’Ave a go, ya mug!
A sermon on Matthew 25:14-30 by Nathan Nettleton, 17 November 2002
© LaughingBird.net

The Coming Christ will reward and celebrate with those he finds having a go and making the most of all they have been given, not those who fearfully play it safe.


Back when Athol Gill was in his prime as Professor of New Testament Studies at Whitley College, and frequently attracting controversy, it was once alleged in the Baptist Witness that he had told a class that Matthew’s gospel was boring. It wasn’t what he had said, but it suited those who were out to get him at the time. What he did say, was that Matthew has one or two points which he keeps hammering away at, over and over, to such an extent that some people might accuse him of being boring. Indeed it is very much the case that if you were asked to give a brief summary of the main thrust of one of the gospels, Matthew’s would be by far the easiest of the four to do it for.

Having said that, I’d better have a go at it! It would be something like this:

The church on earth now consists of both genuine followers of Jesus, and pretenders, but it is not our job to try to sort them out. The sorting will be done by the Messiah, when he returns in glory, and what he will be assessing is the integrity with which we respond to God’s grace by putting into practice his teachings, summarised in the Sermon on the Mount, in a spirit of gratitude and faithfulness. He will not be much concerned about impressive religious pedigrees, doctrinal correctness, or moral carefulness.
There is a strong anti-Pharisee theme in Matthew, because Matthew uses them repeatedly as the classic example of those who talk the talk, but fail to walk the walk. Jesus repeatedly sides with them on doctrinal questions, but says that even the moral reprobates of society are going to find it easier to get into the kingdom than they are.

In the past year we’ve heard a lot from Matthew’s gospel, but we are now wrapping it up with three weeks on Matthew 25, undoubtedly the climax of Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ teaching. After this, the gospel moves on to the events immediately leading up to the crucifixion, and we heard those back in Holy Week. In this chapter, Jesus tells two parables and gives one description, all related to the expected return of the Messiah in glory, and the nature of the judgment at that time. Last week’s parable about ten young women who had the job of waving oil lamps when the bridegroom arrived at a wedding reception, again reiterated Matthew’s point that you can’t always pick the real disciples from the pretenders, but that the arrival of the Messiah will sort them out. Some will be found faithful and true, and some will shown to have been trying to fudge it on second-hand discipleship. Next week we get the actual description — the most vivid in the whole Bible — of the moment of judgment itself, with its detailed and terrifying realisation that the way we have treated others, especially the nobodies, will be deemed to have been the way we have treated Jesus himself.

In between those two, we get this week’s reading, often known as the parable of the talents. Let me give you a little warning about this parable before we begin unpacking it. Of all Jesus’s parables, this is one of the easiest to get confused about, because Matthew and Luke report Jesus telling two different versions of it, in entirely different contexts, and to make entirely different points. Matthew’s is fairly straightforward, especially when you have gotten used to Matthew’s pet topics. But if you’d just done a study of Luke’s version, and you were therefore expecting this one to be similar, you could get very confused. Not only is Luke’s version darker and more complex and ambiguous, but its point is so different that some scholars even think that Luke wants us to identify the man who doesn’t trade and multiply his money as the hero. So don’t take anything I say today and try to apply it to Luke’s version. It is better to think of them as two different parables.

So let’s focus now on Matthew’s version, the version we heard read for us. A wealthy entrepreneur heads off on indefinite leave and entrusts three employees with huge amounts of his investment funds to do with as they see fit. The text says he left one with five talents, one with two and one with one. In Jesus’ day a talent was simply a very large unit of money, about fifteen years wages for the average labourer. There was no sense in which the word implied gifts or abilities, like it does in English. In fact, apparently the word “talents” came into English meaning “gifts and abilities” because it was so often preached on as such in this parable. However, reading this as God giving us differing abilities may be misleading, because it actually says that the boss gave them the different amounts of money according to their abilities. Anyway, when the boss returns after a long absence, two of them have doubled their money and are commended and rewarded. The third has made no attempt to do anything but preserve the money, and is condemned and fired.

One of the common ways of missing the point of this story is to focus on the fact that the condemned man was given the least to start off with. I think that’s a mistake. In fact I often wish Jesus had foreseen that mistake and told it so that the men with the five talents and the one talent doubled their money and the one with the two did nothing. The point of the story has got nothing to do with how much each started with, other than to acknowledge that our different starts in life do not dictate what we can make of our lives. The first employee got two and a half times as much as the second, but both achieved similar percentage returns and were rewarded equally for their faithfulness and trustworthiness. The third bloke could have been the one who had been given the most, but he still would have been condemned for making nothing of it.

The focus of the story naturally falls on the reasons why the third man did nothing with his money. He explains himself saying, “I knew you were only too happy to reap the profits from other people’s work without contributing yourself, and I know how harsh you are on those who fail; so I was afraid. I kept your money locked away safely. Here, have it back.”

Now the first question we are called to consider when we hear his explanation, is “was his analysis of the boss a fair one?” Because if he was right, then his course of action might be considered quite reasonable. But I think that the story requires us to conclude that he was completely misjudging his boss. Is the boss reaping where he did not sow and skimming the profits off other people’s work without putting anything in himself? Not at all. The boss put all the money in himself. He had clearly sown. The profits he reaped were from his own money. Not only that; but he doesn’t even seem to be taking the profits. There is no report of him taking back the money from the other two. When he strips the third man of his one talent, he orders that it be given to the man who has the ten.

The trouble with this third guy is that he doesn’t recognise a gift when it is handed to him on a plate. And because he can’t recognise the gift, or the generosity of the gift-giver, he lives his life in fear that this is some sort of test. This is the person who sees God as the harsh examiner in the sky, watching us for mistakes and eager to find a reason to condemn us. And so, fearful of slipping up, such a person never risks engaging with the fullness of actually living. They are terribly worried that if they open themselves up to others and love and laugh and share, they might somehow expose themselves to some kind of temptation and make a mistake, and so they don’t take the risk. They live life by the miserly handful, so afraid of ever getting a black mark against their name that they never take the risks required to get a tick either. They arrive at the judgment and hand back a life unlived. And in so doing they blaspheme the giver of life. They accuse God of being harsh and ungenerous. They treat God’s gracious gifts as some kind of poisoned chalice and refuse to even take a sip.

God recognises that we are all different. Some of us got a dream start in life and others were born into a living hell. Some of us have known nothing but love, and others have been ripped off and trampled on every time they have opened themselves up to anyone. God knows that having been dealt differing hands in life, we will not all be capable of generating the same amount of love and compassion and self-sacrificing generosity. But the boss in Jesus’s story did not condemn the second worker for only generating a profit of two talents when his mate had generated five. They were equally rewarded from making the best they could from where they started out. The only one condemned was the one who refused to have a go, and who in so doing accused God of playing deceitful games.

And let’s for a moment get beyond just thinking about this in individual terms. We, gathered here, are the recipients of an extraordinary gift in one another. This congregation and the life and prayer it shares together is a gift for which many people would understandably hunger. So the question Matthew’s gospel would put to us, is what are you doing with that gift? Are you going to focus your energies on trying to preserve it intact, and making sure that at the end of your time there is still a church here, preserved in the same pristine condition you received it in? Or are you going to live it openly and generously, to give it away in love and mercy? Are you going to turn your prayers in here into a shared life of reckless acceptance, radical hospitality, and extravagant generosity outside these doors? That’s why our liturgy asks us every week to voice a commitment to living in the generous and joyous spirit of this celebration out there in our everyday lives. But Matthew is challenging us to make sure it is not just words. We’ve got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

There are real risks involved in taking that challenge. If we accept it we will make some mistakes, we will lose some treasured things along the way, we will get hurt from time to time, and perhaps even crucified. But as the first two employees discovered and proved, if we shake off the shackles of timidity and invest all we have fully in life, we will not only be commended as good and faithful servants, but we will find our life multiplying over and over, and ourselves welcomed warmly into the joyous celebratory life of our extravagantly generous God.