A Sermon by The Rev’d Peter Jin
I really feel for the third servant. He is a good servant – realistic and conservative. He doesn’t squander his money like the prodigal son. Especially in the high risk market, you will lose your investment easily, not to mention receive any capital gains. Of course, he should have put the money in the bank to earn some interest.
I have not earned any interest from the Commonwealth Bank since I arrived in Adelaide. I didn’t set up a Savings account because the interest rate is too low. But if I take today’s parable literally, woe to me! I will be called wicked and lazy and you will not see me at the Ordination on the 28th of November because I will be trapped in utter darkness. If I am lucky enough though, I might be able to watch livestream Facebook of Paul, Des, and Jo being ordained by our Archbishop, while I am weeping and gnashing my teeth!
As many here today may have experienced, my retirement investment account in New Zealand was shrinking and evaporating daily during the beginning of the pandemic. Now of course it has bounced back. But, at the time, I wished I had dug a hole and buried my money. Then I could say proudly to my wife, “Darling, here it is. All of it, safe and sound.” I can imagine my dear wife saying to me, “Honey, you are a prudent, careful, cautious man with money. I love you. Archbishop Geoff might give you a job as his chief financial consultant.”
So what is going on here? What is wrong with playing safe rather than taking a risk?
I suggest we read this parable through the lens of a rich and spiritual imagination. Therefore, this morning, I am going to make two points.
First observation: God’s extravagant generosity, gracious trust and freedom.
The word ‘Talent’ originally refers to a particular unit of gold or silver. In Jesus’ day, a talent was an extremely large sum of money, approximately fifteen years of earnings by a day laborer. It is over 600, 000 dollars in Australia today. This is just one talent! The first servant was given 5 talents, which is over 3 million dollars, and the second servant was given 2 talents, which is over 1 million.
So, in this parable three servants have been generously entrusted with extraordinary wealth. Then the master goes away and doesn’t give any instructions, so that his servants can have space and freedom. Isn’t it amazing? Our God, like this generous master, offers all of us gifts and space, so that we can freely shape our fortunes, talents, lives, futures, so that we can take chances, live creatively, and flourish.
Our God is not like the third servant’s view of his master as a harsh man. Far from merely being harsh, the master acts generously, trusting the third servant with the wealth of more than fifteen years’ wages. Far from merely enabling the servants to reap what they did not sow, the master invites them into his joy, so transforming his relationship with them from master/slave to something more equal.
Second observation: Faithful living is not static, fearful, or distrusting of God. Rather, it is an invitation to take a risk and live life to the full.
It is fear and distrust of the master as a harsh man that paralyzes the third servant. Consequently, he neglects or rejects the master’s graciously given opportunity and buries 600,000 dollars in the ground.
Why does Jesus call the third servant wicked, lazy and worthless? Last month, when I preached on the parable of the wedding banquet, I mentioned that Flannery O’Connor, the great novelist, defended the many violent scenes in her novel, by saying ‘In the land of the deaf, you have to shout’. Jesus grabs our shoulder to wake us up by using exaggerated language. Let us read the conversation between the master and the third servant through this lens.
The master is furious to see his servant playing safe and burying the money. He says in effect to this servant: That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to play it safe, investing nothing, being cautious and prudent, digging a hole and burying the money in the ground! Life of risking nothing is something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness. (Paraphrasing from Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible) Life is meant to be one of rejoicing and living up to the full potential of your humanity.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus shakes our shoulder to wake us up. The point here is about a willingness to resist fear and to behave in responsibly risky and trusting ways so that we may enter into joy on Jesus’ return.
I cannot help wondering how it would have turned out if the first two servants had put the money in a high-risk venture and then lost it all. Jesus didn’t speak of this. However, I believe that they still will be praised for their efforts and courage. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. It is about living passionately. It is about taking risks.
If I had not left Shanghai to embrace an unknown future in NZ, I would not have found my true vocation. If I had not taken the risk 7 years ago in Wellington, of quitting my permanent full time teaching job, driven 5 hours to Tauranga, to work as a volunteer in an Anglican Church to test if my call was genuine, I would not have met Wei, my amazing wife. Now I have ended up in this thriving and vibrant community-soon to be ordained priest.
The master gives three servants different amounts (five talents, two, and one). Why? Because of his discretion, the master takes into account his servants’ capabilities. He does not impose an unreasonable burden on them. Nor does the master give specific directions, rather, he allows his servants the freedom to take initiative.
Joseph trusted God and took a risk and married a pregnant Mary. Abraham trusted God and took a risk to go to an unknown land God promised to show him. Only people who take a risk see it.
Hearing the word of God when it comes. Seeing the patterns of God when they emerge. It is a willingness to be challenged out of the ordinary way of seeing and relating. It is a willingness to have a mind and heart expanding enough, to take a risk according to the rhythms and the patterns of God’s own mind, God’s way of seeing.
Brothers and sisters, all the risks that we take in faith, all the signs that we ask for are all finally related to Christ. What does Jesus say? ‘I came so you can have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of’. (John 10:10 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible) Amen.