September 14, 2003
Managing God’s Estate: All of Life
Matthew 25:14-30

Did your mom or dad ever say to you when you were still quite young, “When I am away, you are the man or woman of the house?” You raised your head high, pulled up your britches, and entered an entirely new world of responsibility. Did that ever happen to you?

In Peter Spier’s wonderful little book entitled Oh, Were They Ever Happy, Mr. and Mrs. Noonan got in their car and went away to complete a day’s worth of errands. And they left the house to their children. “Behave yourselves,” they told the kids. “Feed the cat and the dog, make your beds, and you’ll find your lunch in the refrigerator. We’ll be back late this afternoon.”

Soon after their mom and dad left, the kids recalled hearing their mother ask their father to paint the house. So they went to the garage and found several shelves full of old paint cans—red paint, blue paint, yellow paint, green paint, orange paint, and every other color that you can imagine. They grabbed the extension ladder and whatever brushes and rollers they could find, and quickly began transforming the entire house. They painted the foundation dark purple; the siding red, green, and blue; the posts on the front porch and the shutters pea green; the chimney and the windows orange; the garage door yellow, green and red; the light post in the front yard red and purple; the picket fence light purple, and covered the front door with red hand prints. The sidewalk and the driveway were of course decorated with multi-colored footprints, and the children neatly stacked all of the empty paint cans in the front corner of the lawn. Would you like me to describe the bathroom after the kids washed up?!? Regrettably, Peter Spier spares us the expression on the parents’ faces when they came home later that day.

Here in Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells a familiar parable in which an unnamed man, apparently rather well-to-do, sets off on a lengthy journey. Being the businessman that he is, he hopes that his investments will flourish in his absence. As a result, he summons three of his equally unnamed servants and entrusts them with the welfare of his estate. To one servant he gives five talents, to another two, and to still another one. With that, he leaves.

While their master is away on his trip, the three servants deal with the talents that he had left them. The first quickly invests his five talents and doubles their value, and the second servant does the same. The third, however, fearfully protects the one talent that he had been given by burying it in the ground. Needless to say, his business activities result in no profit whatsoever.

Before too long, the wealthy businessman returns from his journey, and he understandably wants an updated report of his financial holdings. The first two servants eagerly share the good news of their investments, and the man is delighted. The third servant nervously follows and admits his cautious and unprofitable activities, and the man grows irate. “Why didn’t you at least place the talent in the West Shore Credit Union where it could have drawn minimal interest?” he asks.

With that, the wealthy businessman takes back the single talent from the third servant and gave it to the first—the one who had turned the five talents into ten. Those who use their talents wisely, so the parable concludes, are entrusted with still more. Those who hide and conceal their talents will lose whatever they have.

We might wonder, for just a moment, how those people gathered around Jesus that day long ago would have understood this parable. Would they, as some scholars have suggested, likened the third servant—the one who buried his only talent—to the Jewish people of the day who had not made the most of all that had been entrusted to them? Would the crowd have instead thought of the Pharisees or scribes, religious leaders who meticulously guarded their rituals and laws at the expense of those outside their circles? It is easy, of course, to imagine any number of possible 1st century candidates for the third servant.

Importantly, however, Matthew places this parable of the talents within a cluster of four other parables, all of which deal with the anticipated return of the Lord. These parables, as Joachim Jeremias suggests, are “exhortations to be watchful.” As Matthew retells the story, Jesus himself serves as the wealthy master, and he has gone away for a period of time. Furthermore, at some point in the future, he will without a doubt return again. In the meantime, he has said to all of his followers, “Watch the house.” “Manage my estate.”

Several ideas, of course, stand out in the parable as we—included among his followers—reflect on it today. I am struck, first of all, by the actions of the wealthy businessman. We assume, once again, that he is considerably wealthy—the entire parable invites us to imagine a man of position and power. At the same time, we rightly assume that the three servants have virtually nothing to call their own. They are, after all, slaves, and their livelihood seemingly rests in the hands of their master. Entrusting them with such large portions of his estate, then, constitutes a remarkable extension of generosity on this businessman’s part. It is his estate, after all, not theirs. These are his talents, not theirs. The valuables that the servants are asked to manage actually belong to the man anyway—everything they possess has been given to them.

In the same way, the Bible challenges all of us would-be disciples to realize that everything we have has been given to us by God. Everything. Our bodies. Our minds. Our possessions. Our money. Our time. Our skills. Everything we have we have by the sheer and overwhelming goodness and grace of God. It is all on loan to us, even the job that you might be tempted to think made possible so much of what you have. When God asks you and me to manage his estate and to use our resources for building his kingdom in the world, he is in fact asking us to use what already belongs to him.

We notice, further, that the three servants are given varying amounts of their master’s estate—one receives ten talents, another receives two, and still another receives one. Not everyone receives the same amount. Talents are not distributed evenly across the board. What is important, however, is that all three of the servants receive something, and that “something” is extremely valuable in each case. One talent, after all, was equivalent to approximately 16 years of wages for the common laborer. Even the third servant, then, who might easily have fussed that his portion was worth considerably less than those given to the others, had received a sizeable amount of money.

It is sometimes easy for us, as you all know, to compare and contrast the talents that we have received. We might think that someone else’s talents are worth far more than our own, or that our talents are so insignificant that it really doesn’t matter what we do with them. We perhaps think about our gifts in the same way that we think about a penny lying in the street—there is no need to pick that up and invest it! Others of us might readily acknowledge that we are the “five talent servant,” and we might be tempted to use our noteworthy talents for self-serving purposes or to look down on those who have less. This parable seeks to put an end to such thinking. All of us have been given talents and resources, and all of them are of infinite value. The issue here is not so much what we have been given, but what we do with what we have.

We must be moved, thirdly, by the degree of responsibility that the businessman delegates to his servants. He entrusts the talents into their care and goes on his way. There is no obvious monitoring system put in place, no surveillance cameras to ensure that the servants act responsibly. The businessman does not appear to be a micromanager, nor does he express grave reservations about leaving his estate in their care. He hands over the talents and goes on his way, leaving the servants with considerable responsibility and the awareness that he will return sometime soon.

Now, the servants have significant choices to make. What should they do with the talents? We are often inclined to wonder why God seems slow to act at times. “How can God allow so much poverty?” we ask. The question here is, “How can we?” What will the servants do with their talents? Should they be adventurous and invest them? If so, how? Would it be wiser to play it safe instead and simply guard them? And rest assured that a third possibility must have entered their minds, even if for just a moment. What might they gain by keeping the talents for themselves? They might be able to purchase a small estate of their own.

And finally, note the response of the wealthy man once he returns home. He is, as the parable clearly emphasizes, totally distraught over the failure of the third servant to act responsibly and imaginatively with his single talent. One senses intense disgust on the master’s part, disgust at wasted potential and a life driven entirely by caution and fear. This third servant thought solely of himself and his own security, and in the process accomplished absolutely nothing. The master is deeply disappointed, and he is angry.

But disappointment and anger do not characterize the master’s response to the other servants. On the contrary, he makes no attempt whatsoever to hide his overwhelming delight at their faithful service. He had entrusted sizeable portions of his holdings into their care—he had asked them to manage his estate—and they had done well. They invested their talents wisely and watched them grow and grow and grow. “Wow,” we can almost hear the man shouting upon his return. “You’ve done all that I asked and then some.”

Just last week Deb and I traveled to New Jersey to share at the funeral of a former student of ours. Ellen Brickman was among our very favorite all-time students, and she had been an R.A. when Deb was the resident director in Bittner dormitory. Since her graduation, Ellen and her husband served as missionaries in downtown Easton, helping a wide variety of churches develop Sunday School, club, and camping programs. Ellen showed no interest whatsoever in money or any other worldly things, choosing instead to totally give her life away. Once when she went with me to Israel during January term, I couldn’t find her just a few hours after we checked in at the institute where we were staying. I should have known. Ellen was in the dining room helping the Palestinian workers set the table for breakfast the next morning!

Ellen and Don have six young children, including a three week-old son who was just taken by emergency c-section when Ellen’s cancer returned with a vengeance recently. What a painful situation. Yet, as Deb and I stood in the long line prior to the funeral, we overhead a little girl ahead of us comment that Ellen had told her about Jesus. And when we entered the sanctuary, we found a gathering of 700-1000 people, perhaps half of who were children. Ellen had lived her short life well. She had managed that portion of God’s estate with which she had been entrusted. How much more celebratory this occasion turned out to be than a funeral of an old person who, though living out his years, had little to show for it.

Did your mother or father ever say to you when you were young, “You are the man or woman of the house when I am gone?” How did you feel? What did you do? Did you leave the house in shambles like the Noonan kids, who I realize meant well? Here in this parable of the talents, all of us who want to follow Jesus come face to face with this remarkable request from our Lord himself: “While I am gone, I want you to manage my estate.”