16th Sunday of Pentecost/ 16th Sunday of Matthew – The Parable of the Talents

‘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.’

Sunday, February 3, 2019MATTHEW 25:14-30

“The Lord said this parable: “A man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.‘ 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 did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? 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. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” As he said these things he cried out: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!””

I’m sure you know the phrase – “Use it or lose it!”  As kids we succumbed to those forgotten fears of the high-dive at the pool or attempting a back flip on a neighbor’s backyard trampoline only if we failed to keep up with those feats we learned during previous summer vactions. In order words, we had to work up the courage to walk out on that diving board perched atop that platform at the public swimming pool every year like it was the first time.  Because over the winter months we weren’t making that high dive or acrobatic flip on the trampoline and we had to relearn every year.  How about those of us who water ski or have snow skied and then 2-3 years later we find ourselves needing to re-learn our earlier mastered skill when trying it again.  I hear that about public speaking, dating, baking, driving, caring for children or even making out-bound phone calls to strangers.  If we get out of the habit and we will find ourselves sinking back into the comfort zone of our normal safe routine.  This truth of losing the ability to do certain actions, behaviors or tasks can be seen in our physical, professional, personal or social activities.  I recently saw a doctor about some back pain I had who told me it was related to my big toe which I vaguely remember breaking or experiencing a bad toe-jam over 10 years ago.  As I explained this toe episode to my doctor he asked if it still bothered me and I told him, “Yes it did, but only when my foot was under the blanket while I was lying in bed on my back or if my shoe or sock became too tight to put pressure on the end of my toe.  After a series of very painful examinations and X-Rays this doctor has now concluded that my end joint on my big toe is calcifying and becoming immobile because of my 10-15-year habit of keeping that toe out of the covers and not moving that toe to protect it from causing me pain.  Now my desire to avoid pain in my toe for all these years is causing me pain in my back and he said will likely cause me further difficulty with my ankle, my knee and my hip if I don’t begin to do a series of exercises to increase the flexibility and mobility of my toe and foot bones.  And those exercises hurt!  If you don’t use, you lose it.

In today’s gospel lesson we hear our Lord introduce a very rich man and his 3 servants to his followers to pass on some very important final instructions to his disciples.  You see, we find them during the final week of his earthly life, having just 4 chapters earlier in St. Matthew’s account journeyed to Jerusalem against all common sense and experienced a triumphant Palm Sunday entry into this city which Jesus had warned his disciples would reject and kill him just as they did with the prophets of the Old Testament sent by God centuries earlier.  He had just explained to his faithful that the Jewish temple would be left in ruins and “not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”  These have been days of strong words – final instructions – for his closest companions for the past 3 years.  During these days he asked James and John (the sons of Zebedee) who were jockeying for positions of prominence in his, “soon to arrive Kingdom”, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  It is during this journey he baffled them with this adage: “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” Or how about this light-hearted exchange? “but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave.”  Or how about when he was walking by a tree which had no fruit and proclaimed ““Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.”  Or after giving them a hard lesson about two sons, one who said he would obey but didn’t and the other who initially rebuffed his father but ultimately relented and then obeyed his father’s command – Jesus spoke these words of final instructions: “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.”  This is during that same time that he is telling his most loyal understudies about the wicked vinedressers who killed the landowner’s servants and even his son when they were sent to gather from the fruit of the vines they were supposed to be caring for under the authority of the landowner. Jesus also explained the Wedding Feast where the wealthy king was preparing for and inviting his closest associates to his marvelous celebration for his son and new daughter-in-law and as the servants went out to issue their invitations they were rejected, ridiculed and even beat up and killed.  The king, in his rage, sent his armies out to destroy those who had murdered his servants and then sent others out to issue new invitations to strangers – those out in the highways and byways “and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Do you see a pattern here?  These are ever-so-important final instructions to the apostles that life as they knew it was about to be turned on its head and matters were about to begin to look very differently for all of them – if they were true followers of what he had been imparting to them during these past 3 years.  Jesus is introducing his disciples to a new economy, a new world view, you might call it – a new paradigm.   These harsh instructions are words which would be recalled by these men for decades to come as they traversed the known world bringing His gospel to “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  These words were unlike anything they had heard before because they were being asked to undertake task never been undertaken before.  Their instructions were clear – deny yourself, take up the cross, die as I will, be last rather than first, be the least rather than the greatest, be the servant rather than the master, don’t delay responding His invitation, produce the fruit you are supposed to produce, give to God what rightly belongs to Him and now – today – use it or lose it!

This very rich man we are introduced to today is about to go on a journey, he’s leaving (Just like Jesus was!) and he has some treasure he needs placed for safekeeping during his absence (just like Jesus does).  He may have had many servants, but he only entrusted his treasure with his top 3 servants – his closest and most trusted servants.  These servants knew what he expected from them during his absence.  They knew who he was and how he grew his wealth.  He is described as “a hard man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not winnow.”  He expected them to make the most of this time and this treasure he was entrusting to them. 

The English word in today’s gospel – talent – has two meanings now and comes from the Ancient Greek (τάλαντον) talanton which means a ‘scale’ and ‘balance’ was a unit of weight of approximately 80 pounds (36 kg), and when used as a unit of money, was valued for that weight of silver. As a unit of currency, a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii. Since a denarius was the usual payment for a day’s labor, the value of a talent was about twenty years of labor, by an ordinary person. By contemporary standards (ca. AD 2009) at the rate of the US median yearly wage of $26,363, a talent would be valued at about $500,000.  The servant given 5 talents in today’s lesson received the equivalent of $2.5million, the servant given 2 talents was given what would be worth $1million and the third servant was given ½ million dollars – each according to their ability.  Four million dollars was entrusted to these 3 men today as their master went on his journey and when he returned, he found three amazingly different results.

The first servant “traded with them” his 5 talents and was rewarded 5 more to the utter delight of his master – ‘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.’  This servant didn’t save them, hide them, spend them or squander them – he “traded with them”.  He worked with his $2.5million and found others who wanted what he had and then paid him back with return for the use of that money.  He invested in the lives of others who needed what he had and helped them succeed so when they did, they had more to give back to the faithful servant.  He was “faithful over a little” so the master would set him over much and welcome him into his mater’s joy.

Likewise, the second servant – given $1million – made 2 more talents from the 2 entrusted to him.  He didn’t trade with them but somehow “made” them double in value by using them in some way where they multiplied.  Again, this servant also didn’t save them, hide them, spend them or squander them – he “made” them double in value.   Similarly, his master was very pleased – ‘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.’ 

The third servant, however, is described as “wicked and slothful”!  What was his crime?  Why would this wealthy master utter such condemning words about one of his most trusted servants?  What was his offense?  He played it safe.  He didn’t want to take any chances or encounter any risks or move out of his comfort zone.  He took what he had and buried it – so it would not be lost.  Since today is kind of a big day in sports, I think it’s OK for me use a sports analogy here – he was all about the defense – keeping the ball from the opposition rather than strategically playing effective and productive offense – making some points.  Just like the two teams playing today have learned in their journey to the ultimate championship game of their season – it’s not enough to simply play it safe and keep the ball away from your opponent.  You don’t win any game unless you have the most points on the board at the end of the game.

This man chose his path because of fear of the one who had provided for and protected him all during these preceding years.  He knows what kind of man his master was but because of his misplaced fear of his generous master he was paralyzed into inaction – wicked and slothful behavior.  His master scolds him telling him he could have at least placed the $500,000 with a banker who would have given him some interest for letting him use the money to invest in others in their community so when the master returned – likely the money would not have doubled in value but it would have, at least, increased in value to some degree.

Why does Jesus spend so much time talking economics with his followers during his last week alive on earth as He walks to “his voluntary death on the cross?”  Why is this teaching about saving, investing, burying and trading buckets of money included in the final words of instruction to the apostles of Christ?  Because this is NOT about money or coins or a lifetime of earnings.  This instruction is also about that other part of the definition of the word talent – special athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude, that general intelligence or mental power, that innate ABILITY and natural endowments of a person – given to him or her by their master and creator.  Jesus knows our common opinion of ourselves is that we don’t have what others have, to be useful or effective.  He knows our tendency to hide, take the back seat, play it safe and assume that others who are much more experienced, better equipped, more suited, more gifted, more available, better looking, better sounding, richer, slimmer, taller, faster, younger, older – we have been lead to believe that they will accomplish what needs to be done – not us.  We’re not them.  We’d better play it safe.  Just hide what we have so we don’t lose the little we have left.  We wouldn’t want to take on any risks or step out of our comfort zone – we might fail or mess-up.  What would others think of us then?  Our entire focus is on ourselves instead of how we could serve others and our master with what we’ve been given.

St. Theophan the Recluse writes about this passage in today’s lesson – “No one who has received life from the Lord can say that he does not have a single talent—everyone has something, and not just one thing; everyone, therefore, has something with which to trade and make a profit. Do not look around and calculate what others have received but take a good look at yourself and determine more precisely what lies in you and what you can gain for that which you have, and then act according to this plan without laziness.  At the Judgment you will not be asked why you did not gain ten talents if you had only one, and you will not even be asked why you gained only one talent on your one. And the reward will not be because you received the talents, but because you gained. There will be nothing with which to justify yourself—not with nobleness, nor poverty, nor lack of education. When this is not given, there will be no question about it. But you had hands and feet. You will be asked, what did you gain with them? You had a tongue, what did you gain with it? In this way will the inequalities of earthly states be leveled out at God’s judgment.”

We all have been given treasures from our creator to trade with others in order gain from that which we have been entrusted.

St. John CHRYSOSTOM has written: “Let us therefore, knowing these things, contribute whatever we have – wealth, diligence or care giving – for our neighbor’s advantage.  For the talents here are each person’s abilities, whether in the way of protection, or in money, or in teaching or in whatever thing you have been given.  Let no one say, “I have but one talent and can do nothing with it.”  You are not poorer than the widow.  You are not more uninstructed than Peter and John, who were both ’unlearned and ignorant men.’  Nevertheless, since they demonstrated zeal and did all things for the common good, they were received into heaven. For nothing is so pleasing to God as to live for the common advantage.  For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body and mind and understanding, that we might use all these things both for our own salvation and for our neighbor’s advantage.  Our speech not only is useful for hymns and thanksgiving, but it is profitable also for instruction and admonition.  And if indeed we used it to this end, we should be imitating our Master; but if for the opposite ends, the devil.

When the master heard the response of his fear-ridden servant upon his return that day who hid the one talent in the ground during his absence he commanded his servants to “take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”  Use it or lose it.

Again, CHRYSOSTOM writes: “The unprofitable servant is to be cast into outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Do you see how sins of omission also are met with extreme rejection?  It is not only the covetous, the active doer of evil things and the adulterer, but also the one who fails to do good. Let us listen carefully then to these words.  As we have opportunity, let us work to cooperate with our salvation.  Let us get oil for our lamps.  Let us labor to add to our talent.  For if we are backward and spend our time in sloth here, no one will pity us any more hereafter, though we should wail ten thousand times… Remember the virgins who again entreated and came to him and knocked, all in vain and without effect.”

Use it or lose it!  When it comes to immovable body parts, skills, crafts, abilities, aptitudes, interests, natural endowments, mental powers, music, speech, strength, wealth, gifts, faculties, capabilities, capacities, powers, roles, positions and talents.  We must offer them to those around round us for the benefit of others – trade them, invest them, exchange them and gain a return which will be for the glory of God and the benefit of all others around us.  Our families need this from us.  Our spouses and children need this from us.  We must not hide what we’ve been given and squander it in a hole deep in the ground of fear, anxiety and despondency.  Our neighbors and co-workers need what we have to offer them and lastly our church needs us and our talents.  We are few here at St. Anna, and the needs are many.  No one need be overwhelmed if we all offer our talents as we have been entrusted to freely trade with and invest in others.  We can do this.  We have much to do and God must bring the increase to our offerings or our efforts will be ineffectual and wasted.  This is His work – just as it is in our families, our marriages and our careers.  Our responsibility is to trade with others what has been entrusted with us.  God will bring the increase.  Use it or lose it.  I choose today to be a user rather than a loser.  It is my desire that these words today may help someone here today become a better user of what God has given, empowering us to step out of the hiding holes of darkened dirt of despair with no fear where the only words ringing in our ears will be, ‘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.”

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