Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory. That was what Johann Sebastian Bach inscribed at the top of every piece of music he wrote. Though he died in the mid eighteenth century, his music—especially his church music—lives on to this day while numerous other composers have become passé. He had learnt what our text for today intends to teach us.
Two Sundays back we dealt with serving God faithfully as a means of entering into the joy that Jesus has for NUPC. The passage we learned from was Matthew 24.45-51. We saw then that Jesus defended his practice of associating with people who were otherwise considered to be beyond God’s blessing. He ate and drank with gluttons and drunkards, tax collectors and prostitutes. We saw that the task for NUPC as we move to a new place further from the University and inside the community is to be the bearers of God’s love and grace to various groups in the community who we are told are beyond God’s love and grace—the poor, the homeless, single parents, pregnant teenagers, gangs members, drug addicts, pushers, prostitutes, people with AIDS, drunks, gays.
Then last Sunday we learned from Matthew 25.1-13 how to serve God expectantly. We saw that Jesus urged his disciples to be in a state of relentless anticipation—a state in which there are no easy answers. We saw that, as NUPC is poised for wonderful things, we should make plans—plans both to disciple the Christians at NUPC and to reach the community with God’s love. And we should expect God to revise our plans.
Today we will learn from Matthew 25.14-30. On the Tuesday before he was betrayed, Jesus and his disciples went to the temple. As they were leaving, his disciples brought to his notice the wonderful buildings of the temple. In response to this Jesus pronounced a curse on the temple. Surprised at this, his disciples asked him, “When will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” These words form three questions: 1. When will this be—that is, when will the temple be destroyed; 2. What will be the sign of your coming; and 3. What will be the sign of the end of the age? Please stand to hear part of Jesus’ answer to these three questions.
[Here read Matthew 24.36-25.30]
Please be seated.
The passage we are dealing with today is a parable. In the parable a wealthy man entrusts three of his servants with money and leaves on a trip. Now Jesus is careful to add the words “to each according to his ability.” The servants receive different amounts of money not because the master shows favoritism. Rather, the master recognizes the abilities of the servants. He probably bases this on their past endeavors for later in the parable the two servants who are called faithful are given greater responsibilities based on their performance. So what sets the servants apart is not how much they are given but what they do with what they are given.
For, he was motivated by fear, as he himself says. Why else would he hide the money in the ground? And how many sleepless nights did he have wondering whether someone would inadvertently dig up the money? Driven by fear that paralyzed him, he was able to take only the solitary act of burying the talent. He did not want it stolen. But it did not occur to him that he could use it. He was probably counting the days till the master returned so he could get this burdensome treasure off his chest. He was short sighted.
Much like the old member in a church who objected to the proposal to buy a plot of land adjoining the church yard to increase burial space. “I have measured the yard,” said he, “and have counted all our members, and find there is just enough room left to bury all our members without buying more land.” But what about new members? This man had a sure fire plan the kill the church!
Now the third servant had one thing right. He knew that his master would return someday. And he knew he would have to account for what had been given him. But he saw the master as a harsh man. His master would ask him to give an account for the talent that had been entrusted to him. If he was not able to produce it, the master would be furious. He could not risk having to come before the master empty handed. After all, a talent would have amounted to fifteen years worth of wages! It was as though the master had given him a million dollars. He had hit the jackpot without even playing the lottery! But he knew the money was not his. Paralyzed by fear he was like the person in the Yiddish proverb who can’t dance but complains that the band can’t play.
Since he was afraid of having less than what had been given him when the master returned, he decided to play it safe. Much like Dan Bricklin. Do not be surprised if you haven’t heard the name. I hadn’t heard of him either till I read an article about him in the US News and World Report. So all my information about him is from the article. It so happens that this man is a genius. He invented the first computerized spreadsheet. Today we can hardly do any job without resorting to some sort of number crunching on a spreadsheet. All thanks to Dan Bricklin. But when his contemporary Bill Gates dropped out of college to concentrate on Microsoft, Bricklin decided to play it safe and complete his M.B.A at Harvard. After all, a Harvard M.B.A almost spells job security. But today Gates is a household name, even if a notorious one. But hardly anyone has heard of Bricklin. For he played it safe.
Why did the third servant play it safe when the other two servants did not? What gave rise to the paralyzing fear he himself said he experienced? See what he says to the master: “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.” There it is! He was afraid because he saw the master as a harsh man. If that were the case, if the master were indeed a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed, the servant should have at least made a safe investment in the bank. That is what the master tells him in response. Certainly he could have found a reasonably stable bank which would have ensured that he would receive a fair amount of interest by the time the master returned.
Yet, for some reason, he chose to bury the money in a barren hole in the earth. What could this reason be? Let us probe his words a little more. He ends his words to the master with, “Here you have what is yours.” Now when the master had entrusted the three servants with money, he had given them what was his. But the first two servants manage to double what was given to them. Technically, the first servant possessed five talents that belonged to the master and five talents that were the product of his own hard work. Similarly, the second servant had two talents belonging to the master and two that were the fruit of his own labor.
“Here you have what is yours,” says the third servant. What does he imply? Is he not saying, “Master, you gave me one talent, which rightly belongs to you. Had I put it to work, you would expect me to give you even what my hard labor has produced, much like you have with these two servants whom you have commended. Since the product of my sweat should belong to me, and since you insist on having even that, I decided not to put the money to work. So here you have what is technically yours. I’m sure you can’t fault me for this.”
You see, the third servant not only did not want to go before the master with less than he had been given. The second reason why he did not put the money to work was that he also did not want to go there with more! For he was unwilling to let the master have possession of what he had earned. This is the second way in which he stands in stark contrast to the other two servants. They willingly give the master even what they had earned along with what they had been given. They realize that they would not have been able to earn anything had the master not given them something in the first place. The first two servants seem to have the view that whatever they earn with the master’s money should belong to the master. But the third servant is different. He believed that the master owned only the principal. He thought that the earnings on the money should belong to him. He knew that the master would expect all the money returned. His own selfishness and greed made him see the master as a cruel and harsh man for having such expectations. The way we are, the kind of people we are shapes the way in which we view others.
In his book Virtuous Passions, Father G. Simon Harak narrates the following story. Three students decided to go to the movies. One of them was a former Marine sergeant. The second had studied karate for a number of years. The third had no such training in violence in his background. After buying their tickets they regrouped in the lobby. The former Marine addressed the other two, “Did you see that guy on the other side of the ticket booth?” “Yes,” replied the former karate student, “He sure was cruisin’ for a bruisin’, wasn’t he?” “You know,” said the former Marine, “the look on his face...I was just waiting for him to try something.” Saying that, the former Marine thumped one fist into the other palm. The former karate student started to say, “If he had made a move, I would’ve...” but the third student interrupted them by saying, “What guy?”
The two students who were trained in violence were disposed to taking things in a certain way. They were, in every sense, looking for trouble. But the third student was not. His background of nonviolence made him expect nonviolent behavior from others. He might have indeed perceived the belligerent man but did not perceive him as belligerent.
In the same way the three servants in our parable had the same master. There is nothing to indicate that the master used to treat them differently. Sure he gave them different amounts of money. But he rewards the first and second servants in exactly the same way with exactly the same words. Though the master used to treat all three in the same way, the third servant had a decidedly different picture of the master.
He saw the master as an exacting, cruel man. So he treated the master in the same way. He saw the master as a miser, so he gave the master miserably in both his work and his repayment. He did not work and he gave the master exactly what had initially been given to him. But the first two servants recognized the master’s generosity. They worked generously and gave back to the master in a generous manner.
How we view God will determine how we treat God and the gifts he has given us. If we view God as a miser, we will give him miserable work and use our gifts in a miserly fashion. If we see him as harsh, we will address him harshly. If, on the other hand, we view God as generous, we will give him generous work and use our gifts generously. If we see him as gracious, we will address him graciously.
Now, the way the three servants viewed their master had consequences. The parable does not end with the servants giving back to the master. Rather, it ends with the master giving again to the servants. To the first two he gives dominion over many things. To the third servant he metes out punishment.
In a sense, all three servants get something at the end of the parable. Quite a few of you have probably heard of the computer-speak word WYSIWYG. What You See Is What You Get. For all practical purposes, the experiences of the three servants are like that. The first two servants see the master as gracious and generous. The third sees him as miserly and harsh. All three work for him in accordance with their perception of the master’s character. And in doing so, their characters are changed. The first two become more like the master. The third becomes more unlike the master. And at the end the master rewards them all with what they saw in him because they have become like their perception of the master. The first two are rewarded with grace because, in seeing the master as gracious, they had become gracious. The third is rewarded with harshness because, in seeing the master as harsh, he had become harsh.
This is revealed in the way in which the master addresses the third servant. “You wicked and lazy slave!” he says. Note the order. The first charge is that the slave is wicked. He is wicked because his view of the master reveals him to be wicked for only a wicked person could accuse so gracious a master of being harsh. And his wickedness leads to his laziness. He fails to work because he does not want to work for the master. And he does not want to work for the master for, on account of his own miserable character, he sees the master as a miser.
So what does all this have to do with NUPC? Why have we labored three weeks through this greatly misunderstood portion of Jesus’ teachings?
God has placed us in a place of tremendous opportunity. We have members from all over the world. And we are moving right into the heart of possibly the most diverse community in the world. Are we going to shrug off the responsibility to which God is calling us? Or are we going to be faithful like Jesus the faithful slave par excellence?
Let us not be reticent in fulfilling this responsibility. God is waiting for us, to meet us in the midst of our fulfilling the tasks to which he has called us. We may not read his timing or ways infallibly. But have no doubt that he is eager to take us where we can scarcely dream of going. Are we ready to serve him with expectancy? Will we serve with each moment charged with anticipation that God would reveal himself to us?
And let us not think that we are small and have but little to offer. It does not matter how large a church we are. What matter is the largeness of heart with which we serve this gracious God who has, of his incredible generosity, called us to be partners in and heirs of his kingdom. Will we respond by serving him generously? And will we serve him with an attitude that does not grudge him the glory he rightly deserves?
If we serve him in this manner—faithfully, expectantly, and generously—have no doubts that we will be entering into the joy that Jesus has for us in the near future. And it will be a sweet foretaste of that greater joy for which we eagerly wait when he will at last be revealed to all the world in his magnificent glory.