I’m guessing most of you know the Parable of the Talents and, if need be, could do a good job preaching the sermon this morning, hitting on all the important points:
A wealthy landowner prepared to go on an extended leave. Before he left, he entrusted various amounts of money to his servants. He gave five talents to one, two talents to another, and one talent to another – each according to his ability. When he got back, he called the servants to give an account of what they’d done with the money. The first two put it to work. As a result, they doubled the original investment. They had twice as much as before. The third buried his one talent in the ground, so that he had exactly the same as he had been given – no more, no less. The landowner was furious: “At least you could have put it in the bank where it would have drawn interest,” he said. In a fit of anger, he took back the talent and gave it to the servant who now had ten talents. As for the one-talent man, the landowner told his henchmen to cast him into outer darkness, where men weep and gnash their teeth.
That’s the story, and the lesson that follows usually goes something like this: Use what you have, however much or little, to the best of your ability to the glory of God. And know this: One of these days you’ll be called to account for how you used the time, talent and treasure God has given you. So, don’t hold back and don’t be afraid. Dare to venture out and go for broke. It’d be better to lose it all than sit on what you’ve got and forfeit your place in God’s great kingdom. In the words of an old gospel hymn,
“Give of your best to the Master,
Give of the strength of your youth;
Throw your soul’s fresh glowing ardor
Into the battle for truth.”
That’s the message of the Parable of the Talents. But before we say, Amen, and put it back on the shelf, I’d like to take a closer look at this one-talent man. My hunch is he looks a lot like you and me. My hope is, by getting to know him better, we can learn from his mistake.
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First, let’s be clear: He didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, knowing what we know about Jewish law in Jesus’ day, he did the most prudent thing he could do – he buried it in the ground. In Jesus’ day, if someone gave you money to hold in trust, that was your safest bet. Then, if it were stolen, you wouldn’t be held accountable; you wouldn’t be liable.
So, when the landowner gave him the one talent, he did what any trustworthy and responsible servant might be expected to do: He buried it for safe keeping. As my friend, Mark Fisher, told me, “He did what was culturally acceptable.”
Let’s also be clear: We’re not talking about loose change here. At $6.50 an hour by today’s standards, one talent equals about $300,000. For a lowly servant who probably didn’t have a penny to his name, that’s a lot of money. And, while they did have banks back then, they didn’t have the FDIC to insure the money if the bank failed.
So, if he didn’t do anything wrong; if he acted responsibly in keeping with the custom of his day, what’s the problem?
The problem is wasted potential: For the once-and-only time in his life, the one-talent man had the opportunity to do something to make a difference, and he blew it. Instead of taking a chance, he played it safe. Instead of standing out above the others, he stayed under the radar, so as not to draw attention to himself.
That’s the crux of the landowner’s condemnation – not that he did something wrong, but that he didn’t do anything at all.
A friend gave me a book the other day entitled, Maximizing Your Potential, by Myles Munroe. His thesis is that, as children of God, we’re not placed here by accident, but by God’s design, and it’s up to us to be all that God intends us to be. Here’s the opening paragraph of the preface:
“The greatest threat to being all you could be is satisfaction with who you are. What you could do is always endangered by what you have done. There are millions of individuals who have buried their talents, gifts, and abilities in the cemetery of their last accomplishment. They have settled for less than their best. I believe that the enemy of best is good, and the strength of good is the norm. The power of the norm is the curse of society. It seems like the world is designed to make ‘the norm’ comfortable and ‘the average’ respectable. What a tragedy!” (p. 13)
He goes on to say that those who have fallen into this trap of mediocrity “have chosen to accept the fate of the millions who have resigned themselves to a normal life, with normal activities, in the company of normal people, striving for normal goals, at a normal pace, with normal motivation, with a normal education, taught by normal teachers, who give normal grades, and live in normal homes, with normal families, leaving a normal heritage, for their normal children, who bury them in a normal grave.” (16)
Munroe would have us refuse to be normal. “Go beyond average!” he says. “Live with all your might; give it all you have. Do it until there is nothing left to do because you have become all you were created to be.” (16)
Now, I don’t think any of you would have a problem with that. It’s an ideal we can all affirm – to borrow the Army’s slogan: Be the best you can be.
So, why don’t we do it? That’s the question. Why don’t we do everything within our power to reach our God-given potential? Why do we accept the status-quo and settle for less?
I can answer that in one word: Fear. Like the one-talent man in the parable, we bury our treasure because we’re afraid. In his case, he was afraid of incurring the wrath of the landowner. Here’s what he said,
“Lord, I knew you that you are a hard man,
reaping where you did not sow,
and gathering where you did not scatter.
I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the earth.”
The servant was afraid of his master, and his fear led to paralysis. What are you afraid of?
As a child, I was afraid of the dark. In some ways, I still am. I also have a fear of suffocating, of drowning, of not being able to catch my breath. I think that has to do with the fact that I almost died of asthma when I was a baby.
Fear is a debilitating emotion, and it affects people of every age and stage and walk of life. I found a web site listing over a hundred phobias – things people are afraid of. For example, there’s ablutophobia, the fear of washing or bathing; acarophobia, the fear of itching or of the insects that cause itching; acerophobia, the fear of sourness; achluophobia, the fear of darkness; acousticophobia, the fear of noise; acrophobia, the fear of heights … and the list goes on.
A primal fear many little children have is the fear of engulfment – of being swallowed up whole by some unseen force. Related to that, Mr. Rogers wrote a song and devoted a whole segment of one of his episodes on the fear some children have of being sucked down the bathtub drain. I’m not making this up. I don’t remember the tune, but the words go like this:
“You can never go down,
Can never go down,
Can never go down the drain.”
He sang it while sitting on the side of a bathtub and showed the children how it would be physically impossible for a person’s body – even a little child’s body – to go down the drain.
What are you afraid of? What keeps you from taking a chance? Are you afraid that, if you venture out of your comfort zone, you’ll fall flat on your face? A lot of people are afraid of failure.
Others are afraid of success. Seriously. Success puts you in the spotlight and brings with it new demands and disciplines on your life. A successful man or woman has less discretionary time, less freedom, greater responsibilities and more stress. The homeless men I worked with at Faith Mission didn’t want to succeed because they didn’t want to give up the freedom to come and go as they pleased. They didn’t want to be accountable to anyone.
I’ve known whole churches that were afraid to succeed because they knew that if they grew to their potential they’d lose their close-knit little fellowship. So, invariably, they’d subvert new programs and initiatives that might lead to church growth.
A common fear, of course, has to do with our health. We fear getting sick or being diagnosed with a crippling, even terminal, disease. At the same time, I’ve known people who were afraid of being well. They’d nurse their illnesses and hang on to their handicapping conditions to such an extent that it became their way of life.
Remember the question Jesus asked the paralytic lying beside the pool of Bethesda? (John 5:1-9) He said, “Do you want to be made well?” It was a legitimate question. The paralytic had been brought to the pool every day for thirty-eight years to lie among the other cripples. What would he do, where would he go, what kind of support group would he have if, all of a sudden, he were to be made well?
Let’s cut to the chase. There are lots of things – both real and imagined – to be afraid of. The question is what are you afraid of? Naming your fears is the first step to overcoming them.
And the second step is turning them over to God. When you do, the question shifts in emphasis, so that it’s no longer a matter of asking, “What are you afraid of?” but rather, “What are you afraid of?”
The point is, with God on our side, we have nothing to fear. We’re free to live without worrying about failing, falling or fumbling the ball because we have the assurance of God’s sustaining grace and love.
• Jesus told the parents of a deathly ill child, “Don’t be afraid, only believe.” (Mark 5:36)
• He told his disciples out on the stormy sea, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (John 6:20)
• In the Old Testament, Moses told the children of Israel, “Yahweh, he it is who does go before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you, neither forsake you: don’t be afraid, neither be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)
The last time I preached on the Parable of the Talents, I introduced a fourth servant. I called him the three-and-a-half talent man. Where the others got five talents, two talents and one talent, he got three and a half. And where the first two invested their money wisely and the third buried his in the ground, the three-and-a-half talent man made some bad investments and lost it all.
Everyone figured when the mean old landowner got back, he’d be a goner. Much to their surprise, the landowner wasn’t upset at all. He was sympathetic, understanding and kind. He took the three-and-a-half talent man into his confidence and said,
“Once I had a son. He was everything to me. He was so gifted and kind, I thought if everyone could see how he lived, they’d take after his example and, in no time, the world would be filled with his peace and love. But instead of listening to him and doing as he did, they rejected him and put him to death. It broke my heart. But then, people began to remember things he’d said and how what’s important is for us to love one another. Some said his spirit was more alive now than before. They did nice things for each other in his honor. They spoke of him as their constant companion and friend.”
“You know,” he said, “I’m still hopeful that, if enough people get to know my son and share his love with others, my dream will come true, and everyone will live together in peace. In the meantime, remember this: The more you venture, the greater your return; the more you lose yourself in serving others, the greater your reward.” With that, the landowner invited the three-and-a-half talent man into his home where he became to him as a son.
Listen: God has given you some extraordinary gifts and abilities. God has blessed you with an abundance of assets and resources. God has given you the freedom to use them any way you see fit to the glory of his name. And, if that weren’t enough, God has promised to be with you and watch over you – win, lose or draw.
Know this: The happiest people in the world today are those who are on the front lines using their talents to the max. And the judgment is the unhappiest people are those who aren’t. Instead of accomplishing something worthwhile, they mope around weeping and gnashing their teeth.
What are you going to do with what you’ve got? Are you willing to risk it all for the sake of Christ and his kingdom? Why not? What are you afraid of?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.