Matthew 25:14-3014 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, "Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, "Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, "You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
“You knew, did you?” With that one pointed and teeth-rattling question, the last worker’s entire world is called into question. Here he stands, yanked away from everything he thought he and yet without the courage to move forward into ventures unknown. He stands, fearfully, suspended between an imaginary world that has been taken from him and a reality that is too vast, too wonderful for him to accept. So he sits on the dizzying precipice of his indecision, and in so doing, loses everything, loses what he thought he had and loses a joy that he was just beginning to glimpse. His prudence, his risk-avoidance, in the end, cost him everything. He has, you see, effectively managed his way out of his master’s presence. Not because of sloppy book-keeping or unscrupulous trading, but because of whom he believes his master to be.
And so this morning’s Gospel is indeed a cautionary tale, but it is one that we have an incredibly difficult time wrapping our minds around, because in a certain sense, it is a self-contradictory cautionary tale. The caution, you see, is against being cautious. The third slave enters the weeping and nashing of teeth not because of his recklessness but because of his prudence, not because he takes his master’s gift too lightly, but because he takes it too seriously. His assumptions are his unraveling and his caution takes him away from his master. What, then, we might want to ask is going on here? How exactly, did this man end up with his wages, and even the relationship to his master take away from him?
Let us, then, reset the scene and follow this man as he walks into the outer darkness. We can, like an episode of Law and Order, piece this mess together one step at a time. So, then, back to the beginning. We have a master preparing to go away on a long journey and he summons his slaves to him and entrusts them with his property, and this is perhaps the first problem in the third slave’s mind. For the master does not give in a reasonable way. Instead, he lavishes his property upon them. One talent, you see, just one talent would be worth somewhere between fifteen and twenty years’ wages. Put it another way, this man just received roughly 600,000 $, and his fellow workers are now in charge of million dollar accounts. To put it frankly, this is not exactly a great business strategy on the part of the master. In point of fact, it is eccentric, even a bit offensive for the master to be this generous. It would be like you all as a church turning over the entire Hegna fund to me with no instructions. And sure, it says that each received according to his ability, but that is kind of like saying you won the lottery because of your algebra skills. What the master has just done is stupefying, to say the least.
And it seems that, according to the parable, given that the master provides literally no instructions, there are two basic responses to this action. While we do not get a rationale for their actions, the first two slaves take what they have been given and immediately get down to business. They invest and trade their way into millions more, correctly assuming that their master did not give them all this cash for no reason, and this, I think, is where the third slave begins his tragic descent. He thinks himself out of the gift. He refuses to take what the master has done at face value and attempts to find some motivation, some character flaw, that is simply not present in the master. His crime, his tragedy, really, is assuming that the master is up to something, that there is a test standing behind the master’s gifts, and when you think that someone is out to get you, especially if that someone happens to be your boss, there is really only one way to respond: namely with fear.
And it is this fear that edges the third slave closer to the outer darkness. For it leads him to take what was an absurdly lavish gift and make of it a burden that he must protect at all cost. What was meant to be enjoyed he has turned into a reality he must endure. Now, for us, taking money and burying it in the backyard might be a sign that we are need a bit of psychological counseling, but for this man, it is actually the safest action he can take with this money. To bury the master’s treasure would mean that only he knew where it was, and should Roman soldiers come and stay with him, they would not have access to it. In a word, the man does what is reasonable, prudent. He does the equivalent of putting the money in an insured bank account. While the master might have been reckless in the way the he has dolled out his cash, the third slave is intent on not doubling this mistake. He will correct the master’s error. He makes sure that, upon the return of his master, his unscrupulous and terrifying master, all the money that was given to him would be there waiting, and whatever bizarre test this turned out to be, he can be confident of passing it and getting back to the business of life as usual.
And that is really the problem with this man. In thinking that there was a test to be passed, in thinking that his master is someone whom he is not, this third slave finds himself with nothing, no money, no work, no master. And it is not so much that the master takes from him these gifts, it is that the man never really had them to begin with. For he never understood that the source of his master’s generosity was simply that, absurd generosity, and he never understood that the money given to him was not something he needed to protect, but was rather an opportunity. His master and the way his master operated proved to be far too risky for this man, and so he foreclosed on this riskiness, but in so doing, cut himself off from the joy of his master. For joy is, indeed, a risky proposition.
And as we begin our discussions of stewardship, this is the only place to start, not with our financial situation as a church or as a people, nor with the sluggishness of the economy or with the unpredictability of the stock market, but rather with the insane, reckless love of a God who withholds nothing from us. Indeed, a God who, in the cross of Christ, gives us even himself, tossing about the eternal joys of the kingdom as a sower throws about seed. Yes, the question we are being asked is the same question asked of those three slaves, what does it mean to be faithful to a God who withholds nothing from us? What does it mean to be claimed, in the waters of baptism by a Christ who, in sharing our flesh, in sharing our worries and our troubles, gives us the peace that surpasses all understanding, the peace of his very presence? What does it mean to be vulnerable to this God, to let the riskiness of his love sink deep within us? For you, dear people of God, you have been given everything. You have been given the kingdom in all of its fullness; you have been given the life eternal and the joy of your master. Christ has made you his own and promises to never leave nor forsake you. It is all here for you. The question, then, is this: knowing the Christ who awaits us, knowing the joy to which we are called, knowing the freedom that is now yours, knowing that all has been accomplished, that Christ is your future, what are we to make of the present? In Jesus’ name, amen.