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Two Talent Church

Matthew 25:14-30

November 16, 2014

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him, saying, “Tell us when will be the signs of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Jesus begins by telling several examples with warnings like “watching,” “waiting,” “being constantly ready” and “faithful service.” Here, Jesus elaborates with this parable of the “Talents” as a way of detailing his return and what may be our expected response.

Last Sunday was the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” focusing on waiting in hopeful readiness to greet the Kingdom even after dark night falls. Today, in the “Talents,” the focus is on how to live in the daytime when there is Kingdom building work to do.

We are told that each servant or slave was given a different share of the wealth to care for—and that the amount of their share was determined by their ability. The money was given to them in “talents” and as a consequence, the word “talent” has come to mean in English—“God-given ability.” When we speak of someone’s talents today, we are speaking literally of the wealth that God has given them.

This means that in some ways when the judges criticize the contestants on “America Got Talent,” they are demeaning the wealth that God has given them. And when we at times have had a “talent show” at the Senior Retreat, we all need to clap and applaud because God gave these talents or wealth to us himself.

The Parable

For the purpose of the story, a talent is simply a coin. The first slave is given 5 of them. That slave promptly earned another 5 of them, doubling the master’s investment. The second slave, whom the master apparently considered less able, was given only 2 talents. Yet that slave did just as well as the first, and managed to use his investment to likewise double the money with which he was entrusted.

The third slave, however, was afraid—apparently with good reason. Perhaps managing money wasn’t his thing. Perhaps he simply wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. For whatever reason, the master had only given him one talent to care for. Apparently the master thought him to be the least able of the slaves.

This slave agreed with the master’s assessment of his abilities. Maybe he looked at what the others had been given and said, “They’ve got so much more than I do. Even if I double what I have, it’ll still be no more than my friend started with, and still much less than my other friend was given. At my best, I’m still worse than them at their worst.”

Maybe he simply didn’t see a point in even trying. Perhaps every other financial venture he had tried had ended in failure, and he didn’t see the point in bothering to try again. Maybe he was even insulted by the master’s lack of trust, and decided that if he was worth so little to the master then it wasn’t worth it to him to be a good steward of the master’s wealth.

Whatever the reason, the third slave took the talent, dug a hole, and buried it. He didn’t steal it or spend it; he simply chose not to risk it in the hopes of making more wealth for his master—as his friends had. He also made sure that no one would know what he had. To the outside world, he seemed just another penniless slave.

After some time, the master returns for a reckoning of what the slaves had done with what they had been given. I can imagine the tension that must have been in the room. The first slave, who was probably already something of a teacher’s pet, was probably bouncing in his seat. He was eager to show the master what a good job he had done.

The second slave was probably equally eager, perhaps even more so. He may not have had as much money as the multi-talented friend next to him; but, considering what he had been given, he had done every bit as well. Maybe the next time he would be the one to get the largest share.

Finally, in the corner of the room, trying to blend into the shadows was the third slave. He was likely fidgeting, waiting for it all to be over. Perhaps he was even clutching to his one, measly coin—afraid that at the last moment he would drop it and have nothing at all to show his greedy master.

The master approaches the first slave and—upon seeing the 10 coins—congratulates him warmly and calls him “good” and “faithful.” He tells the slave that—since he was faithful in a few things—the slave will be put in charge of many things. Good news indeed—perhaps the slave even permitted himself a glance at the man next to him to gloat.

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If he did, he quickly realized that it was pointless. The master grants the same praise and reward to the second slave (even using the exact same language). The second slave may not have started with as much, and consequently had not earned as much, but he had worked just as hard and was rewarded accordingly.

Then the master gets to the third slave. Although most certainly that slave would have been very anxious, nervously running his fingers over his one sole coin—it’s unlikely that Jesus’ disciples and the original listeners were nervously anxious. If Jesus chose to follow the pattern of his other parables, the master would graciously grant the same reward to the third slave.

But this is not one of those parables. When the master stands in front of the third slave and holds out his hand—instead of seeing hard cash he hears a pretty reasonable excuse. The slave explains that he knows what a reputation the master has for aggressive and even unethical business practices. He was afraid, and his fear of his master—and perhaps his fear of defeat—had kept him from taking advantage of the master’s gift. The slave desperately hopes that is enough.

It’s a feeling a child has all the time. In a world run by adults, trying to act according to adult rules that he doesn’t really understand, a child stands before his parents hoping that he has gotten it right—that he won’t get in trouble. We’ve experienced that as adults too—when starting a new job or trying something new or getting lost in a foreign country.

It turns out that the slave’s concern is justified. The master is furious. He asks, “Why didn’t you stick it in the bank? Then I would have at least gotten the interest back!” The slave probably wondered why he didn’t think of that.

Angrily, the master snatches the coin out of the slave’s trembling hand and gives it to the slave who had earned the most. Then, he orders that the slave whom he deems worthless be thrown into “the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

The slave’s only crime—if it was a crime at all—was that he failed to take full advantage of what his master had given him. He acted out of fear, and had hidden his gifts rather than push them to their limit. He paid for his caution with his life, when his greedy master decided that simply holding on to what he had was not good enough.

Story About Us

This parable is a story about us who have decided that the life of a believer is the path we wish to follow. For us who have already experienced the forgiveness of God, this parable tells us what are we to do next. Accepting the gospel of Jesus means obligation as well as forgiveness of our sins. It means work as well as peace, action as well as acceptance.

So then, what have we been given? Some of us surely feel like the third slave—untrustworthy and poorly equipped to bring about real change in the world. Others may have the confidence of the first slave, but the same results as the third. We simply hang on to what we have—be it money or skill—rather than risk it to accomplish more.

The five talent slave understands and accepts his responsibility with gratitude and enthusiasm. He behaves confidently trusting his master’s intentions and confidence in himself. With the 5 talents he is given he creates 5 more. He is rewarded with gratitude and more responsibility.

The one talent slave behaves in the opposite way. He responds to his responsibility with fear and dread. He pays more attention to the gap in fortunes between himself and the five talent slave than to the potential of the fortune he has been given. So, he digs a hole in the ground and buries his master’s money. He behaves as if he was truly impoverished and in so doing becomes impoverished. To make matters worse he blames his master for making him afraid, refusing even taking responsibility for his decision. He thus condemns himself to separation and bitter gnashing of teeth.

Who are we? I propose that we try to be more like the two talent slave. He is the unsung hero in the parable. In fortune he is closer to the one talent slave but in behavior he is like the five talent slave. He is not jealous or intimidated by the difference in size of their fortunes. To him a fortune is a fortune large or small, and he will treat it with respect.

When we think about congregations, a five talent church would make risky and fruitful investment in the work of building up God’s kingdom. Sadly, we know of some five talent churches that behave more like one talent ones for fear of losing wealth, prestige and cherished ways of doing things like in the past. Inevitably what they have is taken from them and they are gnashing their teeth arguing over what happened to the good old days.

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We have seen too many examples of one talent churches who behave as if they were truly poor. For many reasons these congregations seem blind to the gifts and opportunities they have for doing extraordinary ministries. Again, the more they play it safe, the more they anxiously guard resources and traditions, the more they decline; also the more they fight over who or what is to blame for their plight.

We want to be a two talent church. These are the ones who honor the amazing gifts they have been given—spiritual, emotional, and material—by investing and growing them. They work hard and often even play hard because they love and trust God’s kingdom and enjoy the responsibility they have for building it up.

Two Talent Church

Talent means any ability that God might have given us. It is a reminder to us that our skills, insights, minds, bodies, interests, and specialties are all resources that can be used to change the world. It is also a reminder that these things, alongside any material wealth we might have, are not ours. They are not a birthright. They are a trust, given us by the One who created us. The One expects, demands a return on that investment.

We are not faithful Christians because of what we believe. We are not faithful Christians because of where we go to church. We are Christians because of whom we serve, and we demonstrate that service by our actions. It is tempting, then, to dwell upon the ominous ending to today’s text. It’s common to preach about fire and brimstone to get you so scared that you act. That way, when the offering plate comes around or that sign-up sheet is coming around, all you can see are flames of the abyss.

Fear is the great motivator and a very big hammer that I can use as a preacher. Yet it was fear that paralyzed the third slave in the first place. As Paul reminds us (Rom. 8:15), we are not heirs of a spirit of slavery and fear; we are children, adopted and claimed by the spirit of God.

The question for us is not “What have we been given?” Most of us know where our special gifts and talents lie. We know that there’s more that we can contribute to the mission of the church than money. The question isn’t what do we have. The question is “What is stopping us?” What are we afraid of that is stopping us to trust God with our lives?

Whatever it is, we can overcome it. If we were worth dying for, we’re worth doing something with; and our text for today is a strong reminder that God expects to do something with us. If you sit there in the pew feeling worthless or broken, use this text to take heart. God trusts you enough to bring you here. God trusts you enough to make you a part of a sometimes broken body of believers. In return, God expects you to try.

On the other hand, if you come here in smug certainty, we must allow this text to do its job and shake us up a little. Maybe God expects more than we thought. What are we afraid of when we have received five talents or two talents or even one talent? Whatever it is, is it really worth someday standing before the Almighty Creator of the universe and saying, “We didn’t think you’d be able to handle it so we didn’t try?”

We are called by God, called as surely as if God summoned us into the office and gave us an order, to be different, and to make the world a different place. If we do not use our talents, whether it’s five, two or one, and use them in that way, then what does it mean to be a Christian today?

Let us pray.

Gracious God, forgive us when we are afraid of doing something worthwhile for your kingdom on earth. Grant us the courage to trust you with all that you originally gave us to become partners of proclaiming Good News for those who want to hear a promising word. Lead us to overcome our hesitation to try and in trying, we become your active disciples to transform the world for peace and reconciliation. Show us how to use the 2 talents that you have given us to spread love in the world. In Christ, we pray, Amen. 

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