Be productive while we wait (Matt 25:14-30)

So far in this series of parables about Christ’s return, we’ve seen that it will be unexpected (like the flood, or like a thief in the night) – so we need to be ready. Yesterday, we saw that, despite the delay, we need to make adequate preparation – like the wise bridesmaids who brought extra oil for their lamps. But what does it look like to be prepared? That’s what today’s parable is about.

Matthew 25:14-15 Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.

This was common enough before telephones, air travel, and the internet. A wealthy businessman would travel to do business in another city, often for months (or more) at a time, since travel was only practical at certain times of year. So he’d need to leave his home estate and finances in the hands of others, since he couldn’t communicate except by the occasional letter, if someone happened to be going back in that direction. Household servants (slaves, but the educated kind who in large households could function as senior managers) could be given this task. The expectation was that they would carry on the business while the boss was away.

Sidenote: the word translated here “bags of gold” is talanton – which was a measure of weight. One talanton of gold would have been a sizeable sum, making the recipient an instant “millionaire” in today’s terms. The word is where we get the English term “talent” from; and the application of this parable is the source of its meaning. Although in the parable it simply means a measure of weight, the common way of applying it was to talk about the “talents” God has given us, in terms of abilities, and urge people to use them for his kingdom. Hence the word “talent” in that sense entered the English lexicon.

Each slave is given a different amount, “according to his ability.”

Matthew 25:16-18 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

The first two took some risk, but managed to double the money by good business dealings. The third one did the equivalent of hiding it under his mattress.

How will their productivity be assessed, when the boss returns?

Matthew 25:19-20 After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

100% return on investment. Gotta be happy with that, right? He is:

Matthew 25:21 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

This guy’s promotion-worthy! And, interestingly, so is the second guy. The boss seems just as happy with his work – he got less to begin with, but still put it to work and doubled it:

Matthew 25:22-23 The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

If this were a joke, it’s where the poor Irishman would turn up. The first two follow the same pattern, and the third one delivers the punch-line. We’re not going to be disappointed:

Matthew 25:24-25 Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

This guy does nothing with the money. Notice how the first two took ownership of the task: “see, I have gained five/two more” whereas the third servant still calls it “what belongs to you.” His fear of taking a risk (and incurring the boss’s wrath) stops him from doing anything. Or at least, he’s using that as an excuse for inaction. But the boss points out the inconsistency in his thinking:

Matthew 25:26-27 His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

In other words: if you were really afraid of my reaction, then you’d have at least found a term deposit that paid a bit of interest, rather than stuck it in the ground. You’re just lazy!

Matthew 25:28-30 So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

Those who’ve been proven faithful with what they’ve been given will be rewarded with more. But those who’ve done nothing will end up losing everything. In fact, the parable ends with the rather shocking command:

Matthew 25:30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This reminds us that it’s not just a story. There are eternal consequences for those who show by their lack of productivity that they’re not on board with God and his kingdom.

Jesus’ point is that as his followers we’ve been entrusted with much by our master: we’ve been given the good news of the kingdom. And opportunities to share it with and demonstrate it to others. To grow our master’s kingdom while we wait for him to return.

Jesus is saying that one way to ‘keep watch’ – to ‘act faithfully’, to ‘be prepared’ – is not to waste any opportunities to contribute to the growth of God’s kingdom. Once again, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about: those who don’t want to reach lost people with the message of their kingdom show by their actions that they haven’t truly become his followers. If being productive for the kingdom is evidence of our faith, the opposite – occupying a pew without contributing to the kingdom – can be an indication that faith is not genuine.

And it’s this idea of your actions being evidence of your faith that comes up in the final parable in this chapter. We’ll look at it tomorrow.

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