Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sermon for November 13th: Matthew 25:14-30

Be Faithful Stewards

Today we’re going to talk about stewardship. I suspect that the main reason we’re nervous about this word is that we’ve heard it used so often in the context of fund-raising and we think it’s just a nice theological cover for a pitch for more money. It’s true that stewardship does include money but it includes much more than money, and our gospel reading for today spells it out in some detail.

As we move toward the Advent season we find that our readings in the lectionary are looking forward more and more toward God’s future kingdom and the return of Christ in glory. The issue that comes up over and over again is ‘How do we get ready for Christ’s return?’ This is the subject of the three parables in Matthew chapter 25. The first story tells us how important it is to be ready at a moment’s notice so that we don’t miss the enormous party God is getting ready to throw. This week’s gospel goes on to address the issue of what we should be doing while we’re waiting.

The story is a very simple one. A man, presumably a rich landowner, is going away on a journey, so he calls together his trusted slaves and commits his property into their care. The word ‘talent’, which is used in our translation, does not mean ‘natural abilities’ as it does to us today; rather, in those days a ‘talent’ was a sum of money, a very large sum in fact: it was approximately what a labourer might hope to earn in half a lifetime! The ‘talents’ are not distributed equally; one slave receives five, another two, and a third one, ‘each according to his ability’ (v.15). The obvious intention is that the slaves put the money to work so that when their master returns he will receive a profit.

And this is in fact what happens with the first two slaves; they each put the money to work, and by the time the master returns they have doubled it. But the third slave is a little more timid, perhaps overawed by the huge amount of money entrusted to him and terrified that he might lose it, so he buries it in a hole in the ground and then gives it back to the master when he returns. The master is pleased with the first two slaves because they’ve done well with what was entrusted to them, but he’s not pleased at all with the third slave.

There are three things I want to point out to you about what this parable teaches us.

Firstly, everything in life is entrusted to us by God. In medieval times the steward of a castle and of an estate was a very important official. It was his job to run the estate on behalf of the lord of the manor, and he was responsible to the lord for seeing that everything was in good order and turning a profit. If the lord of the manor went away - for instance, to take part in the king’s wars - the steward would be left in total charge of the estate and to all intents and purposes he was the lord of the manor to the tenants and employees. But of course there was one important distinction. None of it actually belonged to the steward. It had been entrusted to him by the lord of the manor, and it was the lord’s plans, not the steward’s, that were the deciding factor in how the estate was actually run.

The Bible teaches that human beings are God’s stewards here on earth. At the very beginning of the Biblical story, God put people on the earth to take care of it, protect it and use it according to God’s purposes. We were given permission to eat from any tree in the garden - in other words, we could use the good things of the earth with a clear conscience because God put them here for us to enjoy. But this was not blanket permission; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden to us. Whatever else that may mean, it certainly means that our freedom to do what we like was limited by God’s will and God’s plan. We are his stewards, and as his stewards we have the right to enjoy the good things of his creation, but we do not have the right to plunder and destroy it and we do not have the right to use God’s gifts in a way that God would not want. We do not own anything. It all belongs to God, and he has lent it to us - just like the master in the story lent the money to his servants. He has lent it to us to use according to his will, not ours.

The human tragedy, of course, is that we see ourselves as the owners, not the stewards. So often I act as if my life belongs to me, and it is for me to use it as I see fit, for my own happiness. I act as if my money and possessions are my own, to use as I like, without any reference to God’s preferences.

But the truth is that we are the stewards of God’s good gifts, not the owners. Everything in life belongs to God and is entrusted to us for doing God’s will in the world. What are some of the things he has entrusted to us - the things that correspond to the ‘talents’ in the parable? They would include our life, health and strength, our talents, abilities and interests, our time, our job and our leisure. Our children are entrusted to us by God. Our knowledge and influence are gifts we can use for him. Our money and possessions are a trust from him. Even the gospel message itself has been entrusted to us, not to hoard, but to pass on to others.

We aren’t to think that God only wants us to use these gifts for ‘churchy’ things. God is actually far less interested in church than we are! But God wants the poor to be fed, the weak protected, the suffering helped. God wants our families to be strong and our children to grow up knowing and loving him. God wants communities to be strong and full of individuals who care not just for themselves but for the good of everyone. God wants churches to be healthy so that they can be models of his kingdom and centres for mission. God wants the message of Jesus to spread to the ends of the earth and the ends of our communities as well. These are some of God’s purposes for the world. And we are to use the gifts he has entrusted to us to help those purposes come about.

It is God’s desire and joy to see us using all of the gifts he has entrusted to us to the full, for his glory and for the well being of others. In the 1980’s movie ‘Chariots of Fire’, the sprinter Eric Liddell is explaining to his sister how he balances his love for competitive running with his sense of call to be a missionary to China. He says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure”. Liddell understood that his athletic ability had been given to him by God, and that in using his gifts to the full, and not denying them, he was bringing joy to the God who created him.

So the first thing is that everything in life is entrusted to us by God. The second thing we learn from this parable can be summed up in some words of St. Paul: ‘It is required of stewards that they be found faithful’. And faithfulness for these three servants didn’t mean taking no risks and hiding the money in a hole in the ground. It meant using the money according to the purposes the master had in mind when he entrusted it to them.

In verse 29 Jesus says something that sounds very harsh. He says ‘For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’. This sounds like a harsh saying but it is in fact a universal law that we can see demonstrated around us all the time. If I take the little muscles God has given me and use them faithfully, eventually I will develop bigger and stronger muscles. But if I lie around and do nothing with them - ‘protecting them’ or ‘burying my money in the ground’, if you like - even the little muscles I have will atrophy and their strength will be lost to me. Likewise, if I’m trying to learn a foreign language and I take the few words I know and use them as best I can in trying to speak with people, I will very quickly learn more words and how to use them. But if I say “I don’t know enough to speak yet” and so ‘hide my talent in the ground’, I will never learn more and in fact will soon forget what little I do know.

God is not asking for star performance from us. He is asking for faithfulness. He is not interested in me envying the gifts he has given to others; he wants me to use the gifts he has given to me. He has given us the gifts and abilities we need to fulfil the mission he has called us to, and if we use them faithfully we will find ourselves growing and branching out into new areas and new gifts we didn’t think we had. The issue isn’t how many gifts we have, or which ones. The issue is whether or not we are faithful in using what God has entrusted to us for his glory.

It would be very easy, for instance, for us to say, “Because I haven’t got a degree in theology I’m never going to open my mouth about my Christian faith; after all, I don’t know enough to be able to make an intelligent comment about it”. The problem is that if only people with theological degrees are competent to comment on the Christian faith, God’s not going to have many witnesses, is he? And the truth is that all of us have something we can share with others about Jesus and who he is and what he is doing in our lives. If we don’t, then preachers are doing a bad job and you should fire us all for malpractice! But in fact none of you would be here today if your faith didn’t add some meaning and value to your life, and with a bit of faith and a bit of practice you can explain that to someone else. The Gospel hasn’t been entrusted to us to be hoarded in a hole in the ground, you see; it’s been entrusted to us to be passed on to others.

What causes us to be unfaithful in using the gifts God has entrusted to us? Sometimes it’s simple laziness. The master in the parable describes the third slave as ‘You wicked and lazy slave!’ (v.26). It’s far easier for me to sit at home and read a book than to actually go out and use the gifts God has entrusted to me to help build up God’s kingdom.

But another reason for unfaithfulness is fear - especially fear of failure. One reason I’ve never learned to skate is that I’m afraid of people laughing at me when I fall down over and over again. It’s much safer to watch on the sidelines, but I suspect that in the long run I have a lot less fun. My fear, in other words, is getting in the way of the potential for fulness of life that God has put in me. And fear doesn’t just stop people from skating but from doing all kinds of much more important things for the extension of God’s kingdom. The faithful steward has learned how to deal with that fear; he or she has learned not to let fear prevent them from trying new things, taking risks and stepping out in faith for God. And God loves to see that happen.

So the parable teaches us that everything in life is entrusted to us by God, and that it is required of us as stewards that we be found faithful in using God’s gifts. The third thing we learn from the parable is this: that there will be a day of accounting to God for how we have used the gifts he has entrusted to us.

We are used to thinking of holiness in terms of avoiding sin, and judgement has to do with the sins we haven’t been successful in avoiding. But the picture of the judgement that this parable gives us is very different; it has more to do with how we have used the opportunities God has entrusted to us. God isn’t just interested in the sins we have avoided but also in the positive good we have done. “What did you do with what I entrusted to you?” he will ask us. “What about the time you were given - did you use it to do good or to do nothing? To work for the kingdom or to work for your own selfish ends? And what about the people I gave you some influence over - your children, your friends, your fellow-workers? Did you use that influence to help build my kingdom? How about your talents? What did you do with them to help make the world the kind of place I want it to be? And what about your money - there was so much good you could have done with it. Did you?”

These are the kinds of questions this parable suggests that God will be asking us on the day of accounting. And the rule of thumb will be “To whom much has been given, of them much will be required”. God won’t ask you to produce things with gifts he hasn’t given you, but he will want to know what you have done with the gifts you have been given. In other words, as we said before, the issue is faithfulness.

We sometimes say of someone “He’s a good man - he never does anyone any harm”. Richard Baxter, a Puritan writer, once said “That’s praise for a rock, but not for a man!” Bible translator Gordon Fee adds, “A fence post can be a good Christian on that score!” The lazy servant was punished, not because he did wrong, but because he did nothing.

John Powell, a Catholic writer, taught me a great prayer: “O God, don’t let me die without having really lived and really loved”. And John Wesley used to teach the following rule to his followers: ‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can’!

God longs to see you and me living as good stewards, using our time, our talents, our money and everything else he has entrusted to us for his purposes, so that the world becomes the kind of place he yearns for it to be. And God rejoices to see the work we do, the love we share, the people whose lives we touch, and the gifts and talents we use to the full. “Enter into the joy of your Lord”, said the master to the faithful stewards. And to God alone be the glory!

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