Sermon: The Misunderstood Master

“The Misunderstood Master”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Nov. 16, 2014
Matthew 25:14-30, 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19

My favorite definition of stewardship is that stewardship is what we do with what we have after we say I believe. The parable we have heard this morning is about stewardship, about what three servants do with what they have after they’ve accepted a command from their master, after they’ve pledged their service to their master. It is told near the end of Matthew’s gospel and is the last of three in which Jesus answers the disciples’ questions about his return – when will it be, and what will be the sign. In response, he warns them to be prepared and to be watchful because the day will be unexpected and those who are found unprepared will be left out. The first parable is about the unfortunate fate of a steward who was derelict in his duties and faced terrible consequences. The second is about ten bridesmaids, five of whom had filled their lamps with oil and were ready for the bridegroom’s delayed arrival, and five who unfortunately had no oil for their lamps; it was too late to buy any, and consequently they were shut out of the wedding banquet.

In the last parable, the master, going on a long journey, entrusts three of his servants with a large amount of money. One receives 5 talents, one receives two, and the last receives only one, but “only” is a relative word here, since even one talent was more than most people would earn in a lifetime. The master gives no instructions and the servants ask no questions. However, the first two immediately go about investing the money entrusted to them, and gaining a 100% return on their efforts. But the third is a more cautious fellow, and he buries his single talent in the ground.

When the master returns, he rewards the two who have doubled their talents during his absence and promises them a life of continued joy in his service. The third servant who played it safe, risked nothing, and simply preserved unchanged the talent given to him, is punished. The talent is taken away from him and he is cast out of his master’s employ and protection.

It is easy to assume then that the message of this parable, from the servant’s viewpoint, is that we should take what God has given us and make the most of it. We identify with the servants, and so it is all about us, isn’t it?   But what if we don’t just look at the servants and what they did or did not produce. Perhaps this story is not just about us and our use of our varying assets and abilities. What if we looked instead at the master.

Isn’t it strange how one person could perceived so differently by three people so close to him and so trusted by him as to be left with a fortune to administer in his absence. Perhaps this story is meant to tell us something about the master whom we are called to serve and the ways in which we understand and misunderstand him. Maybe this is Jesus’ story – maybe this is God’s story – as well as ours.

If that is the case, then the first two servants are apparently unafraid of failure and confident in the trust place in them. Without hesitation, they invest their holdings, risking much, but gaining much more. They felt empowered by the master’s trust. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But the third servant is more cautious, more hesitant. And so he follows the law of the day which said “whoever immediately buries property entrusted to him is no longer liable because he has taken the safest course conceivable.”[i] He follows the letter of the law. He does his duty; he meets his obligation; no more, no less. Nothing was gained, but nothing was lost either. Maybe he expected to be praised for his caution.

Why was he so careful? Why did he so scrupulously follow the law? Well, why are most people cautious and careful and risk avoidant? Usually because of fear. This servant was afraid of failure. He was afraid to make a mistake. He was afraid of what the master would do to him if he were to fail in his responsibilities. So he did his duty, not because he was thrilled and honored to have been given such an opportunity to represent his master, but because he was afraid of him. Unlike the other two, he did not see his master as gracious, generous, and trusting, but thought him to be hard hearted and harsh, and exploiter, reaping where he had not sown. The master may have trusted him, but that trust was not returned. Out of fear then, of making a mistake, he is frozen, paralyzed. He assumes the worst and tries to protect himself instead of accepting confidently the opportunity he has been given..  What if he had invested the money and lost it? We don’t know what the master might have done. He might have said “at least you tried; you made an effort. I’m going to give you another chance because I know you can do it.”

We have to ask then, is the master offended on his return because his money hasn’t been doubled as with the first two servants, or is he offended because his servant thought so poorly of him, thought him hardhearted and cruel. There is nothing in the narrative to indicate beforehand that the master is so ruthless. And so perhaps with righteous indignation rather than vindictiveness he questions, “if you thought I was so greedy, then why didn’t you at least invest this money with bankers so that there would be a little interest earned in my absence?” The servant has no answer for that and so his talent is taken and he is dismissed to a life of poverty and distress.

Matthew places this story during the last week of Jesus’ life. Shortly he will be arrested and crucified, “not as a substitute or a surrogate to be punished in our place, but rather as a testimony” to God’s love for us and the world.[ii]  But before that happens, he stops to tell this story about a master who called in his servants and trusts them with his possessions. He is not harsh, reaping where he has not sown, as the servant believes. Indeed, he is the extravagant sower. If you remember that earlier parable, sowing seed everywhere, sowing much, much more than he will ever harvest. He is the one who has given everything and held nothing back, so it’s no wonder then that there is anger, frustration and disappointment with the one who refuses to risk anything.

This servant’s story tells us we cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ out of fear of him. If we imagine God primarily as the enforcer of rules, keeping score, checking to see who’s naughty or nice, then we will get hung up, just as the third servant did, in playing it safe, trying to stay out of trouble because we don’t trust God to be loving and grace filled. But if we believe God to be a God of love, and Christ to be the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, then we can experience that love in our own lives and step out in faith to share this love with others.

Too often what you see is what you get. The first two servants saw a master who trusted them with everything and who had confidence in their ability to do good things, to make more of what they had. They returned that trust and confidence by taking responsibility to actively cultivate what they’d been entrusted with. And in return, they received blessing and the opportunity for even greater participation in the work of the master. The statement at the end of our reading says “those who have much will receive more, and they will have much more than they need.” I don’t think this is an affirmation of the prosperity gospel because it’s not about material wealth.   But we all know, don’t we, it is simply the truth that the more you give the more you will receive – not of wealth but of joy! “Enter into the joy of your master,” the servants are told. As we noted last week, there is real joy in giving our time, our talent, and our treasure; there is joy in trusting God to provide and risking it all in God’s service because of faith in God’s steadfast love.

But the opposite is true as well, if we live in fear of losing what we, if we protect ourselves rather than helping others, if we play it safe, giving in to our fears and burying our treasure in the backyard, then it is equally true, “as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them.” Last week I was talking with a friend about her father. They don’t have a very good relationship. He has never been a giving person, not of his time, his love, or his resources. That has not kept him from demanding all that of others for himself. It’s always been about him. Now at the end of his life, he has very little – children who are bound to him only by obligation not love, no friends – the few he had are gone – and now even his money, the thing he’d cared more about than anything or anyone else is just about gone.

This parable asks us what should be our appropriate response to all that God has given us. What should we do with all we have now that we’ve said we believe? If we were to calculate the value of all the we’ve been given, it would be incomprehensibly large, just as 5 talents, or 2 talents, or even one talent was in the minds of Jesus’ listeners. As Julie read earlier from 1st Timothy, “God piles on all the riches we could ever manage or imagine” to empower us to “do good, to be rich at helping others and to be extravagantly generous.” (From The Message)

Today’s parable suggests, these gifts which we treasure should not be hoarded or hidden away unused. They are really not ours to stockpile or monopolize. God is the giver and the master of all gifts and treasure, the one for whom we invest our time, our talents, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

Next week we will formally offer our pledge to God for our financial faithfulness in 2015. It is a covenant between God and us. It is one way of measuring our desire to respond to what God has already done and is doing for us, the God who risked God’s very self in the person of Jesus—and Jesus gave everything he had. And if God risked everything in Jesus, it seems likely that God expects more than a cautious, fearful and half-hearted response from us.

Oconee Street has always been a church that has given thanks for God’s love and care and accepted the invitation enthusiastically to go and to do in Jesus’ name. And especially in this last year and a half, we have been reminded again and experienced firsthand in so many ways the sustaining, supporting, and encouraging presence of God among us giving us what we need. So I don’t think God has to worry about us. We know for sure all that we have been given, and maybe if you’re like me, you are looking forward to claiming with joy the opportunity to give back to the God who has so blessed and guided us. Because we know, don’t we, that it is only by giving all that we have and all that we are that we gain the life that truly is life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then The Parable, 1989, 227.

[ii] David Lose, “How Do You Imagine God,” . . .In The, Nov. 10, 2014.