[This sermon, based on Matthew 25:14-30, was delivered on Nov. 15, 2020, at the Presbyterian Church in Brockport NY. I suggest that you read the passage in “The Message,” which handles it really well.]
My mother always hid cash around her home. In her later years, after my father had died, when I would visit her (I lived in another state), she would take me on a little tour, showing me where cash was hidden: some under her mattress, some in a dresser drawer, some in her china closet, some under the carpet in her closet. I would sometimes say, “Mom, put this cash in the bank where it can earn you some interest and be safer.” She would say, “I have money in the bank, but I want this money here just in case the bank fails, or if there is an emergency.” She was fourteen when the great depression hit in 1929 and banks by the hundreds failed. I couldn’t win this argument, so I followed her and made mental notes about where she hid her cash.
I don’t want to put my mother as the third servant in this parable, because she was a generous person and a wise investor. Her investment in me was enormous. This parable isn’t speaking to her financial practices. It is speaking to us about the ways we live, perhaps in surprising ways.
Up front I need to make clear that this parable is not about day trading stocks or gambling foolishly. This parable is not about capitalism or current American politics. It is about stewardship, but not in a narrow way. Since I preach in many churches, rarely in the same one two weeks in a row, I follow the lectionary, a calendar of scripture readings for every Sunday of the year. This parable is the gospel passage for today, not picked by me or you. Because this is the third Sunday of November, one might think that there were a pastor and a member of a church finance team on the lectionary committee. They thought, we need a good stewardship passage for this mid-November Sunday, one that will call people to make big pledges to the church budget for the new year. You are having your annual pledge Sunday in three weeks, so listen carefully. But my sermon today is not about making pledges for a church budget. It is about something far more comprehensive, a way of living.
It is Holy Week in Matthew 25. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. Passover is at hand and for Jesus so is suffering and death. There is excitement and anticipation in the air. Chapters 21 through 25 of Matthew are filled with parables. They include some of the most difficult parables. This one seems not that difficult to understand, but difficult to do.
A wealthy man leaves on a journey. He calls three of his servants and entrusts to them large sums of money. The first two use what is entrusted to them. They invest it. They work with it. When the master returns, he asks how they have done with their trusts. Each has a good report. Each took some risks and enlarged their trusts. He gives the same response to each one:
“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.”
But not the third one. He does the opposite of the first two. He hides the trust. He digs a hole in the ground and buries the trust. Jesus puts the spotlight on the third one, who offers an excuse: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” His excuse reveals so much. His understanding of his master is distorted and his response is fearful timidity. He confesses that he sees his master as harsh and unfair. That leads to his damning three-word confession: “I was afraid. . . .” He is blaming the master more than himself.
Those three words jump out at me: “I was afraid. . . .” Afraid of what? Fear has two sides to it, a healthy side and an unhealthy side. Fear can mean holy awe and reverent respect. That is healthy. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says Proverbs 9:10. God is worthy of this kind of fear, this holy awe. Fire is also worthy of our awe and respect. COVID-19 is worthy of our awe and that should shape our behavior: to wear masks, keep proper distances, wash our hands repeatedly, and avoid large indoor gatherings—these are acts of loving our neighbors. Healthy fear is a really good thing. But the unhealthy side of fear is that is can cripple and paralyze us. We can let fear dominate our lives in negative ways.
It is a sign of spiritual maturity to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy fear. The first two servants took healthy risks with their trusts. Their risks could have failed, but I don’t think the master would have judged them. I think the master would have commended them for trying. The master is pleased that they have sought to invest their trusts rather than hide and hoard them.
The third servant cowered in unhealthy fear and took no risk at all. Think of medical workers, especially nurses and doctors, during this pandemic. They know the risks of COVID-19 better than any others. And yet, they go to their hospitals and clinics five, six, sometimes seven days a week because they are entrusted with healing ministries. Some of them have spouses and children at home and self-quarantine to protect their families. They know the healthy fear of this virus and they take calculated risks to save lives.
Being a pastor of one church for 38 years, I am well acquainted with taking healthy risks. We faced numerous challenges and didn’t flinch. We prayed and sought to discern God’s will and choose to move forward in faith, even risky faith. One incident stays with me still. It was 1987. The congregation had been growing and needed more space to serve our children, youth, and start a day care ministry. We hired an architect to give us some options. He was a good listener and visionary thinker. We met with him one evening to see his plans. He showed us plan A and plan B. Both were good, but neither jumped out at our team as being exactly right. We told him what we really liked in each. So we asked him to produce another plan. Meanwhile, I had a dream one night that was vivid. I am a sound sleeper and don’t often remember dreams very well. But this one I remembered. The two plans he had brought us had all right-angle walls, everything perpendicular. In my dream, I saw one wall at an angle. I told no one. Two weeks after the first showing of drawings, we met with him again. He explained that he took the best of plans A and B and added some new touches. Then he unveiled the new plan, plan AB. I didn’t say anything, but watched the team as they looked at it. It had one dramatic wall at an angle with beautiful windows looking at our historic cemetery and a stand of mature trees. The team unanimously showed excitement about the new plan. A year later it was completed. Eight years later it was paid off. To this day it is serving a congregation. Was there risk involved? Yes. We made a move of risky faith and God honored it.
To fear God, that is to live in holy awe of the Lord, means we need not live in fear of anyone else. People of faith in the living Lord don’t live in unhealthy fear. They are willing to make investments that they believe honor God. What risks are ahead for you? I can’t answer. But I know that faithful living means that what God entrusts to us is not to be hoarded. Not to be buried. Not to be hidden. There was a study of 50 people 90 years old and older. They were asked, “If you had your life to live over, what would you do differently?” Two answers dominated:
- “I would reflect more.”
- “I would risk more.”
This parable calls us to reflect more and to risk more. What are we doing with what God has entrusted to us? If we get this parable right, we won’t have to worry about pledge cards and meeting budgets. If we get this parable right, we will live in faith that invests in God’s purposes, that invests in the advancement of the kingdom of God, that invests in people. If we get this parable right, we will hear those words from Jesus, our master: “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.”