Use it or Lose it!Sermon passage: (Matthew 25:14-30) Spoken on: February 21, 2011
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Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
The great Italian violinist and composer, Nicolo Paganini, willed his marvelous violin to Genoa, the city of his birth. He gave only one condition that the instrument must never be played upon. It was an unfortunate condition, for it is a peculiarity of the wood of that violin that as long as it is used and handled, it shows little wear. But to set aside untouched, it begins to decay. This exquisite, mellow-toned violin has today become worm-eaten in its beautiful case, valueless except as a relic (Bits & Pieces, June 25, 1992). Though the original good intention was to preserve this expensive piece of instrument, it soon destroyed its capacity for usefulness. Yes, you either use it or lose it! And this is what Jesus’ parable of the talents is all about in today’s scripture passage.
Jesus’ parable of the talents is not a difficult one for us to understand. The focus of the story is obviously on the contrasting achievements and fates of the first two servants in comparison with the third. But since the third servant is dealt with at greater length than the first two servants, it seems clear that it is his undesirable conduct that Jesus wants His followers to take note in particular and to heed as a warning. It is in the difference between his lack of action and the actions of the first two servants that we find the theme of use it or lose it. In other words, Jesus is warning His followers to make use of the talents that He (or God) has entrusted to them, or else they incur the risk of losing them. And the reason Christians are entrusted with various talents is to work for the expansion of the kingdom of God. This is the first point I now want to highlight from the parable of the talents.
(1) Christians are entrusted with various God’s given talents to work for His kingdom.
The parable is of a wealthy man who is about to go off on a long journey. He thus calls three of his servants together and gives them money to be used while he is away. This man’s wealth is enormous, for he gives to his servant five talents, two talents and one talent respectively. We must put out of our minds the meaning of the English word “talent” with reference to natural aptitude or ability. A talent here in today’s parable was a monetary measure and was normally reckoned as 6,000 denarii. One denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wages for a common laborer. So, a day laborer would have to work more than 16 years to earn one talent. Thus, the man who receives five talents is handling more than he could have expected to earn in a lifetime! In total, the amount of money given to the three servants is huge. And we are told that the master entrusts those money to his servants according to their ability. In other words, the amount of money is wisely distributed; no servant is given more than he is capable of handling. Even the one with the least ability is given a significant amount. The purpose of this allocation of money to the servants is not stated in today’s parable. But the sequel of the story makes it clear that the master expected his servants to find means of increasing the money given to them during his absence, and that the servants were equally aware of their master’s expectation.
So, the parable immediately creates a ‘crisis-moment’ with the departure of the master: each servant must decide what he will now do with the money allocated. Thus, we see the important action occurs instantaneously: the man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work. So, also is the one with the two talents. As we know the money does not grow by its own effort, but only as people put it to use. In other words, the servants need to aggressively and energetically work with the money given to them in order to increase the wealth of their master. Though we are not told what sort of trading or investment that the first two servants had made with their entrusted amounts, the emphasis is that they both go to work at once. In other words, they waste no time. They immediately throw themselves into using what they have been given. So, by their action they both earn a hundred-percent yield on their investments.
The servants need to work recalls for us the theme of the disciples as ‘workers’ in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 10, we read Jesus sent out His twelve disciples to the harvest field to gather the people into the reigns of the heavenly kingdom. And the disciples set out their journey with the healing and preaching authority (the ‘talents’) Jesus had given them. The servants in today’s parable, they too were likewise given the generous amount of money by their master to go to work at once. Thus, the primary meaning of the talents has to do with the special gifts or endowments entrusted to Jesus’ followers so that they can become co-workers of the kingdom of heaven. When the Master goes away, it is their responsibility not to wait in pious idleness but to get on with the job He has entrusted to them. Yes, Jesus will leave behind great potential. But He expects that potential to be developed through the faithful works of His followers. Christians are not to be like the third servant, rather than working with the money entrusted to him, he dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s talent. Unlike the seed, money buried in the ground will not grow. Because of his inactivity in investing the money, the potential for him to increase his master’s wealth could never be realized.
Yes, brothers and sisters, though the parable is about money: talents given to the servants by their master, it is probably more broadly intended to refer to the various gifts or resources that Jesus wishes to entrust to His people. We must take note that in the parable it is said that the master gives to each ‘according to his ability’, and he expects every servant to put what he is given to use. Isn’t this thought very closely similar to the teaching of Paul in Romans 12:6-8 where he talked about different spiritual gifts given to each Christian: “We have different gifts according to the grace given us”. After mentioning the different kinds of gifts, Paul urges that they be put to use. Peter in his letter also speaks of the use of various gifts given by God: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10). Someone (John Ryle) even extends the meaning of talent to the broadest range of things by saying that “anything whereby we may glorify God is a ‘talent’”. Thus, our gifts, our influence, our money, our knowledge, our health, our strength, our time, our affections, our privileges as members of Christ’s community, all are talents.
Yes, brothers and sisters, by His grace God has already bestowed His people with different kind of gifts or resources for us to use to work for His kingdom. But very often we hear Christians excusing themselves by protesting that their gifts are too modest to be significant. Jesus’ parable of the talents insists that the gifts given by the master are lavish and precious, even the smallest one. These talent-gifts show us that our Lord is most gracious. Indeed, the greatness of God’s grace and His gift to each of His children is beyond anything we could ever expect to receive. It is true that some of us may be gifted in more than one way (servant with five talents), but we all are gifted differently in no small way. The talents our Lord provides us are gifts that He has determined we can handle according to our ability. May be you would still try to find excuse by saying that you do not know what gifts God has given you. Perhaps it may be difficult for some to determine the areas in which they are gifted. But can you still remember the broadest meaning of gifts I quoted from someone’s saying? “Anything whereby we may glorify God is a talent!” I am sure you are able to determine the gift God has given you as long as you have the desire to serve Him. Other Christians may also help you to identify your gifts as well. Since God has given us talents to use, we do not have the option not to use them. So, the real problem is how eager are you to put into use at once what God has given you for the service of His kingdom? We must avoid to become a “do nothing” Christian like the third servant in the parable. Rather, we must work faithfully and energetically for God now: at once, by putting His given gifts to appropriate use.
(2) Christians are accountable to God for the use of His gifts entrusted to them.
The underlying theme of today’s parable is very clear. It stresses the interim responsibility of the servants in the absence of their master. Here, the responsibility is expressed in terms of money, the very huge amounts of money. But the issue really at stake is not money but the stewardship of what has been given to the individual servant. In other words, they are all accountable to their master as to how they make good and effective use of the different amounts of money entrusted to them in his absence. And when the master returns from his journey, he would settle account with them individually. Remember Jesus is talking to people who claim to follow Him. Thus, the second point we note from this parable is that Christians are accountable to God for the use of His gifts entrusted to them. And on the day of accounting, Christ will assess us whether we are faithful stewards in accord with our abilities of how we make use of the gifts entrusted to us.
So, the parable goes on that when the wealthy man eventually returns and asks the three servants what they did with the money, the first servant replied, “Master, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.” The second servant replied the same, “Master, you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.” Both of them have worked and doubled the money entrusted to them. Take note that both of the servants address the wealthy man as their master (so is the third servant) when they come to his presence to give account of what they have done. The emphasis on the man as ‘master’ or ‘lord’ of the servants underlines one important fact that the money still belongs to the master, and has only been entrusted to the servants to be stewards of them. In other words, the money that the master gives out is a loan, or to be precise a trust. It is just like when you put money into a trust account at the bank, they keep it for you but you expect to see interest returned to you on that money. So, there is the clear understanding of the first two servants that both the money on trust and the profit earned by them all belong to their master. In fact, it is the grace of the master to allocate such a great sum of money to his servants because he trusts each of them to make capable use of it, to work for him. And the first two servants certainly did not disappoint him. Thus, it is befitting to see the master commending them as good and faithful servants. And because they have been faithful with a few things, the master will appoint them in charge of many things. They will also have a special position in the master’s favor and friendship. Thus, we see faithful stewardship of earthly gifts would result in even greater responsibility and more blessing in the heavenly reward. The master’s promise is the same for the first two servants; it has nothing to do with the amount of money they have earned. The amount they bring back is not the issue. The fact that they respond immediately to their master’s gifts and work faithfully for him in the use of the gifts is all that matter.
But in contrast, the third servant rather than using the one talent entrusted to him, he took it and buried it. We may find it strange for his behavior. But the audience of Jesus’ time would probably have recognized that what this third servant did with the money was both legal and safe. An oft-cited rabbinic maxim commends the burial of money as one of the safest way of protecting it. So, he has in fact taken a prudent action to safe-guard the money. Jesus’ condemnation of this servant who hid his master’s money would have caused strong shockwaves to His hearers. Thinking that he has faithfully discharged his responsibility as a prudent custodian, he declared to his lord, “See, here is what belongs to you.” He is in fact expecting to be commended for being prudent and returning the capital intact. To his great surprise, the master in anger calls him wicked and lazy servant. And his reward is the opposite of that of the first two servants: his one talent is taken away from him and is given to the servant who had ten, and he himself is thrown into the outer darkness of exclusion from the kingdom of heaven. Why not the master just rebukes him? What has he done that is legal and safe so wrong that it should become a great disaster for him? From the harsh words of the master, we learn that the master requires profit, not just the return of his capital unused. So, Jesus is in fact telling His followers that as servants of God’s kingdom, doing nothing or mere preservation of God’s given talents is not good enough. It only underlines that fact that they are lazy. In the service of His kingdom, God is not satisfied with inaction of His servants. He wants them to be faithful and productive stewards, to make use of the talents He has given them. Thus, we see another Jesus’ dramatic parable of the sheep and the goats that immediately follows this parable of the talents (25:31-46). The reason why the goats are rejected by the owner shepherd and separated from the sheep is precisely because of their inaction. They show no care for those who are in need. In other words, they are not making use the ‘talents’, the resources that God has provided them with. So is the third servant in today’s parable, he is rejected by his master not because he has failed to gain as much as the first two servants. He is rejected for what he fails to use what he has, for hiding his valuable talent in the ground.
Yes, brothers and sisters, as servants of God we are in a tough spot. Jesus’ parable of the talents is indeed a challenge to our common ideas about playing safe in our Christian lives. We might think that as long as we keep ourselves ‘religiously’ right by not doing anything wrong, or to preserve our Christian faith intact (like the action of the third servant that was legal and prudent), then we are safe and God will definitely be satisfied with us as His people. After all, given the various temptations and false teachings of this world, it is already not an easy task for Christians to avoid sin as far as possible. How many Christian can actually claim that they have kept a clean bill of health in term of their spiritual life and daily living? So, shouldn’t God be pleased with our efforts to stay ‘clean’ by playing safe in our Christian living? And holding on to our Christian faith is not good enough either. Jesus tells us that He expects a much higher standard of kingdom living for His followers. By giving various gifts to us generously, He trusts us to make use of them. So we are accountable to Him and have no excuses of not using them to work for the service of God’s kingdom. The third servant who hides his talent under the ground is like what Jesus said previously (Mt 5:15) that he is like the one who hides his lamp under a jar when it ought to be used to give light. So, his failure to be a faithful steward of the talent entrusted to him results in total loss even of his initial blessing. And this is the stern warning of Jesus to His followers that they either use the gift entrusted to them or incur the risk of losing it. They would also face the terrifying prospect of ultimate loss, the loss of great blessing of the kingdom of heaven.
So, the parable of the talents emphasizes the need for work and productivity rather than doing nothing which Jesus calls laziness. But don’t get it wrong that we are justified by works. If we are trying to be justified by works, we are not Christians. But neither can we claim to be Christians if we do not have works. Someone (James Boice) says it correctly that if we are not working for Christ, we are not justified. Also, being productive does not mean that Christians are to score points to compete with each other for the Lord’s favor. The first two servants though were given the different amounts of talent, they both contribute something of value to their master’s wealth. They were equally commended for. Thus, we are not to make comparisons between Christians. Not every one of us has been entrusted with the same amount of talent, so we will not all do so in the same way and in the same greatness in the service of God’s kingdom. So, we are not to judge that someone else is insufficiently serving or even hiding his or her talent in the ground. Rather, we must be rigorous with ourselves. We must not take risk to think that our inaction will be excused. We are not to give back the talents our Lord has given us as custodians. Rather, we need to be productive. To be a productive steward, what we need to do is to recognize the generosity of God who gives us our gifts, and to trust Him as we use and share His gifts with others in the service of His kingdom. Thus, each of us can be productive in our own unique ways. All of our services in the kingdom, be it in church, at home or in society is equally valuable whether we achieve greater or lesser return. For every Christian is accountable to his Master and it is only Him who can judge us in the use of the gifts He has entrusted us. Paul makes it clear in Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Yes, we can stand before the Lord, because He will definitely give us strength as long as we are eager and faithful in making use of the gifts He has entrusted us!
(3) Our right understanding of God and close relationship with Him expresses itself in faithful service to Him.
What is the root of this third servant’s problem? Why would he only think of burying the talent given to him by his master? It all boils down to his wrong perception about his master’s character that makes him hesitate to invest the talent given to him. In other words, he does not know his master well. This is also the third point I want to highlight in today’s parable: Our right understanding of God and close relationship with Him expresses itself in faithful service to Him.
The crucial place in the parable of talents is found in the dialog between the unfaithful servant and his master. Unlike the first and second servants, he does not begin with a reference to the amount with which he had been entrusted. He begins, rather, with an attempt to justify his doing nothing with his one talent. He explains that He knows his master’s nature too well: “Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gather where you have not scattered seed. So, I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.” Apparently, the servant views his master as a harsh and greedy businessman. Thus, he believes that losing the money through investment or trading would infuriate his master and perhaps incur a harsh penalty. Accordingly, motivated by fear, he refuses to risk such a venture. Jesus here in this parable is not portraying God as a hard master and therefore His followers need to watch out for Him. The message here is not that God is a greedy, unreasonable businessman who is difficult to please, but that He is not satisfied with inaction. So, using back the negative portrait of him as painted by the third servant, the master responds that such a perception should have driven him to secure a minimal increase of his master’s capital. He should have at least left the money with the bankers to earn interest. In other words, the master is saying: “On the assumption that you think I am hard and merciless, you should have been all the more diligent!” Instead, this unfaithful servant is blaming his master for his failure to do anything with the talent entrusted to him. His accusation is certainly not true. The master is not a hard man. He has been generous in giving his servants much wealth to work with even one talent is of a significant amount. For the third servant, there is not a slightest trace of gratitude that his master has trusted him with such a great sum. He shows concern only for himself, and consequently he seeks security rather than service the master. By declaring to his master “Look, here is your own money back”, he is in fact disclaiming any further responsibility for the money. He has thus refused to acknowledge his responsibility as his master’s servant. He has failed his master’s trust by being lazy and rebellion. To have done nothing with the money entrusted to him is thus a proof that he is truly not his master’s servant, for he does not care about his master’s agendas.
Yes, brothers and sisters, our faithful use of God-given talents to us is a responsibility that accompanies our right understanding and close relationship with God. For the first two servants, there is simply a happy acknowledgement of the master’s talents, and they immediately put those talents to work in order to grow them. This is the indication of their obedience and they acted boldly. But more importantly, they acted out of trust. They reasoned that the master who was willing to entrust them with so much money, surely not only he was generous but he could also be trusted. In other words, the boldness of these first two servants came not from themselves, but from their trust in the master’s generosity. But the third servant was motivated by fear. His fear was due to his wrong perception of his master, and this fear paralyzed him into inactivity. For him, the master’s assignment is not a privilege or honor, but a terrifying responsibility because failure may entail severe punishment. So, we see his relationship with the master is not based on trust and gratitude, but is limited only to his master’s fearful power. Thus, he needs to play safe to protect himself. In short, the fear and mistrust of his master lead the third servant to a defensive attitude that bears no gratitude, no relationship and thus no fruit at all.
Yes, brothers and sisters, what is your attitude about your Master? How are you related to Him? Is God indeed the “hard” judge to you? It is indeed correct to say that the master is harsh only to those who are deliberately rebellious or lazy. To others he is a good master who gives gifts to his servants and rewards them generously for their faithful service (David Wenham). So, is your Master the loving One who wants to bestow His generous gifts on you? Remember that these gifts that the Master gives out to you are a trust. When God provides such gifts to you, He has already determined that you can handle according to your ability. So, it is for you to make good and effective use of them, and not to return them untouched. However, to make good and effective use of God’s given talents, you need to act boldly like the first two faithful servants. You need to trust God and move beyond fear, the fear of failure. If you are too fearful or distrustful, you are going to bury your talents. Yes, there will be risk involved when making use the talents God has given us. In the parable of the talents we see only the profits made by the first two servants. Have you ever wondered what would have happened if one of them who put the money to work realized a loss instead of a gain? But do take note how the master praises them. He praises them for being ‘faithful’, not for being shrewd or profitable. In other words, they are praised for faithfully putting money to work, not for their results. So, in the end the ultimate assessment of God on His servants is their faithfulness in using the talents entrusted to them. But we still need to be productive stewards, only that our productivity is measured by God and not by human’s definition. So, the fact that the master calls the third servant wicked and lazy, it is not that he is unproductive or less productive, but because he fails to put the talent to work. If he would spare a little effort to use the money to make a minimal gain(as his master had suggested), the master would have equally accepted him.
Like the unfaithful servant in the parable, if we are afraid that we might fail in using our gifts that God has given us, we will never try to succeed. It does not matter whether the use of our talents will yield great result, little result or no result at all. Remember it is the Lord who allocates the talents and the scale of responsibility; it is our responsibility to make use of the talents and to carry out faithfully the role that has been entrusted. So, do not take risk to be inactive but be bold to take risk in using God’s given talents to achieve something for Him. After all, Jesus teaches us that discipleship in the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of safety but of risk, of losing life in order to gain it (cf. Mat 10:39; 16:25-26).
It is often said that within the church 20% of the members does 80% of the work. It is indeed encouraging to see these people willing to invest so much of their time into the Lord’s service. But the truth is God has given each of us talents to use in the service of His kingdom. Imagine what Jubilee would be like if every member uses his or her talents to serve the Lord in one way or another. So, instead of focusing on yourself that you do not have time or what you can receive from the church, you should start focusing on identifying the gifts God has given you and use them to serve the Lord and the congregation. Remember we are all stewards of God’s gifts given to us and He expects us to make good use of them. As we use and share His gifts with others, we are confident to hear the Lord’s assessment on us: Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
Matthew 25:14–30 (Listen)
14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘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.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘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.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no 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 answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’