(Our church has two Sunday morning worship services - 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. While the worship formats are different, the sermon is generally the same in both services. On May 5th there were two different sermons, because I did not finish the message in the 11:00 service the previous week. This is the sermon from the 9:00 service)
Later this month Tanya and I will celebrate our 29th anniversary, and it has taken me most of that time to learn some things. One lesson is to listen. Hearing and listening are two very different things. For years, I gave Tanya flowers on certain occasions. The reaction was always the same – she would say I don’t want flowers; stop giving me flowers. You know what I did? I kept giving her flowers anyway. She would keep telling me, I don’t want flowers; stop giving me flowers, and I would think what is her problem? I was hearing her, but I wasn’t listening. What I finally understood is this – continuing to give her flowers communicated to her that I didn’t really know her, and that’s not what you want to communicate after that many years of marriage.
This morning, we are taking a break from our current series, because I did not complete it in the 11:00 service and I need to keep the two services on track. We’ll study a well-known, but often misunderstood parable – the parable of the talents.
The parable begins with a man who is making preparations to leave town. He is, Luke says, a man of noble birth preparing to go to a distant country to be appointed king. Before he leaves he calls in ten of his servants and gives them each an equal sum of money - one mina, Luke says, which was the equivalent of about three months pay. The only instructions he gives to those ten servants is put this money to work…until I come back (verse 13). We are given the results of three of those servants – the first has a 100% return on the money, the second has a 50% return on the money, and the third reports that he hid the money he had been given.
The king was pleased with the report from the first two servants; he was not pleased with the report of the third servant, who earned nothing with the money entrusted to him. It’s fascinating to read the third servant’s explanation of why he did nothing with the money he was given. He tells his master, the king, I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow (verse 21). That’s a pretty gutsy statement to make to the person who can have your head removed from your shoulders. Imagine walking into your boss’s office and saying, I know you are a hard taskmaster. I know your ideas are not yours but are taken from other people. I know you take other people’s business deals as your own. Anybody want to say that to their boss?
Now, I want you to forget for a moment everything you have heard about using your talents to the best of your ability as the lesson from this parable. Lay that aside for now because how we use our talents is not the main point of this parable. How we use our talents is an important matter, but it is not the main point in this passage.
The main point of this parable is often missed, which is unfortunate, because this parable cuts to the absolute heart of our understanding of God. The main point of the parable is this - the servant claimed to know his master but he really didn’t, because the servant’s actions did not reflect that he really understood his master. His master even points this out. The response of the master to the inaction of the servant is to say - you knew I am a hard man. You knew this about me and yet you took no action based upon your knowledge of me. If you really knew me, you would have based your actions on that knowledge. Because you did not act in a way I expected you to act, you really don’t know me.
Here is what this parable teaches us – if we say we know God, we must act upon what we know about him. We cannot claim to know God and not act upon the knowledge of who he is. This is a lesson Jesus attempts to drive into the hearts and minds of his followers time and time again. It is a lesson they sometimes grasp and at other times completely fail to understand. It is a lesson the opponents of Jesus could not understand or would not understand. It is a lesson many people and even many churches either do not understand or refuse to understand. This is the lesson - if we know God it will be proven by how we live.
And Jesus makes sure we understand what it is specifically that we need to know about the nature of God. Notice the context of this parable; this parable comes immediately after Jesus’ meeting with Zaccheus. What happened when Jesus went to the home of Zaccheus? People grumbled and complained. People grumbled and complained because Jesus dared to associate with a sinner. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner’” – verse 7.
Luke makes a point to say that all the people saw this and began to mutter. All the people. Nobody was happy about what Jesus had done. Can’t you just see and hear these people, all puffed up and complaining about what Jesus had done? Their self-righteousness comes out because they, of course, know who Jesus should be associating with. People love to complain and criticize, don’t they? Why is criticism so often the default position for so many people? And in the church that is often directed at people not deemed worthy or righteous.
Notice how Jesus responds to those critics Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (verse 9). The story of Zaccheus and this parable are tied together to make plain this lesson – God seeks to reach all people, no matter what anybody thinks about some of those people, and if we say we know God we must be willing to reach out to all people as well.
Jesus is saying, you see this guy, Zaccheus? This guy you are trying to squeeze out so he can’t even see me? This guy who has cheated some of you? This guy who has aligned himself with the Romans, the oppressors of our country? This guy who you don’t think deserves God’s love? Guess what – this guy is a son of Abraham just as much as any of you. That is the radical, amazing, inclusive love of God as shown in Jesus.
I believe the same lesson needs to be heard today. It needs to be heard that despite what some churches say about who is in and who is out of God’s favor, God loves them and asks that his people love them as well. The lesson that needs to be spoken is that despite the rejection some demonstrate to others because of their political affiliation or political beliefs, their economic status, their social standing, their politics, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender, their religious beliefs or any of the other means by which society divides itself – everyone is a child of God and loved by God. And if that is the nature of God, that must also be the nature of God’s people and God’s church. And that means, I believe, that any church desiring to draw lines and saying this group is acceptable to God and this group is unacceptable to God either fails to understand the nature of God or refuse to act in accordance with the nature of God.
This parable is about far more than using talents; it is about whether or not we really know the nature of God. If we know God, Jesus is saying, we will be like him in loving people.
It’s not always easy to live that truth when so many people are muttering that we too have gone to the house of a ‘sinner.’ There are some people and some churches who may mutter about us because we are not willing to condemn other people. There are some people and some churches who may mutter that we are to open and too welcoming. I say, let them mutter.
Victor Hugo wrote one of history’s great novels, Les Miserables. Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean and his transformation from a hard, uncaring, and unfeeling man into a kind, noble, generous, sacrificial, and selfless man late in his life. As a young man he stole bread to help feed his sister’s family and was subsequently sentenced to five years of imprisonment for the crime. He considered the punishment extreme for the crime he committed, so he continually attempted to escape, causing his sentence to be lengthened to 19 years. By the time he was released he was a hard, cold, and hateful man.
Change came to his life on a cold night when he sought refuge from the cold in a church. He repaid the kindness of the priest by stealing some the silver plates from the church. He was arrested and taken back to the church and presented to the priest. The priest, though, did not turn against him, but said the silver had been given to Jean as a gift, and said he also had given him silver candlesticks, but Jean had evidently forgotten them. The priest sent Jean on his way with these word – My friend, before you go away, here are your candlesticks; take them. Now go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you need not come through the garden. You can always come in and go out by the front door. It is closed only with a latch, day or night. Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use the silver to become an honest man. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying from you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!
That has strong echoes of how Jesus reached out to Zaccheus, and how he reached out to the woman taken in adultery, and to the woman at the well, and the father reaching out to the prodigal son. And all those are reminders of the nature of God, which challenges us to reach across every human boundary to embrace all people in his name and with his love.