November 19,

Faithful Ambition

Matthew 25:14-30

Rev. Dr. Patrick Johnson

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. At once 16 the one who had received the five talents went off and traded with them and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 

19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 

24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter, 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 replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

This is the one of the hardest stories Jesus tells. Ironically, it’s a classic text for a stewardship sermon. We’re wrapping our stewardship campaign for 2024, and it’s tempting to take this text in that direction. We are now nearly 86% of percent of the way to our goal. If you have pledged already, thank you; if you have not yet done so, I hope you will. We are much closer to our goal today than we were at this point in last year’s campaign. That is so encouraging! I know that because of our mutual sharing and generosity we will be able to support the ministry to which we are called.

Yet I have a problem with making this text into a simple a stewardship sermon. It’s bad enough that it reads like the Goldman Sachs parable of year-end bonuses, and who gets let go and who gets a bigger portfolio for next year. It’s made deeply harder that the story trades on masters and slaves, and vast economic inequity that was common then, and is all too common still today.

But listen to how the third servant is treated by the master at the end: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This character is treated more harshly than any other character in scripture. How did he come to such a tragic fate, and what does his story mean for us?

The story begins that a wealthy master was going on a long journey and gave three servants money, called talents, to manage according to their abilities. A talanton was an enormous bag of money, twenty years wages for an average worker. One servant was given five bags of money, another two, and this third servant, one. The first two servants invested the money aggressively and doubled it by the time the master returned. But the third servant, instead of putting the money to work as his colleagues did, buried it in the ground for safekeeping. They invested in equities; he put it in savings. They chose the market; he chose the mattress.

Now, you might be thinking that if the investments of the other servants had turned out differently, the third servant could the hero of this story. If the master had returned during a bear market, or just after a market crash, this servant with a pile of cash could have been the Warren Buffett of the New Testament. Instead, in this story Jesus told, he is humiliated, scolded, stripped of his assets, and thrown into darkness.

The way he is treated is so unlike Jesus, so unlike the good news of God’s unconditional love, it is tempting to look for a different way to read this story. We might spend our time on the two successful servants. They did well with what they were given, they imitated the master, they were bold in their investments. Their status is elevated, and they become partners in the firm. We could focus our attention there, but the emphasis of the story is clearly on the third servant.

Over half of this tale is the conversation between him and the master. His is a cautionary tale, and Jesus wants us to wrestle with his fate. To get our heads and hearts around the point Jesus is making, we have to assume that the master in the story – as repugnant and harsh a figure as he is – has read the servant right. He gave this servant one talent, just the right amount for him to manage and prove himself. And what did the servant do? He buried the money in the ground and then did nothing, for a long time. The judgment of the master on the servant is that he is wicked and lazy.

I hate the word lazy, and I stumbled over this accusation because I so dislike it. When my brothers and I were kids and we would hang out doing nothing like kids often do and should do, my father would call us lazy. It always seemed like a cheap insult, and it makes me tense even now to hear it. So I wanted to know what is really meant in this story. The Greek word used here is more nuanced. The word is okneros, and it means something like hesitation. It refers to one who does not have, for whatever reason, the resolution to act. Who lets little inconveniences stand in the way. Who does not move from good intentions to finished deeds. The ability is there, but the action is missing. A employee review might say “lacks follow-through.”

The problem with the third servant, the parable tells us, is not actually that he was afraid; and even though the master was a harsh person, his lack of follow-through is not the boss’s fault.  The problem with the third servant is that he did not put his potential into action. He let small stumbling blocks stop him from getting things done. He may have had dozens of good ideas for how to invest the bag of cash, but he never dug it up. Maybe he was disorganized, or maybe he was an inveterate procrastinator, or maybe he was resistant because he didn’t like the master and didn’t want to work for him, or maybe he was anxious about failing. We don’t know why he hesitated, we only know that when the master returned, he had not done anything.

This, Jesus says, is a warning to us. Like the parable of the bridesmaids we heard last week, this parable is a story about how to follow Jesus now, and it is a warning about inaction. The story is not meant to threaten us with outer darkness – nothing that will separate us from the love and light of God in Christ. So this is not a call to earn God’s love with constant busyness, and it certainly is not a call to place our self-worth in productive output. But… the parable is a call to energetic faithfulness in the ministry Christ has given to us. It is a call to discipline and diligence in following Jesus. It is a call to use resources creatively, to step over stumbling blocks and press on through challenges, to be ambitious in Christ’s name, to get going and stick with it.

So what could this look like today? I was reading this week a story of a new worshipping community in the PC (USA). New worshipping communities are like new churches, and our presbytery has recently started one in Lincolnton, and they are all over the country. The one in this story is based in Rochester, New York, and started out of the Southminster Presbyterian Church, which realized after 160 years that because of their small size they could no longer to keep up the building in which they worshipped. But instead of simply selling and disbanding, this small congregation decided to start something new. They developed an ambitious plan to invest their lives and resources in what they called Acts of Faith. Their often-repeated the prayer: “Put us where you want us God, and show us what to do.”

After ten years, there are now more than fourteen Acts of Faith groups in Rochester: a bread ministry where they bake and take loaves of bread to people who need encouragement; a senior spirituality group, to accompany each other in the aging process; a Matthew 25 discussion group to work on our denomination’s Matthew 25 initiative; a

Soul Sustainability group of 20-somethings who focus their faith on the needs of the environment, and a Bible study called “Cuppa the Bible” with the tagline, “You supply the cuppa, the Spirit supplies the message.”

The pastor who led them on this creative and ambitious journey said, “God has done amazing things through this merry band of believers. They just keep saying yes to God.[1] When they sold their church building, they could have buried their resources and buried their calling. Instead, they followed Jesus in new directions with a prayer of availability and purpose.

Presbyterians, wherever they are, are some of the most accomplished, organized, disciplined, thoughtful, and capable people in any community. This congregation is a good example, and the history of this congregation includes examples of creative ministry and diligent focus. Yet, in our denomination, and sometimes in our church, it seems to me that it is wise to hear the warning to the third servant. We are sometimes too hesitant. We can sometimes let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We can be slow to seize new opportunities. We can fail to set the goals that would help us grow in our faith. Sometimes we go from month to month, or from church season to church season, with little forward progress. We sometimes fail to act on our good ideas, and we are sometimes slow to stand up and say, “Yes, I or we can do that.” We discount our own abilities sometimes, and we are often afraid of failing.

The story of this third servant is a call, in stark terms, to stop waffling. To figure out whatever it is that is holding us back in following Jesus, personally and as a congregation and denomination, and deal with it. Not ignore it, but face up to it, work through it and move beyond our hesitancy – just as we do in every other area of life. Jesus is calling his disciples to channel our ambition, and to harness our sense of responsibility for his sake, to serve him and his reign. Focus and goal setting, energy, diligence, risk-taking, creativity, and courage – all of these are important to the life of faith and the life of the church.

We are already rescued from outer darkness by the love of God in Christ. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Thanks be to God! And what should we be doing now? Jesus calls us to an adventurous journey with him into the fullness of God’s joy. “Put us where you want us God and show us what to do.” It’s amazing what can happen when we say yes to God.



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