Portfolio Planning: a look at Matthew 25:14-30 in the season of Thanksgiving
Note: I preached this sermon on 11/19 at the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY. Parts specific to that church have been removed.
We heard more and more about this man, a financial planner and entrepreneur. People we knew raved about how much money he was making from their investments. He would buy run down properties, pay a crew to re-model them, and then rent or sell them for big profits. He knew our area and had a keen eye for real estate with income-making potential. We had two young daughters and both would be heading to college not many years off. Our combined income was modest. It sounded so good. We met with him and were impressed. Then we went to a good friend who was vice-president of a leading saving institution in our region. We asked if thought we should make such an investment. He agreed that it sounded good and sound, if a bit risky. He said that his savings bank could not give a return anywhere near what was promised it us. And he said, “Don’t invest more than you can afford to lose.”
That we did. We took some money that we had been setting aside to build a garage and added a little more to it. He showed us a photo of the property our investment would go into. A short while later he stopped receiving phone calls or visits. He declared bankruptcy—we lost every penny we had invested. But we heeded our banker friend’s advice and didn’t invest more than we could afford to lose. We didn’t build that garage until years later, after our daughters finished college. We took a risk, which we deemed reasonable. We lost our investment, but we survived and have even thrived since.
Investment is a key concept in responsible living. When we get a job, we may set up some sort of investment, like an IRA. If we have children, we may invest in their future by giving them piano or ice-skating lessons. We don’t know if they will become accomplished pianists or Olympic athletes—or ever make any money or even make a living from those disciplines—but we are investing in them. They are worth it.
This parable has long been known as the parable of the talents. However, we use the word talents in a very different way today, for instance skills such as playing an instrument or skating on a hockey team. Back then a talent was a balance used for weighing amounts of metals, like silver and gold. A talent in that time meant a great amount of money, perhaps several years’ wages. That word often translated talent is used in two places in the New Testament. The first is in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. You may remember that he was forgiven a great amount of money, 10,000 talents in the parable, which was millions of dollars, but then unwilling to forgive a co-worker a few dollars. The second instance is in today’s Gospel. Those are the only two occurrences. And I was assigned both! Yes, two months I preached from the parable of the forgiven-but-unforgiving servant and now I am preaching from the parable of the three servants entrusted with money. This has me wondering. Am I a very talent-challenged guy? Or is God about to entrust a great deal of money to me and see what I do with it? I am available, Lord!
Jesus’ parables are not elaborate allegories, but simple stores from everyday life that he uses to make single points, often sharp points, even uncomfortable points, and sometimes surprising points. What is the point of this parable? It seems to me that the point is this: when God has entrusted us with something, we are expected to do something with that trust. Not to bury it, but to invest it.
Jesus and the writers of the New Testament often warn against the dangers of having earthly riches. And for reason. In the world today, the richest 1% hold just over half of the world’s total wealth. In our country, the three wealthiest people have about as much wealth as the bottom 50%. Wealth is not evenly spread or shared, and those with much wealth, the Bible warns, can believe that they are better than others, smarter than others, and even more blessed by God than others—all of which are insidious traps. There is danger in trusting in our own wealth. I really like one of those three richest Americans: Warren Buffet. He has challenged the wealthiest to a giving pledge, that they will give more than 50% of their holdings—either while they are alive or upon their deaths—to concerns such as poverty alleviation, refugee aid, disaster relief, global health, education, women and girls’ empowerment, medical research, arts and culture, criminal justice reform, and environmental sustainability. I like that list. I believe that a number approaching 200 billionaires have already signed that pledge, including Bill and Melinda Gates, the wealthiest Americans. I like that pledge. We don’t have to be billionaires to respond to this challenge. Would that more congregations had a commitment to ministry parity, which means investing in ministry beyond ourselves as much as ministry among ourselves.
The challenge of this parable is to invest in God’s work, whether we have been entrusted with much or little. The third servant was entrusted with a smaller amount than the first two. The problem is not that smaller amount, but what he does with it. He buries the trust. He hides his gift. The other two made investments. The amount didn’t matter, but the act of investing, even if there was risk. Before the master could confront him, he came forward and said, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man; I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” His problem was a deficient view of his master. I assume that Jesus is likening God to the master in the story. The third servant’s problem is that he did not see his master as gracious and generous, but harsh and exacting. His attitude about his master shapes his behavior. What would we do with what is entrusted to us if we see God as generous? God has invested in us so graciously and generously. In Jesus, God has entrusted the greatest gift to us. Doesn’t that make us want to be more gracious and generous? God calls us to be co-investors in what God is doing on planet earth.
The statistics about the giving of American Christians are grim. The percentage of our income that we give is embarrassingly low. I wonder if the biggest hurdle in American Christianity is that we don’t see God as gracious and generous; hence we tend not to gracious and generous. Christians are only giving at 2.5 percent per capita. What would happen if believers were to increase their giving to a minimum of 10 percent? There would be an additional $165 billion for churches to use and distribute. Here are just a few things the Church could do with the kind of money:
- $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation, and deaths from preventable diseases in five years.
- $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years.
- $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues, specifically in places where 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day.
- $100 billion plus would still be left over for additional ministry expansion.
I believe God equips us for everything God calls us to be and to do. This is an exciting time, a time for investing in our Lord’s work in increasing ways. Who of us would want the Lord to find us burying what he has entrusted to us because we were fearful and saw God as harsh? Wouldn’t we rather hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master?” This investment mentality, this good understanding of financial stewardship, is all about entering into the joy of the Lord. Here and now.