III. “A Harsh Master?”- Stewardship means Investment (Luke 19:11-27)
Focus: Stewardship means Investment
Application: use and development of skills
This sermon will first aim to be empathetic with the servant’s fears, only then to call into question whether the master is as “harsh” as the servant claims. It will structure a parallel between the master’s gift to the servants and God’s gift of skills and abilities to us. When we invest our skills in the work of the kingdom, we are the beneficiaries as our skills increase and are sharpened.
1.1. So reads the story of the wicked servant. Wicked, bad servant. So bad. He secretly hides his master’s money. Bad servant. He holds on to his master’s money rather than investing it. Bad, bad servant. He doesn’t even accrue any interest on it. Bad, bad, bad servant. Moral of the story: Don’t be like the bad servant.
And so the usual reading and hearing of this story goes. It seems fitting, since the servant is refused a reward while the other two receive great rewards. Yet there is something about this bad servant. Something unique. Something that makes him stand out. He is certainly a far more interesting character than the other two servants. He says a lot more than them. The parable even recounts his deeper intentions. So before we think we have a handle on the “moral of the story,” let’s try to get inside the head of this “bad” servant.
First of all, right out of the block he seems to be at a disadvantage. Matthew’s account of the story says that the first servant was given five talents, the second two, and our bad little servant only one. It seems unfair to judge him by the same standard. He had much less to start with. How can he be expected to change the world with a measly talent? Of course the other guys are going to do better. Of course he is going to look bad in the end, no matter what he does with the money. When you take this into account, he doesn’t seem so bad, does he? He just seems unlucky.
But that is not all. As if it wasn’t bad enough to get the short end of the stick, this servant has to work for a harsh and exacting man. This is no ordinary master. Like the servant says, he reaps where he does not sow. In other words, he steals. And apparently he steals from his own employees. He expects to gain from other’s labor. The beginning of the story seems to be a dead giveaway for the character of the master: he leaves to acquire a kingdom that is not his and the citizens there hate him for it. This servant doesn’t seem so bad when we see the kind of master he is working for. Maybe the problem is not the bad, wicked servant after all, but the bad, wicked master.
And if you haven’t heard enough to convince you, just think about what the servant did. Was it really that bad? The master simply left the money behind without instructions. How was the servant supposed to know he should invest it? He probably assumed that he was simply to keep an eye on it while the master was gone. That seems reasonable. He probably thought the other two servants were really going out on a limb. He, on the other hand, kept the money safe. He hid it, disguised and put away. No one was going to steal the master’s money while this servant was on the clock! Nor was his money going to get sucked up into some fly-by-night get-rich-quick investment scheme. When the master gets back, the money will be right where he left it.
So, when you think about it, the servant doesn’t seem so bad. He only had a little to start with, he was working for a harsh master, and he did the most responsible thing imaginable. I’d say he got shafted.
1.2. Do you ever feel like this servant? I know I do. It sounds a lot like what we deal with every Monday through Friday. We only have minimal resources. Whether its money, books, skills, people, paper, or energy, we just do not start out with much. And the bosses that some of us have to deal with. They expect more than is reasonable. They do not give clear instructions, and then they reprimand us for not doing the right thing. Others who seem to break all the rules get ahead. We get passed over. Punished for following the rules. We seem to do everything right, but nothing comes our way.
I wish I could turn around and say, “Thanks be to God that this only happens in the workplace, and not here in God’s church.” But I can’t. I can’t pretend that the church is free from the dynamics of expectation and reward. It seems that sometimes the ministries of the church are plagued by this to an even greater degree.
Think about the average church volunteer. They have so little to start with. How do we expect a software engineer to teach second grade Sunday School? Or a shy administrative assistant to keep up with teenagers? Or a busy school teacher to find the time and energy to paint scenes for the Easter pageant? Seldom do we have what it takes to get our tasks done.
Think too about the exacting and harsh masters we have to deal with. The inattentive children. The unappreciative teenagers. The critical adults. The demanding pastors who always have another sign-up sheet. And God, who seems to want so much from us, yet does not tell us in a loud booming voice exactly what to do.
And look at you. Look how hard you work anyway. Look how you keep teaching that class after twenty years. Look how you keep volunteering for those all-nighters when you barely make it past mid-night. Look how you keep at what seems to be your niche out of obedience and obligation. You should be rewarded. But again and again you are passed over. Forgotten. You persistently build a ministry that is simply passed on to some young seminary intern or rude team of teenagers because they “understand the next generation.” It seems as if you and I are in the same boat as the servant: shafted.
2.1. And yet, there is another side of the story. If we are to be honest, we need to tell the whole story. If we take the servant’s words at face value, he certainly is a character worthy of our pity. But do his actions and his words really match up with the facts? Is the servant’s perception of reality accurate? Is he telling the truth?
First of all, we need to take another look at this whole matter of talents. A talent, or minas in Luke’s account, is a quantity of measurement. In this context it refers to a quantity of gold or silver bullion. And a talent is not small amount. A talent of silver would fill a sizeable moneybag. A talent of silver would be a few years’ wages. A talent was therefore a large sum of money. And in that day and age, servants would never see any kind of capital at all. The gift of a talent would make someone an instant millionaire! We are tempted to stress how much more was given the first servant than the last servant. Yet the difference between them is like comparing Bill Gates with Madonna: they’re both millionaires! We like to imagine the last servant as the “underdog.” But he really had a high level of opportunity.
We also need to be honest about his master. What kind of master was he, really? Was he the harsh master of which the servant speaks? Though some facts seem to say as much, the specific indictment of the servant proves not to be true. The servant claims that the master reaps what he does not sow. However, up to this point in the story, we have only seen the opposite. He has certainly sown. And he has sown a tremendous amount. Yet he is not reaping. Not one bit. Rather, he is giving all the earnings back to the first and second servants. The last servant seems to be mixed up. His master is not a harsh and exacting man, but a generous and giving man. He sows and lets others reap the harvest.
So the servant not only had a better start than we imagined, he also misapprehended the character of his master. This leads us finally to the matter of the servant’s actions. Did he really do his best? According to the master, he did not. He did not even do the minimum. The least he could do was gain credit with the money. If there had been any inflation while the master was gone, hiding the money would have actually decreased its value! In the end, the master does not punish the servant for making so little money. Rather, he judges the servant according to his perceptions. The master wisely points out that if the servant really believed the master was such a harsh man he would have at least put the money in a secure savings account! But no, the servant is not even living according to his perceptions.
2.2. So the servant now stands before us as a warning, but no longer as a simplistic anti-hero. The moral of the story is not “invest, invest, invest.” Rather, the servant shows what happens when we live according to a lie. He shows us that our lives fall apart when we avoid telling the truth.
Take for instance the lies we tell about our abilities. We claim that we can’t do much. We say we are only good at a few things, and even those things we aren’t the best. There’s always someone better. We compare our one talent to someone’s five. We do not see the vast wealth of abilities and skills we do have. The average adult has 7 – 9,000 skills. That is a lot of skills. How could we miss this? How could we be so blind? One reason is our constant tendency to compare our one talent to some else’s five, forgetting that the difference is negligible. Or maybe it is because we want to avoid arrogance. Or perhaps we are afraid of failure. Or we focus too much on improving our weaknesses. Or we still believe the lies about our inabilities others told us when we were young. Whatever it is, we are living a lie when we live as unable persons. God has given us all an endless wealth of abilities from which to draw. Maybe we need to just take a look at the resources we do have, and put them to use.
This story exposes another one of our lies: that God is a harsh taskmaster. Somewhere we got it in our heads that God gives us unreasonable goals. We think that he gives us all these skills then says, “Get to work!” Or worse yet, we imagine that we better sign up for every possible church activity in order to “cover all our bases” just in case God has any hidden expectations. But this kind of thinking doesn’t correspond to reality. God gives us abilities and responsibilities for our sake. The task is the gift! Look at the story: God gives the first two servants responsibilities, and then he lets them reap the benefits for themselves. He does not come back to settle accounts. No, he comes to praise his faithful servants and encourage them along to even greater goals. We need to get our picture of God straight. When you sign up for a church activity, don’t wonder whether it is pleasing God. Dare to ask whether it is pleasing you. Is it giving you joy? Is it sharpening your skills? Remember always that God gives us tasks for our benefit.
Lastly, we need to check ourselves as to whether we are really “doing our best.” I do not take back my words about how committed we can be. I think many of us work really hard – at work, home, and church. Some of us may even be working too hard. But working hard and doing our best are quite different. The servant worked hard to keep that money safe. But according to the master, he did not do the best thing. Actually, the master’s suggestion would have been easier: simply invest the money into a credit accruing account and watch it increase. Keeping a watchful eye on a wad of cash is much more painstaking. The fact of the matter is that many of us tire at the wrong tasks. We sign up out of obligation or commitment, but never ask what the best task might be. If we take a look at the skills we actually have, and then turn to find where God can use us best, we will be much more effective and it will seem like we are not even working.
This happened to me last summer. I was going crazy trying so hard to learn new ministry spheres at an internship, when finally I realized I just needed to do more of what I was good at: teaching. I told my supervisor, and he graciously increased my teaching role. After that I was able to work far more with much less effort, simply because of the sheer joy that came with doing what I was good at. In other words, I started doing my best. So stop working so hard, and start doing your best. See what talents you naturally have, and put them to use. God doesn’t need you to build his kingdom. But he wants you. And he wants you to be the best you you can be. So feel free to stop hiding your talents, and start enjoying them. And then you will truly be working to the greater glory of God.