending parish had lifted that fear from me.
I couldn’t know it at the time, but the greater gift that they gave me took me a little longer to discover. Can you guess what I did with the first ten percent of every support check I received after that? Do you know where the first ten percent of every pay check that Elizabeth received as a nurse was sent? Overnight, I went from being a haphazard giver who placed a few dollars in the plate every time it went around to an intentional, proportional, sacrificial, first-fruits giver. And do you know what happened after that? I never worried about money again. I never wondered whether I was doing what God wanted me to do. I didn’t question whether a job I took would pay enough. I didn’t worry about whether I would have enough saved up for retirement. And I still don’t worry. I have four children to put through college, and I have no idea how we will afford it, but I don’t worry about how I will pay for it because, by becoming a God-led steward of what God has given me, I have learned what it means to say to God, “Here I am. Here is my whole life. Take and use me however you will.” And I know that whether I come up empty-handed or flush with resources, I will always have an abundance because I belong to God.
What about you? How are you using the life that God has given you? Do you feel the freedom that comes from knowing that you belong completely to God? Or do you feel like you are holding something back because you are afraid there will not be enough? God has given you a lifetime. How you use it is up to you. When the master comes, you will not be judged on how much you accomplished but on how fully you have lived for the kingdom’s sake. What does it take for you to know that your whole life is devoted to what God is doing in the world? How much is God calling you to give? Over the years, we have grown in our stewardship, and, this year, our family will give the first 14% of our income as a pledge to our church. For us, that’s the level that lets us know in our hearts that our whole lives belong to God. That’s the portion that it takes for us to know what it means to say to God, “We belong to you. Use us however you will.” What about you? What portion of your blessings is God calling you to give? What percentage of your income does it take for you to let go of fear and live completely for the kingdom?