Preached at St. Mary the Virgin, Weston on the Green
16th November 2014: 2nd Sunday before Advent
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Is it just me, or does the Gospel reading we’ve just heard sound a bit like an episode of The Apprentice? Perhaps you’ve managed to escape being drawn into the new series on BBC One at the moment. If so, well done! Unfortunately I haven’t. At times it’s like watching a car crash; but nevertheless, I keep tuning in on a Wednesday night at 9 o’clock to see what’s happened anyway. And all this week as I’ve been preparing this sermon I’ve had The Apprentice theme tune stuck in my head—those strong, dark, pulsating tones from Prokofiev’s famous ballet Romeo and Juliet.
Lord Sugar is on the lookout for a new business partner, in whom to invest £250,000 on a joint venture. Twenty budding entrepreneurs are all competing for the prize and each week they’re set challenges to test some aspect of their business acumen. As the weeks go by, Lord Sugar (the self-proclaimed judge, jury and executioner) gnashes his teeth in the boardroom, points his finger and declares to the unlucky candidates, “You’re fired!” At the end, however, the same finger is turned to the winner. This time, though, not to inflict the shame of being sacked, but to confer the glory of being told, “You’re hired!” as he/she is invited into a very special partnership.
Such are the stakes in the parable we’ve just heard, also. A master goes away on a long journey, delegating the running of his estate to his three servants according to their ability. He leaves and expects his servants to conduct his business in his absence. To two of his servants when he eventually returns, he speaks the most beautiful accolade we could ever hope to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” But to the final servant, he gives the rather dubious distinction of being called wicked and slothful. He’s left out in the cold, excluded from the party and afflicted by the torment of knowing he has slighted him who would have given him true joy.
What is the difference between the first two servants who went off and traded successfully with their master’s money, and the third who went off and hid his master’s money in the ground?
Let us first be clear on what the difference isn’t. The difference isn’t about how many talents they each started with. A talent in this instance isn’t a particular skill or ability someone has, it’s a unit of money. A talent in Jesus’ day was worth somewhere in the region of 20 years’ wages for the average labourer. Now to give you a very rough idea of how much that is, the average salary in the UK at the moment is about £26,500. That means that even the servant with the one talent was given in excess of £500,000 (that’s even more than the prize on The Apprentice). No insignificant sum of money! The final servant cannot say he didn’t have the resources to do the job, because he did.
Besides, Jesus tells us, the master entrusted the money to his servants “to each according to his ability.” The servant to whom five talents was given had enormous responsibility placed upon him. Jesus says elsewhere, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48). It is the master’s mercy which leads him not to give his servants more than they can handle. But there’s something else which shows that the master isn’t solely in the bottom line, and it’s this: he commends the servant who brought home four talents in exactly the same way as the servant who brought home ten. What matters to the master is not the quantity of talents, but how they were used. What the master wants to see is a return on his investment.
The real difference, then, between the servants who got hired and the servant who got fired was how they regarded both the giver and the gift. The first two understood the value of what they had been given and immediately put it to work. They recognised their master’s generosity and sought to repay his trust by working in order to please him. The third servant, on the other hand, saw the gift as a burden and the master as a taskmaster. He assumed he was trapped in a zero-sum game, that the gift he had been given could only ever be lost or used up. He therefore took what was a freely given gift and turned it into a jealously guarded possession. What’s more, he accused the master who had shown him so much trust of being greedy, idle and penny pinchingly exacting. If the third servant is slothful because he doesn’t do anything with what he was given; he’s wicked because he imputes false motives to the gracious and generous master.
Jesus tells this parable for people like us—disciples. He is the Master who goes away to return again at a day and hour unknown. He is the Master who invests in His servants and expects them to continue working while He’s out of sight. He is the Master whose face will ultimately turn to each of us with an expression of either incomprehensible delight or inescapable displeasure. The gift the Lord has given all of us is the gift of being called to follow Him and to work with Him in bringing God’s rule to earth as heaven. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes: “[Our work is] as simple and hard as learning to tell the truth and to love our enemies.” In other words, our work is learning to imitate Jesus. It is to learn that same excessive, abundant, reckless love which He has invested in us. We each have different responsibilities according to our various abilities and opportunities, but the task of announcing the kingdom is the same.
What that might look like will be different for all of us. It might mean standing up here preaching or it might mean taking the opportunity to befriend a neighbour who we know doesn’t have many friends or visitors. Whatever it is, we have to keep coming back to ask ourselves these two questions: What are the gifts, responsibilities and opportunities Jesus has given us to advance His kingdom? And what am I doing with them? Jesus doesn’t call us to do great things (though it might sometimes involve doing great things); He simply calls us to do the work He has for us to do (and nothing less). The two servants who were hired were those who were found faithful with what they’d been given. That is our task as Christians—to be faithful to Christ.
And so, who we think Christ is, and what we make of His call to follow Him matters. If we think Jesus a hard Master, the fact is we haven’t known Him. If we think His call on our lives a burden, we haven’t properly understood it. We might think the third servant’s punishment awfully harsh, but it isn’t. When those who mistake Lord Jesus for Lord Sugar realise what they’ve missed out on, there can be nothing but mourning and pain as a result. On the contrary, those who know Christ’s reckless grace and the incomparable riches of being called to follow Him, will risk everything in lives aimed at pleasing Him. For ultimately, what this parable reminds us, in the words of C. S. Lewis, is that: “How we think of [God] is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us.”
So there is the challenge: What will the Lord think of us when we stand before Him? When He examines our lives will He see there a potential business partner? Will He see someone ready to share the task of government when His kingdom is swept into power at last? The question, I suppose, is this: Are we ready to enter our Master’s joy? Are we ready to enter the joy of Christ’s own extravagant, courageous and reckless love, knowing that our love shall not be diminished, but only multiplied by use? If such love is not a joy to us now, it’ll be an eternal misery when the kingdom finally comes. Therefore, let us now, at all times and in all things, seek to please the Lord, so we may hear Him speak to us those most glorious of words: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You’re hired!”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.