A sermon on Matthew 25: 14-30, preached 11/16/14 at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.
I’m not sure we’re meant to know all the answers when it comes to Jesus’ parables. I am sure I don’t have the key to unlocking all the wisdom of this one. But I know that when Jesus starts talking in parables, he wants his disciples to pay attention. He’s saying, Listen up, because this is how God operates and it’s not what you expect. It’s never what you expect.
Parables are funky, surprising little stories he tells and they almost always start, like this one does, with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” The kingdom of heaven is like the man who sold everything he had to purchase the one pearl…The kingdom of heaven is like the woman who swept the entire house until she found the coin she’d lost…The kingdom of heaven is like 10 bridesmaids who fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom to show up… (Mt 13: 45-46, Lk 15: 8-10, Mt 25: 1-13)
…The kingdom of heaven is like… a man who is heading out on a journey and he calls in his three slaves and gives them astronomical amounts of money. To the first one he gives 5 coins, to the second he gives 2, and to the third he gives 1.
It’s helpful to know that all together those coins were worth 120 years of daily wages. 120 years! Let that amount sink in for a minute. 120 years worth of daily wages, handed over without instruction, to slaves who probably didn’t even earn a year’s worth of normal wages in a year.
Then the man goes away. Right away, the 5-coin slave and the 2-coin slave start investing their money. Using money to make money, as they say. Maybe they lend some of it out and charge interest. Maybe they buy things that increase in value and then sell them for a profit. Whatever they do, both of them double the amount the man entrusts to them. And that third slave digs a hole in the ground, puts his one coin in, and leaves it there until the man returns.
I’m just going to say right here that the only one who did the sensible thing is that third man. No one in Roman or Jewish culture at that time would have given this kind of extravagant fortune to slaves to manage. And we’ve already been told that the man gave them amounts in accordance with their abilities, though it’s unclear what abilities, exactly, those are. Anyway, it makes complete sense that a slave who would probably never see this amount of money in the course of his entire life, would be scared of having it stolen or of losing it. How would he know anything about investing? Especially since he’s considered to have the least ability of the three?
The man is gone a long time. When he comes back, he comes looking for his slaves and asking about the money he left with them. The first two show him how they’ve doubled his money and he’s very pleased. To each of them he says, “Well done! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’m going to put you in charge of much more.”
A little??!? Those two slaves were given over 100 years worth of wages between them. That’s a little??!?
Anyway, then he invites them both, “Come celebrate with me.”
Then he comes to the third slave who hands back the one coin he was given and says to the man, “Master, I knew you were a hard man. You harvest where you didn’t plant. You gather up crops where you weren’t the one to plant seeds. So, I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here it is. Have what’s yours.”
The man is furious. He says, “If you knew I would harvest crops I didn’t plant, then you should have turned my money over to bankers so when I came back you could have given me the coin plus interest. You’re an evil and lazy servant!”
Then he gives the one coin to the slave who already has 10 coins and he says, “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Throw this worthless slave out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I have to say, he does kind of sound like a hard man, doesn’t he? Even though what he says, makes sense – if the slave really knew that’s how the man would act, he should have at least put the coin in a bank. That behavior would have matched what the slave says he believes about the man. But still, throwing this slave out where he no longer has a home or work or anyone to care for him? Calling him evil and lazy?
It’s hard to hear, isn’t it?
It’s hard to hear that those who have a lot will get more and those who don’t have much will have it taken away. It’s hard to hear the man yell at this slave. I mean, he’s already a slave and he’s the one in the bunch who has the least ability and now the very little he has is being given to the 10-coin slave and he’s being thrown out into the street. Maybe that seems like a good deal – the street part – but unfortunately, it doesn’t mean he’s free now. He’s just a slave without a home or food or work. He has no means at all and the man who still owns him has disowned him.
It’s hard to hear.
And the kingdom of heaven is somehow like this story? Really? Jesus is the one telling this story?
The kingdom of heaven – the way God sees the world and all of creation, the way God intends things to be…on earth as in heaven – the kingdom of heaven is like this. How?
Listen to the story again. The kingdom of heaven is like…
…Like a rich man who can give away 120 years worth of daily wages and consider that “a little” money. And he gives it away to the people considered slaves. Not to investment bankers but to people who have nothing and have never seen this kind of wealth. And he gives it to them with no instructions and leaves without saying when he’ll be back. He’s gone a long time. While he’s gone, two of the men he’s given money to use what’s been given. They go out and double the amount. They seem to have fun doing it. When the rich man returns they’re proud to show him how much they have now. And the rich man is proud and happy. He praises their accomplishments and invites them to celebrate – come to party and let’s feast.
But that third man, with the one coin, is afraid from the start. He assumes the worst will happen. He assumes the worst about the wealthy man – even though he’s just handed him 15 years worth of daily wages. That extravagance doesn’t compute with the third man. He doesn’t know how to live in that kind of world, where owner trusts slave and deals generously with him. So that one-coin man chooses fear over a leap of faith. That one-coin man chooses safety and sameness over the hard-to-believe generosity and trust of a new path. He chooses to hide his gift in the ground rather than making use of it. And everything that happens from there, happens because he lives from a place of fear. Even when he hands back over that one coin when the rich man returns, he doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t say “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more but I was so afraid. I couldn’t see straight. I didn’t know how to do any better than this.” No, he turns all that fear out in anger and accusation toward the rich man. Remember, the last time he saw the rich man was when he gave him this amazing, crazy, over-the-top amount of money. This is the very next conversation or interaction they have. And it’s like he spits on the man and his gift, blurting out his fearful hateful words and throwing a dirty dug-up coin at him.
I believe in the God of second-chances. And I have to believe that, even if the one-coin slave had done just as we’ve read and had only 1 coin to show for his time, if he had said to the rich man, “I’m sorry. I messed up. I didn’t know a way out of my fear. Please show me how to change and do it better next time…” If he’d said anything like that, I believe the parable might have ended differently. Without the darkness and weeping and teeth-gnashing.
I believe this because I believe in the God who loves each one of us enough to be born into a human life and live it amongst us and die painfully for us. I believe in the God who is dying on the cross and uses one of his last breaths to say, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
That’s the kind of God who entrusts each of us with unbelievable gifts, way beyond what any of us deserves or could get on our own. The grace of God flows into our lives with extravagant abundance – not a trickle of grace but a full-on, living water, fire hydrant of grace! And God lets us choose what to do about that – every day. And when we choose well and try to live out of love rather than fear, God says, “Well done. Come celebrate with me.”
It’s never too late. It’s never too late to dig up the coin you’ve hidden, to get honest about fear, and to trust love. It’s never too late to hear those words, “Well done. Come celebrate with me.”
Thanks be to God!
photo credit: By Kwanesum (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons