“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’” Matthew 25:21 NIV
“Read me a story!” Parents often hear these words as a child is preparing for his or her bedtime. Such a request indicates the child wishes to be brought into an experience that is unique, often beyond the realm of the ordinary. Stories have a way of touching us in ways that are so very different from ordinary words. To read the newspaper or hear a lecture offered by a professor can in no way compare to the power of stories. Stories do so much more than convey ideas and information; they invite people into the adventure, the problem solving, and the celebration of good fortune. I believe Jesus understood the impact that stories could have upon an audience and that is why so many of his teachable moments came in the form of stories. The stories which Jesus told are often referred to as parables. Parables take the substance of everyday life and envelop a deep spiritual truth of God’s Kingdom. They are visual, easy to remember, and often come with a “gotcha moment.”
I offer this bit of insight as background for the well-known Scripture quotation noted above from Matthew 25. For the past couple of months, I have devoted my attention to the work of giving within and through the life of a Christian. In May, I had us consider the example of the widow who gave her everything to the Temple treasury. Last month, I focused upon our stewardship as being a response to the activity of God within our lives. This month, I wish to shift more in the direction of responsibility when it comes to what we have and how we use it. Within Matthew’s Gospel, this chapter serves as the final piece of teaching material prior to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It comes on the heels of Jesus’ discussion of “last things” and the necessity of being ready for whenever the Son of Man should return. The parables of chapter twenty-five serve to expound upon what Jesus had just said concerning the signs of the times and the unpredictable nature of the end of all things. Nestled between parables about bridesmaids and farm animals, Jesus’ words share the story of a well-to-do individual who entrusted his estate to the care of his servants while he was away.
Known to many as the “Parable of the Talents,” this beloved teaching of Jesus captures the importance of readiness through responsibility. It is hard to imagine someone entrusting what he or she has to common servants. We might have a family member or close friend who is trustworthy enough to look after our affairs in our absence, but we would hardly hand over any and everything to just anyone. Jesus’ parable tells us that the individual did exactly that. He called together his servants and gave to each of them talents “according to his ability.” The word which is translated as “talent” refers to a monetary unit equal to more than sixteen years of earnings for a laborer. While precise amounts are difficult to determine, we can gather a general idea from the text. The generosity expressed equates to approximately sixteen to eighty years of wages. Can you imagine being called in by your boss and being given that many years of salary all at once? While this may not be a reality for our lives, the actions and amounts do tell us a bit about the man’s heart. He was by no means stingy with what he possessed. He could have easily said, “You know, I think I will avoid traveling” or “Let me go and speak with my financial planner.” But no… He graciously gave to each servant a great portion without holding back. This is just a part of the “shock value” found within this particular parable.
Now notice, the man never offered instructions concerning how his servants should treat that which had been given to each of them. He never said “Put it in the bank,” “Buy supplies for my estate,” or “Go on a vacation wherever you so choose.” He gave and left, simple as that. No indication is provided in the text where he was going or even when he planned on returning. It was a very open-ended opportunity. The servants had freedom of choice. They could waste or retain what they had been given. This speaks a word about the risk which the man was willing to take with what he owned. He knew his servants and what they were capable of doing, but this did not deter him from giving or going. Generosity is like that. It does not place restrictions on what can or cannot be done and invites us into the decision-making process. For two of the servants, their decision was to invest (put to work) that which they had received. The third servant, however, wished to play matters safe and buried what he had been given.
“After a long time” the man returned from his travels. Without forewarning, he arrived and wished to settle accounts with his servants. Much to the surprise of common thinking, words of commendation were given to the servants who chose to “take a chance” with their master’s generosity. They heard words celebrating the fact that they had done something and experienced the multiplication of their investment. Perhaps such a favorable response to his fellow servants’ investments left the one with the single talent feeling comfortable about his situation. Such comfort is short-lived in the story because the man was astonished by his servant’s irresponsible behavior. Rather than “sitting on what he had been given,” he could have at least entrusted it to the bank in order to collect interest. At the very least, the man would have received some bonus. As I stated earlier, parables are intended to shock us, but at the same time stir a change within the human heart.
So, what can we take away from this well-known parable as relates to our practice of stewardship within the Church today?
- We are not entitled to anything we have in this world. God has graciously supplied us with what we need.
- God’s example of generosity should lead us to embody this same virtue in our own lives.
- God’s generosity in our lives is not intended to be hoarded for our own selfish desires.
- God is glorified when we use what we have been entrusted with in ways that further God’s Kingdom.
- When we give as Christians, we are participating with others in something bigger than we are individually.
- God is capable of taking what we give and can multiply it in ways that we cannot see or imagine.
- Generosity gives birth to more generosity. The more we practice this, the easier it becomes and the more we wish to bless others.
Investing Together in God’s Work,
The Rev. Kelley Smart