You can’t bury the gospel. You can’t wrap God up in a handkerchief or plant him in the back yard so you can dig him up when you need him. He won’t have it, he won’t allow it. Either take God seriously, or forget it.
As usual, the disciples had gotten it wrong. They were with Jesus in Jerusalem; it was Holy Week. The end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and his life was at hand, and he wanted to talk to them seriously about the future.
The disciples couldn’t imagine what was just ahead: Thursday evening in the Upper Room, Good Friday on Golgotha, the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. But they sensed some sort of approaching climax, and their hearts raced with excitement. This must be it, they thought. Three years of preaching and teaching, all the miracles, the parables, the crowds and travel, it was all coming to a head. They had left their homes and families to accompany Jesus up and down Palestine from Galilee to Judea. But now the payoff had arrived. At last they could cash in. That awesome power which they had seen heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, calm the storm, even raise the dead now surely it would be used to set up Jesus’ kingdom on earth. What else could he have come to Jerusalem for? It must be time to destroy his enemies and establish his throne from which he would rule the world. And of course one big throne for Jesus surely meant twelve little thrones for them. No wonder the disciples’ pulses quickened in anticipation.
But of course they were completely mistaken. They had no idea what was coming, despite the fact that Jesus repeatedly tried to prepare them. The next days would not bring them a blaze of glory, but the deeper darkness of the cross. The disciples had not reached the beginning of their reign with Christ, but rather the end of their apprenticeship under him. They thought they had done their time and that their service was drawing to a close; in fact, it hadn’t even started yet. They were in for a long haul, as Jesus tried to explain in a story known as the Parable of the Talents.
Entrusted with Treasure
This parable is told in two slightly different versions, once in Matthew and once in Luke. In Matthew there are three servants who are given different amounts of money measured in talents, a talent being an enormous sum worth millions of dollars. Luke’s version has ten servants who receive one mina apiece, a more modest amount of money but still a small fortune. In Matthew the master is a landowner and in Luke he is a king. But the basic story is the same in both gospels, as is its meaning. A master entrusts his servants with generous resources and goes away for a long time. When he returns, he calls each servant to give an account of his stewardship. Most of them have multiplied the Lord’s resources, but at the end comes a more cautious man, as Jesus describes.
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
English Standard Version (esv)
This is certainly not the easiest of Jesus’ stories, but for starters, let’s think about who’s who and what’s what. Some things do seem clear. The master who goes away on his journey must be the Lord himself. The servants are the disciples, or, in today’s terms, you and I! The time is now, while the king is away and his followers are awaiting his return.
So how should we behave, what should we be doing while our master is away? The answer is given to us here in a parable that offers a lesson in how to live “between the times,” the interval between our King’s departure and his return.
OK then, what is the point of the money? What does that represent? Matthew’s word for it, “talent,” often leads, I think, to a misunderstanding. It makes us imagine someone with a good voice singing solos in church. This parable is about using your talents for the Lord we are often told. The typical sermon on it focuses on the different number of talents given to each servant, with the comment that everybody has different gifts and levels of ability. The preacher generally ends with an exhortation to the poor one-talent guy: “You may not be a five- talent woman or a two-talent man, but everyone has at least one. So take your talent and put it to work for the Lord.” That’s a nice point, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus was trying to say.
To understand Jesus’ point we need to be clear on what exactly it was that was entrusted to the servants. It wasn’t ability or talent or gifts. It was simply money. A lot of money.
Even one talent of money was a huge sum, more than anyone would have seen in his lifetime. So the difference between one, three or five talents is not the point to focus on. In fact, in Luke’s version of the story, all the servants received exactly the same amount, which I think is the point (see Luke 19:13). What they received was a great treasure; like a pearl of great price or like the treasure buried in the field. The treasure represented by the talents of money stands for the gospel itself.
Every Christian receives this treasure, but the key question is: What do we do with it throughout the course of our lives? Do we invest ourselves in the gospel? Do we put the gospel to work in our lives and in our world? Do we make it multiply throughout our communities and even to the ends of the earth? Or do we just squirrel it away and forget about it, hoping that we can dig it up someday when we might need it to go to heaven? That’s the great question!
Called to Account
When the master returned he sent for his servants to find out what they had done with his money (v.19). He came and “settled accounts with them,” says Jesus; that is to say, the master came in judgment. Every life is going to be assessed and evaluated. Some will be judged and rewarded; others will be judged and cast away. But the basis for judgment is always what one did with and for the gospel.
Notice that the key requirement according to the Master is faithfulness, not necessarily success. It may seem like the Master’s evaluation was based on who had the most success, who turned the biggest profit. But this is the kingdom of God, not a stock brokerage firm. The treasure did not belong to the servants to begin with, nor did the profits. All the servants did was work to expand the Lord’s kingdom; it was he who gave the increase. And his primary interest was: How hard were they trying? How faithfully did they keep at it? Notice what he says to the good servants,
Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.
(vv. 21, 23)
Faithfulness is what really counts in God’s eyes, and it leads to even greater things. Those who live for Christ will reign with Christ; service here means glory hereafter. But the ultimate reward for which every true follower of Jesus longs is simply his presence. It is to enter “the joy of [our] master.” “Heaven,” wrote Helmut Thielicke, “does not consist in what we receive, whether this be white robes and heavenly crowns . . . but rather in what we shall become, namely, the companions of our king. . .”
The parable ends with the unfaithful servant being judged which suggests that Jesus wants us to pay special attention to him. You know, I must confess, I’ve always felt rather sorry for him. His treatment seems harsh, doesn’t it? After all, he didn’t lose the treasure, in fact, he preserved it. He gave the gift back to his king just as he had received it unopened.
But, you see, that won’t work. You can’t bury the gospel and still hope to benefit from it! We bury the gospel when we try to compartmentalize religion by limiting it to an hour or two on a Sunday morning, or turning to it only in moments of great crisis or perhaps at the end of our lives, but living the rest of the time as though God didn’t matter. In fact, as though he didn’t even exist.
We bury the gospel when we privatize our religion, as if it only has to do with our inner thoughts and not with our outward lives, or in fact with society at large. But you can’t do that. You can’t bury the gospel. You can’t wrap God up in a handkerchief or plant him in the back yard so you can dig him up when you need him. He will not have it. He won’t allow it. Either take God seriously, or forget it. Either live for Jesus Christ and his good news, his gospel, or live for something else. But don’t think that you can stash the gospel now and cash it in later.
There will be two and only two sentences spoken on the day that the King returns. It’s either going to be, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master” or else, “Take what he has from him and cast him into outer darkness.” What you and I will hear on that day depends on what we do with the gospel today.