Matthew 25:14–30

There was a very cautious man
Who never laughed or played;
He never risked, he never tried,
He never sang or prayed.
And when one day he passed away
His insurance was denied;
For since he never really lived,
They claimed he never died!
– Unknown

Today’s gospel lesson is about really living, but the problem is
this: Life is risky!

Jesus tells a parable, a story, about an obviously well-to-do man
who, before going on a long journey, entrusts all of his property to his
servants. To one he gives five talents—an enormous amount of money,
as a “talent” was a measurement of value in Jesus’ day that was worth
about 15 years’ wages—to another servant he gives two talents, and to
another one, “each according to his ability.” The parable does not
assume that everyone has the same ability to do everything, but that
each person—even a lowly servant—has unique abilities, so the master
does not want to burden someone with being in charge of something or
performing a duty that that person simply could not do.

Well, the first two servants made out quite well in an apparent
“bull” market (livestock options? mutton futures? no pun intended) and
are amply rewarded by the owner when he returns. But the third servant
played it safe and did not invest his funds at all, and for his seeming
prudence the owner calls him a “wicked and lazy slave,” takes everything
away from him, and then orders him “thrown into the outer darkness,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Now before you start thinking about some possible anger management
issues here, we need to take a longer look at this seemingly “sinned
against” servant. It’s probable that we all have a secret empathy for
the poor man: carefully wrapping his valuables, perhaps to bury them in
the ground for protection against theft or loss—only to be punished
later for the careful stewardship of his possessions! What was so bad
about that? He did, after all, only what many of us would regard as the
appropriate action of a prudent man or woman. Can’t you hear him
saying, “Okay, I figure the boss is a hard man, so I’d better be careful
here. I am not going to risk 15 years worth of wages on an investment
strategy with no guarantees that I won’t lose it all. The other guys
might do very well, sure, but there’s just as much a possibility that
they’ll lose everything. I’m going to play it safe. I may be called
unimaginative, overly cautious, maybe, but it’s people like me who
sustain this society, not those reckless speculators who can bring it
down. Besides, it looks to me that the boss always grabs what is not
his anyway; taking what he doesn’t deposit, reaping what he doesn’t sow,
getting all the credit for stuff he doesn’t do, living lavishly far away
off the reward of my hard work and sweat and tears. In fact, the more I
think about it, the angrier I get! I’m not even going to put the pound
in the bank, because I’ll be…well, dog-goned, if I let him collect a
dime’s worth of interest on money he gave to me!”

Now, is there anything wrong with the unfortunate servant’s response?
No, not really…if you consider nothing to be a virtue. He may be a
reasonable man, we may feel sorry for him for receiving such harsh treat
by the owner, we may even identify with him, but the fact remains that
he did nothing, and for that reason he should be the patron saint of
many of our churches.

Ernie Campbell, the former minister of the Riverside Church in New
York City, once called attention to a bit of graffiti on a wall near his
church: “I am neither for nor against apathy.” It is apathy, then,
that becomes the justification for inaction, for doing nothing.

What is it that we are supposed to do? The key to interpreting this
parable is to know that in the Gospel of Matthew the author is
describing an aspect of the Kingdom of Heaven that focuses on our
response to God’s grace. It is a teaching about faith, not how good an
investor you are.

Elsewhere, the disciples cried out to Jesus “Lord, increase our faith!”
I imagine that Jesus laughed in response to such a question, because in
Matthew’s gospel,

  • Some have “great faith” (8:10; 15:28—the
    Roman Centurion and the Canannite Woman, “foreigners”
    who were supposedly unbelievers)
  • Some have “little
    faith” (6:30; 8:26; 14:31—these were the
    disciples!)
  • And some have what we might call
    “microscopic faith” (17:20—the faith of a mustard
    seed that could move mountains!)

But all are called to use whatever faith they have.

What prevents us using, risking our faith? Fear. Fear is the
opposite of faith, the bedrock on which the kind of risky activity that
this parable calls for must rest. The “faith-less” servant was above
all afraid of making a mistake, and the failsafe way to avoid all
mistakes is to do nothing at all. But “from those who have nothing”
(vs. 29)—nothing in their heads, nothing in their hearts, nothing to
do with their time or their talents—then “even what they have will be
taken away.” That, my sisters and brothers, is living in the “outer
darkness” that our text describes as the home of the unfortunate
servant; it is as though we were dead. As someone once put it, “fear of
failure, fear of punishment, fear of loss have not only paralyzed this
servant, but many servants and many congregations.

The unfortunate servant was afraid perhaps of many things, but at the
heart of it was the fear of failure. At a recent retreat of the
Cathedral Chapter (the governing board) and senior staff members, all of
us were asked to recall a time of discernment when we had to make a life
changing decision. It was a powerful moment to hear the stories of
these men and women who all faced a time when they had to make a choice
to go down a road that led them to their present situations. In each
case, taking a risk was necessary, even though the possibility of
failure was great.

Business consultant Peter Drucker—who just died a few days ago, God
rest his soul—has defined four different kinds of risks: the risk one
must accept, the risk one can afford to take, the risk one cannot afford
to take, and the risk one cannot afford not to take. It is this last
kind of risk that Jesus challenges us to consider in today’s gospel.

Sometimes the risk is taken because the heart demands it. In 1944,
when Jim was 40 years old, he was serving in the Navy on a remote island
in the South Pacific. With plenty of time on his hands, he thought he’d
try his hand at writing. He didn’t expect it to go anywhere, but he
thought he’d give it a shot. A friend suggested that no one published
short stories anymore, but Jim plunged ahead nevertheless. The
resulting book received a few minor reviews, but after the book was
finally reviewed by the New York Times it was well on its way to a
Pulitzer Prize.

A friend, Ken McKenna, tried to get Hollywood to pick up the book for
the film industry, but he was told that it “had no dramatic
possibilities.” McKenna, though, went out on a limb and introduced the
book to two composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Although
Rogers and Hammerstein got on board with the idea, others scoffed at the
story being turned into a musical, starring of all people, an opera
singer over fifty years of age!

Yet, that musical, South Pacific, became a huge hit and an enduring
treasure in movie history. The sailor/author, James Michener, went on
to write four dozen bestselling books, including Hawaii, The Bridges at
Toko-Ri
, The Source, The Covenant and Space. This Pulitzer
Prize-winning author and Medal of Freedom winner reflected on getting his first
break, saying, “You can understand why I like people who stick out their
necks.” And many years later he said, “I think young people ought to
seek that experience that is going to knock them off center.”

It is easy, perhaps, to recall the stories of the rich and famous
when commending the taking of risks, but what about the rest of us? Not
many here this morning are wealthy or in the public eye; not many are
heads of big firms, or are high government officials. Is huge monetary
or material success or fame the only measure of having taken enormous
risks to achieve great things? My parents (who are here this morning)
migrated in 1951 from rural North Carolina to the nation’s capital with
nothing. Well, they did have one thing: faith—faith in God, faith in
themselves, and faith if they risked all that they had to seek a better
life for themselves and their children here, then something good would
happen. With little money, little formal education, and no connections
in this city, they worked and prayed and saved and invested their
energies to succeed in business and in government finance. They raised
my brother and me to do the same in our own way. They have been
incredible role models for us in how to live this life, and while not
rich or famous in the world’s terms, they are the most successful people
I know.

So what about you? In this congregation right now, God—just like
the benevolent master of the parable—has given some of us the enormous
ability to be peacemakers, so much so that the conflicts in the Middle
East could cease if these persons would invest their talents in that
area. In this congregation this morning, there is the wherewithal to
cure the major diseases that are ravaging our world today. In this very
congregation, there is enough talent to end extreme global poverty, to
stop senseless violence, to protect the integrity of creation, and to
plant the seeds of the kingdom of God everywhere.

Is this just an unrealistic dream of a religious idealist? You may
think so, but if I did, then I’m just like that unimaginative servant in
the parable, wandering around in the outer darkness because he refuses
to risk anything for the cause. By his inaction, he chose hell. I
think I’ll choose faith!