Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Fearful Slave

Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus offers us a rich image today --- literally.  For as we hear about the example of the master taking off and leaving three slaves in charge, we hear that he leaves them with more wealth to tend than you and I can probably imagine. For the talents spoken of here are not aptitudes or abilities. They are, in fact, piles of gold coins. Bushel baskets full, in fact. To my understanding, one talent of gold coins weighed between fifty and seventy-five pounds.  So even the 'least' of the slaves received enough that he may have been challenged to carry it all on his own.  As Jesus tells the story now, we hear that these piles of gold were left with each one of them to tend and manage and grow. And there is no growing without risk. There is simply no growing without risk.

And yet, I completely get the third slave in our parable today. Perhaps you do, too.  I mean, many of us have seen what can happen when we invest our resources in ways too risky.  At least by burying the money, he didn't lose it, right?  At the same time, we can't help but recognize that his existence is small and timid and not what God would intend for us at all.

Still, I completely 'get' him. I recognize his fear in me far too much of the time. Here is a prime example of just that:

When I began my seminary internship many years ago now I was afraid.  I remember it well.  I think I will not ever forget driving alone on the last Saturday in August from Minneapolis south to Des Moines where I picked up Route 80 west to Omaha.  From there I drove west on Highway 6 to a little town called Wahoo, Nebraska, which was destined to be my home for the next twelve months.  I drove those many hours with my heart in my throat, for I was afraid.

Quite simply, I did not know if I would be up to the challenge that was before me. In fact, I think if I had been given any 'out' at all in those months leading up to it, I would have taken it. At the same time, I knew this was what I was called to, and I was deeply aware that the next year could alter the course of my life. My supervisor, the pastor of the congregation there, did, in a very real way, hold my future in his hands. And without a doubt, in those first months I saw him as judge, not benevolent helper --- almost as adversary more than as a friend.

I had been there a couple of months.  We were driving together to a meeting when he confronted me. This is how I remember it. He said, "Janet, you're doing fine.  But you're not taking any risks!"

I remember still how that stung. I heard it as criticism, which, in fact it was. No doubt part of the reason it hurt was I knew it was true.  I was doing what was required of me. I was holding fast to what I knew I had to do. But I wasn't really stretching -- not even in that year which was meant, in part, for taking risks. In fact, from my vantage point  today, I know that would have been one of the best times in my life to do just that. For interns are forgiven many mistakes ---- they are students still, after all, and their time there is brief.  It took me a while to learn that there. In fact, I expect it is a life lesson I'm still learning.

So let me offer a story which gave me real perspective on this.

It was November of 1996 when I first offered this to the congregation I was serving at the time.  My dad had been sick for some time by then with heart problems. Prior to his illness he had been retired a while. Never one to sit still, in his 'retirement,' he set up his own handyman business --- mostly doing odd jobs for widows who were not able or others who were just too busy --- everything from painting, to installing drywall, to repairing doorknobs and toilets.  He also kept busy sharpening knives and cutting window glass for a local hardware store.  He loved it.  For the first time in his life he was in charge of his own schedule.  He was still productive.  He loved people and interacting with them.  He loved learning new things (and many a dinner table conversation had us in stitches as he regaled us with tales of things he had learned and the risks he had taken to learn them!). 

Only he got sick, you see. And he was on a potent blood thinner.  And because of his heart issues, sometimes the blood flow to his brain was interrupted. So naturally, my mother and sisters and I worried about him and his odd jobs.  Truly, we did not think he should be climbing ladders, installing air conditioners, or cutting glass. It was all too risky!

But you know what?  He wasn't worried at all. He just kept going until he couldn't any more. Because you see, by the end of his life, he knew what I'm still having to learn.  A life spent only staying safe is no life at all. Deep down, I expect we knew this even then. So in the end, we just urged him to be careful and let him go.

He died two months after I first shared our struggle with this--- for reasons entirely unrelated to cutting glass or climbing ladders. But in the meantime he invested all that he had in living the life he felt called to live. The lesson he taught me then is one I carry with me still.

So back to Jesus' story now. Like these three slaves, God has richly blessed us in a thousand ways.  Indeed, our bushel baskets are so full we can't lift them on our own. God has given us all of it and asks only that we use it, spend it, invest it, grow it. God has given it all to us and asks only that we love and trust him enough not to sit on it, hide it, or bury it.  So what are we afraid of? For that matter, what are we waiting for?

One last thing. At first glance, it seems awfully harsh to me --- perhaps to you, too, --- that the third slave was punished so severely. However, don't you think that even before his sentence was pronounced that he was already there?  Already in that dark place --- put there not by the master, not by God, but by his own fear?  What do you think?

  • Do you identify with the timid slave in this parable?  Why or why not?
  • What do you think the 'talents' represent in this story?
  • What do you think it means to take risks with what God has given us specifically 'for the sake of the kingdom?'  Do you think Jesus is getting at that here or is his intent something else? 
  • Looking back from the perspective of the end of your life, what will it take for the master to say to you, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave..."?  What would it look like for you to trust enough to risk for the sake of growth in the time that is yours?  What does the opposite of that look like for you?


  1. I thank you for sharing about you dad. He was a very special person to me.

    Jerry Johns

    1. Thanks for saying so, Jerry. He was something, wasn't he?

  2. A few weeks ago a young woman, my boss at the school where I teach part time, took a risk on my behalf. She took a stand that I (and some others like me) ought to be paid fairly for our years of experience. Her valuing of my gifts made it crystal clear to me that I should value them more openly myself. In various ways over the past weeks I have been told (and finally heard) what your supervising pastor told you: take some risks! And at my age, like your father, I know who I am and what I'm good at and what brings me joy. Even for the outgoing among us, we sit back and leave the risking to others, when in fact putting our gifts on the line in service IS living. So we die before our time if we don't choose living. We sit in gathering darkness when the light is at our fingertips. Your story is among many I've heard in the past few weeks, but it's the one I'll remember and inspire my to keep turning the light on.

    1. Pat, it is interesting, isn't it, how such stories pile up when we need to hear them! Indeed, we do die before our time if we don't choose living. Thank you for your good and wise words.

  3. My grandmother, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants, was raised in Wahoo. In 1904 she left with her fiancee, my grandfather, who had just graduated from Auburn (NY) Presbyterian seminary. They were married at her brother's cabin in Idaho and continued west to the coast of Oregon where he began a storefront church. (A family story says that when the sun shown on his sign just right, you could still see the word "Saloon" under the paint.) She was Catholic, he Protestant, and they were never accepted back with his family in Pennsylvania. What risks they took!
    They had a large family, spread across the country, children having been born & raised in many different states where he pastored. The love they created, influenced, encouraged, and left behind is broad indeed.
    Janet, your thoughts & wisdom are part of my Sunday school preparation almost every week. Thank you!

    Don Welch

    1. Don, indeed, what risks they took! What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it and our common connection to Wahoo! May God continue to bless you and your ministry richly!