“Good and Faithful Servant”

The parable of the talents is the Gospel Reading (Matthew 25:14-30) for this week and my sermon is based on that story.  Verse 29 of that reading: For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

“Whoever wants to save his life, will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” – of all the things that Jesus said, this would have to be one of the most difficult words to understand.  A closer, and better translation for life is actually ‘soul’ – Whoever wants to save his soul will lose it!  What does it mean to “lose your soul” – or “save your soul”?  It is as if he wants to help us understand what he has said in Chapter 16 with these words – “if you want to save your soul, you will lose it” – that he tells us this parable in the chapter 25 – the story of a man who wants to save a gift entrusted to him, and in the end he loses it.

That word ‘talent’ is an interesting one!  This is a good example of how over time the meaning of a word can change.  You see, originally, a ‘talent’ (used in Matthew) or mina (used in Luke) were the weight measurement for money.  That is what listeners would have heard, when Jesus used these terms in his parable.  But through many generations of preaching and teaching and the practical interpretation of the story, the focus changed on how well Christians used the gifts God has given them.  It came to mean that your talents now are your gifting and abilities – and how you use them.  That is how the word is now used in popular culture: ‘Australia’s got talent’ or ‘Britain’s got talent.’

But it is more than that even, especially, if you read this story in the light of the words of Jesus I just mentioned – “If you want to save your soul, you will lose it.”  This parable is about your life – your whole life, your soul.  It starts firstly by reminding us: There is a Lord, a master, a king who entrusts you with something.  In other words – we’ve been given so much.  The reminder that is that in your life, there is nothing that you are, or possess, that you have not received from God.  Everything you are and have is a pure gift – your life, your soul, all you own.  You yourself are “a Gift” – yes, you are God’s gift to the world.  The key question of this story is simply “will you share yourself” – knowing that that will ‘cost’ you?

I have mentioned a number of times that my father was a very keen gardener.  Last week I was visiting my mother in Clare and saw one of my dad’s old gardening knives – I wish I had brought it along today.  It is an ordinary kitchen knife that he had used for gardening, but there are two things you can’t help but notice.  Firstly, it’s razor sharp – my dad had numerous sharpening stones, and he kept the knife that way.  Secondly, it is worn down to nearly nothing – unrecognisable as a kitchen knife, after years and years of sharpening.  That is the price, the cost this knife has paid for decades of use and sharpening and re-sharpening every time it started to get blunt.

There is a cost in staying sharp.  There is a cost involved in “sharing yourself”, and that is why we don’t like this word – that it means giving, that it means extending yourself.  Isn’t that message brought home in the story of the third servant?  You can’t express reluctance to give and apply yourself any better than in the illustration of the man who buries a small fortune.

Sometimes we don’t want to ‘share ourselves’ – sometimes that is because of fear (as the servant in the story admits himself: “I was afraid to do something – I did not want to fail.”  Sometimes it is because of tiredness, lack of motivation or laziness – as this servant is being accused of by his master.  There is a cost involved in applying yourself, and with that comes a risk.   Every professional knows this – whether it is a banker investing your superannuation and warning you your fund might not go up, or a doctor getting you to sign a form before the operation.

It is like this in every part of our life.  Rewards only come with investment and risk.  Every project that you undertake requires you to invest yourself, to give up time, to get resources, to plan, and to spend hours of work and sometimes tears, sweat and blood.  Rewards come only with investment.  It can be the most menial task – washing the car, cleaning the back shed, writing a sermon – you name it.  All require time, skill, resources and effort to finish a job, and to finish it well, you have to apply yourself, give of yourself.  In every relationship you experience that love and trust is based not on what you receive or even demand.  It is based on giving yourself, making yourself vulnerable, revealing your heart, taking the risk of being hurt, and maybe even rejected.  It is a fact of life that reward requires some kind of giving or sacrifice.

“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”  As I said at the beginning, this is probably one of the hardest sentences that Jesus ever spoke to understand,  and you will only understand it, if you look at Jesus, and see what he did.

Like the servants in our story, Jesus is called a servant, too – to be a suffering servant.  Like the servants in our story were left with a task from their master to keep up his affairs and estate – Jesus was given a task from his Father when he was sent to this world.  Like the faithful servants, who invested what was entrusted to them, to make a gain for their master, Jesus made an investment for you and me – and that was himself.  He didn’t run, he didn’t hide – he didn’t bury his calling – he got killed and buried!

But here’s the twist.  Jesus simply went to the cross to die for someone else – for you.  Jesus paid a price – and you got the reward.  Jesus gave up his own life – and you gained life.  This act of love makes all the difference.  Because in this act of love you get a whole new picture of God.

You look at the cross and you see a God, in the Bible described as merciful and gracious, slow to anger and full of love and forgiveness – a God of second chances when we mess up in our use of our gifts.  You look at the cross, and you recognize generosity – a God who deeply cares about you and abundantly provides every day.

The difference that makes is that you don’t have to worry about whether you are going to run out.  You don’t have to live in the constant fear of losing what you have.  You can let go of your ‘this is mine’ attitude, ‘because I worked for it, I deserve, and I earned it.’  The cross and what Jesus did for you there is literally the greatest gift you have ever received.

Don’t bury it.  You have experienced love – don’t hold back.  Your faith is to be shared.  Your family is to be shared.  Your time, your possession are to be shared.  Jesus was buried for you, but Easter Sunday followed.  Easter means resurrection – the good news that Jesus is alive.

Jesus comes alive in your life as you become an ambassador of love, sharing the love that you have received with others.  An instrument of peace when you choose to not retaliate to evil but respond with kindness.  A giver of grace – letting go of grudges, learning patience with others, and practicing forgiveness.  All of that is really risky business. 

But that is what Jesus now calls you to join him in.  Losing yourself – dying to self in order to experience this resurrection.  Walking the extra mile – as Jesus did, when at times he was at the end of his strength.  Turning the other cheek – as Jesus did, and it got him killed.  He taught the truth and was betrayed.  He loved and was rejected.  He stood up for the underprivileged and was crucified by the authorities.  But it is exactly in this course of events that God says of his son, “This is my beloved son, in him I am well-pleased.”  This is my Son who dies for the sins of the world.  Because of this he is exalted, king of kings, Lord of lords – and raised to the right hand of God in heaven – that’s God’s approval.

As we follow him, we discover God’s same approval.  You have given yourself – everything I gave you – you have extended yourself – you have taken the risk of following me – looking away from yourself, trusting me – and using your talents for me and others. Already now we discover the joys.  The joy of helping someone else.  The sense of pride of seeing someone else learn or succeed because of you.  The satisfaction found in giving the best in our work.  But all this is really just a foretaste of what we will hear one day: “Well done, well done – good and faithful servant.”  Come now and have some rest.  Come and have some rest with me.  Amen.

The audio of this sermon is available on this web site.