Scripture: Matthew 25:14-30
When I was in seventh grade I played Pop Warner football—or “little league” football. Whatever you call it. I played center, like Bill Curry, whom I met as a ten-year-old at Georgia Tech, and who became a hero of mine. But I had a football coach who believed in me; who loved me… who helped to build me up and helped me feel good about myself during an otherwise difficult time in my life. And this coach gave me nickname—he didn’t give anyone else on the offensive line a nickname, but he gave me one. And I could not have been prouder of it. He called me “Mad Dog.”
I’ve heard players say of great coaches—like Nick Saban or Pat Dye or Vince Dooley or Bobby Dodd, coaches like that—I’ve heard them say, “I would run through a brick wall for that man.” Well, I know that feeling. Because this coach made me feel that way. I was proud to be called Mad Dog. And it brought me great joy to do what this coach asked me to do. It brought me great joy to make my coach happy.
I want you to hold onto this thought… put a pin in it. We’ll come back to it.
In today’s scripture, there’s a rich man who is going away on a trip. While he’s gone he gives a considerable amount of money to three of his servants—these were likely well-educated accountants, businessmen, and entrepreneurs. They likely helped manage the man’s money and estate. And while he’s gone, he’s giving each of them a certain amount of money to invest—a certain number of “talents” to invest.
Now, right away we have a problem: because the word “talent” has entered the English language directly from the Greek word that Jesus uses in this parable. We use the word “talent” today because of the Bible!
But the way we use it today isn’t what Jesus meant when he used it… In Jesus’ day, a talent was a measurement of money—literally worth about 75 lbs. of gold. If you want to think of it this way, a talent was the largest denomination of currency in Jesus’ day. So… do you know, for instance, what the largest denomination of currency in circulation in the United States is? A hundred-dollar bill. That’s not much anymore. In 1969, before the Federal Reserve stopped printing it, however, the largest denomination was a $10,000 bill. That’s a little closer to what Jesus is talking about when he talks about a “talent”… except a talent was much, much more.
It was about twenty years’ wages for an average laborer. So even one talent was an enormous sum of money! About $700,000. Can you imagine? The servant who received five talents received three and a half million dollars. But let’s not pity the third servant who “only” received one measly talent: seven-hundred grand is nothing to sneeze at.
So notice the first two servants invested or started businesses or put the money to work in some way, and by the time the master returned, they each had doubled the master’s investment—a one-hundred percent return on investment. That’s pretty darn good, wouldn’t you say?
The third servant, however, doesn’t do anything with his talent—besides bury it in the ground.
And he explains why… Verses 24 and 25: “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.”
Notice the servant is quite literally wrong about his master’s character. He says the master reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he scatters no seed? Are you kidding? On the contrary, the master is the one who gives the servants these enormous sums of money in the first place! “Take this money and do something with it… invest it… put it to work… trade with it.” That is the definition of “sowing” and “scattering seed.”
If the third servant is to be believed, the master is taking what doesn’t belong to him and keeping it for himself—but that’s a lie because these eight talents do belong to the master in the first place!
This scripture is often preached during stewardship season. And if I were preaching it that way, I would emphasize this point: Every good thing you possess comes as a gift from God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” Psalm 24:1. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” 1 Corinthians 4:7. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17.
Therefore, want the three servants each received before the master went away were gifts of sheer grace. And so it is with us: We possess nothing good that doesn’t come from God—including every part of our lives. God literally cannot ask for something that he did not “sow” within us or create within us.
But it’s possible that the third servant saw that the other two servants were given more than he was given, and a part of the resentment and anger and unhappiness that he directs toward his master was based on the perception that he wasn’t being treated “fairly.”
What do you say to that? None of these three deserved anything that they received, so on what basis should they complain?
In my own life, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of my own unhappiness comes not from what God has actually given me, but from what God has given someone else, which he did not also give to me. Do you know what I mean? I want what other people have—never mind that what I’ve been given has been custom-designed by God and perfectly suited for me and for my life.
Can I tell you something funny: For many years, I was an associate pastor at a large Methodist church in Alpharetta. I was in charge of our church’s contemporary worship service, which meant I got to preach every week, which was wonderful. Well, in Alpharetta, we were in the shadow of the Northpoint Community Church—Andy Stanley’s megachurch—literally and figuratively. Because if you involved in doing contemporary worship back then, in Alpharetta, Georgia, you were going to be compared, favorably but usually unfavorably, to Andy Stanley and Northpoint—objectively speaking, one of the largest and most successful churches in America. If my people didn’t like me, they would often go to Northpoint. Or they came from Northpoint. But I was used to being compared—usually in a negative way—with an incredibly gifted preacher and leader. I mean, how could I measure up?
As many of you know, I was adopted. And back around that same time, I got in touch with my birth mother, Linda, for the first time. And Linda was very happy to find out I was a pastor. And she would hear me preach and just lay it on thick about how much she liked my preaching.
One day Linda, who lived in North Carolina, called me out of the blue: “I just heard the best preacher I’ve ever heard!” You know where this is going, right? She said, “I saw him on TV. And you know what? His church is down near your church. His name is… Andy Stanley? Do you know that name? He’s so good!”
And I’m like, “I know Andy Stanley… Everybody loves Andy Stanley!” And I remember grumbling about it back then!
But why? Give me one good reason I should resent Andy Stanley? By all means… God gave him five talents, at least, whereas he gave me one or less… But what I have is infinitely more than I deserve!
And what I have is—hear me say this—what I have is perfectly suited, custom-designed, custom-tailored for me and for my life. This is what Jesus means when he says, in verse 15, that the master gave to “each [servant] according to his ability.” What I have wouldn’t work in Andy Stanley’s life, but it works in mine.
After all, who but God could foresee the consequences of God possibly giving me the same gifts of grace that he gave to Andy Stanley? God probably knows that if he did give me those same gifts of grace, those gifts would destroy me; that that level of objective, worldly success—the sheer numbers, the TV audience, the size of the platform—that would go straight to my head, that would inflate my ego even more than it already is, and it would ruin me! My pride couldn’t handle it!
God knows that about me!
So instead of looking over my shoulder and comparing the gifts of grace that I’ve received with the gifts of grace that others have received, I need to trust that God has given me precisely those gifts of grace that I need—which, according to his Word, he has!
See, here’s where the third servant also gets it wrong: He simply doesn’t believe that his master knows what’s best for him or wants what’s best for him. This gift of grace—this one talent—feels like a burden to the servant, not a gift. The servant doesn’t want to have responsibility for it; he wants to do his own thing; he wants to live life on his own terms. He doesn’t want to have to answer to his master. So he does the absolute bare minimum: He digs a hole and buries the talent in the ground, where at least it should be safe for when his master returns. “If I bury this talent, I won’t have to give it a second thought. It will be out of sight, out of mind. In fact, if I bury what my master gave me, I won’t have to give him a second thought: He will also be out of sight, out of mind.”
So he resents his master. He hates him. His actions prove it. And yet we read this parable and feel sorry for the poor guy because the master is going to give him his fondest wish for all eternity—to be completely free from his master’s care and concern, to be separated from him forever? The master is giving him what he wants!
By contrast, consider the other two servants’ attitudes: Look at verse 16: “He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.” The key words are “at once” or immediately. That implies a sense of excitement on the part of the first two servants… a sense of anticipation… a sense of joy.
In fact, these first two servants remind me of the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4. After talking with Jesus for a while, she realizes whom she’s talking to, and what does she do? The Bible says she left her water jar—at the well, the very reason she went to the well in the first place was to get water… but in her excitement she forgets about that; she leaves the jar at the well; and she rushes back to town… and tells literally everyone in town about Jesus! Why?
Because what she found in Jesus was infinitely better than even her most basic human need for water! So of course she forgot her water jar!
Or remember Zacchaeus, the “wee little man”—a despised tax collector, hated by his fellow townspeople—who climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus over the crowd of people. But Jesus calls him by name. And the Bible says, “So [Zacchaeus] hurried and came down and received [Jesus] joyfully.” And then, when Jesus comes to his house, he tells Jesus he’s giving away half his wealth, and paying back four times whatever he stole from others. Why?
Because what he found in Jesus was infinitely better than money! So of course he gave all that money away!
Or remember the former prostitute who crashes the dinner party at Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke chapter 7: She’s making a scene, anointing Jesus’ feet with her tears and with expensive ointment. Showing gratitude and honor to Jesus by kissing his feet. Everyone’s gossiping about her. She’s embarrassing herself as far as the other dinner guests are concerned. Why?
Because what she found in Jesus was infinitely better than her livelihood, her earthly treasure, and her reputation. She didn’t care what people like Simon thought of her. So of course she served Jesus in this way!
And see… that’s what all three—the Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, and the former prostitute—this is what they had in common: They served Jesus… by all means. I mean, you give away half your wealth… to the church? That’s far more than a tithe. We all agree: that’s “serving” Jesus! The Samaritan woman was literally the most effective evangelist in all of scripture. Thanks to her witness, her entire village came to believe in Jesus! I mean, the apostle Paul reached more people in his ministry, but he also faced a lot of rejection along the way. Not this woman… she was batting a thousand in her efforts at evangelism!
We all agree: that’s “serving” Jesus!
And the former prostitute? She was literally “serving” Jesus by performing the most humble act of a service that even a slave in the first century could perform—washing a guest’s feet when he comes to someone’s house for dinner.
These people served, they served, they served… by all means. But their service—like the service of the first two servants in the parable—was characterized by joy and excitement. Was it hard for them to serve Jesus in this way? That’s like asking, was it hard for them to do something they wanted to do more than anything else? Of course not! It made them happy to serve Jesus in this way! They wouldn’t want to do anything other than serve him in this way!
And it was for the sake of their own happiness, their own pleasure, their own satisfaction, their own joy, that these servants did what they did for their master in the parable… or for Jesus in real life!
Do you see that?
Being a Christian, loving Jesus, following Jesus, obeying Jesus, doing his will—indeed, serving Jesus—is meant to bring us a deeper and more lasting kind of happiness than is otherwise available in this world. It’s okay to want the kind of happiness that comes from Christ alone. Jesus gives us permission to want the kind of happiness that comes from him alone. In fact, Jesus says in this parable that we ought to pursue the kind of happiness that comes from him alone.
Somewhere along the way, I’m afraid too many of us have gotten the message that “serving Jesus” is hard; it’s unpleasant; it’s at least something that, all things being equal, we’re not supposed to want to do. I mean, yes, we do it… but only because we have to, or only because we’re supposed to… but mostly, we think… it disrupts our happiness. Happiness, as far as we’re concerned, is living a life devoted completely to ourselves, not to Jesus!
So like the third servant, we do the bare minimum sometimes—we dig our hole in the ground… But give him credit! That was probably a few hours of hard work on his part… a few hours of “serving” his master, in order to keep his master’s treasure safe. And I’ll bet he resented every minute of it… every scoop of dirt he shoveled… I bet he was cursing, wishing that he were doing literally anything else.
But give him credit: at least he “served” his master, right?
I said earlier that once the third servant finished burying his talent, his master was “out of sight, out of mind.” Contrast that with the other two… They doubled their master’s talents. They made an enormous amount of money. Many of you are successful business people. You know that in order to make that kind of return, these men had to commit their lives to it. You know it would take all of their time, talent, energy, skill, creativity, wits to do that… It would require them to think constantly about their master and his talents. It would require them to be preoccupied with their master. And as I said earlier, the evidence in the text is that they did so with eagerness. They did so happily. They did so with joy.
And they did so, not because they were these selfless martyrs who gritted their teeth and worked hard for this very demanding boss. That’s not why Jesus says they did it. They did it because they loved their master and they did it for the sake of the joy that they themselves would experience from pleasing their master! It brought them joy!
But maybe that’s an understatement… That’s putting it too mildly…
Remember I said earlier that the gifts of grace that God has given me—while, by all means, less than some and more than others—are exactly the right amount of gifts for me?
Why are they the right amount? What are these gifts of grace meant to accomplish within me—which any more or any less might fail to accomplish?
They’re meant to enable me to do what each of these first two servants did: They’re meant to enable me to “enter into the joy of my master.”
They’re meant to enable me to “enter into the joy” of my Lord Jesus! That’s an unimaginable amount of joy.
Because literally no one who has ever lived on this earth has experienced more joy than Jesus—and the thought that we get to “enter into” or experience for ourselves that same joy… that’s incomprehensible!
In case you don’t believe me when I say that no one who’s ever lived has known more joy than Jesus, I need you to look at something. If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn with me to Hebrews 12. Let’s look at verses 1 and 2:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Why did Jesus “endure the cross”? For the joy that was set before him! He did it for joy… well, the joy of rescuing us from our sins and making us part of his family… the joy of bringing glory to his Father… the joy of pleasing his Father.
Now think about it: Jesus endured mocking, insults, spitting, and whipping… he endured the most painful, violent, hideous form of torture and execution ever invented—crucifixion. And as part of his crucifixion, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Which means on the cross he endured separation from his Father, which is hell itself.
And what Hebrews says here in verse 2 is that the joy that Jesus knew… on the other side of the cross… made his all his suffering, all the hell endured, completely worth it!
The magnitude of the joy that Jesus experienced was greater than the magnitude of his suffering. And Jesus wants to give us that joy! He wants us to experience it too!
If we understand what Jesus is offering us, how could we not happily work for that joy! Such that the idea of merely “serving” Jesus seems beside the point! I wouldn’t want to do anything else!
I began this sermon talking about how proud and happy I was for my coach to call me by a very special name…
Can you imagine how proud and happy I’ll be when my Lord calls me by a name that is infinitely more precious? I want him to call me “good and faithful servant.”