com(parable): Return on Investment
Topic: Expectations Scripture: Matthew 25:14–25:29
Expectations can be a tricky and fickle thing, can’t they? And I’m not talking about wildly unrealistic expectations. It is silly to expect to win the lottery simply because you bought a ticket. Some expectations are obvious, and some can just be tough to manage. If we plant a seed in our garden, we expect it to grow and become a flower or a vegetable or whatever it is supposed to become. When we order something on Amazon, we expect to receive a package with the item that we ordered to arrive in roughly two days. And if you’re a Philadelphia fan, you expect the Eagles to win the Super Bowl every year. Alright, that one is probably more like the lottery example. Still, expectations are a part of our daily routine and way of life. Including the expectations that are placed upon us.
Our families, the spaces where we work, schools, even our pets have expectations for us. And they aren’t the only ones. It shouldn’t surprise us that God has expectations for each and every one of us as well. I’ll admit that expectations can be a loaded term, and sure, it can be a source of anxiety for some. But that doesn’t have to be the case for us when we reflect on our identity as children of God and followers of Jesus. This morning we are continuing through our com(Parable) message series. Remember, the intention of this series is to explore several of the stories Jesus shared centuries ago. Stories that are called parables. And in our exploration of these stories, we have a chance to discover how Christ’s words are comparable to our own circumstances and stories, even when our stories take unexpected and dizzying turns, similar to what we have experienced recently. So, let’s look at a parable Jesus shared about what we’ve been talking about: expectations. It’s a story about a person who entrusts others with precious resources and gives them the opportunity to do something incredible. Yes, it’s a lesson about expectations, but it’s also a story about a Return on Investment. We’re in Matthew 25:14-29.
Jesus begins this story by introducing us to the first character. This wealthy individual is preparing for a journey and entrusts a significant portion of their wealth to three of the people who worked for him. One servant gets five bags of gold, one servant gets two bags of gold, and the third and final servant gets a single bag of gold. From that moment on, we see these three people take what they had been given and do something with it.
When the master returns, he checks in on his investments. The servants who received five bags and two bags of gold, both double what they were given. That’s a great Return on Investment. And the master rewards these two for their diligent and successful work. Both of them are given two things: new responsibilities and opportunities and the invitation to share in their master’s happiness. But they also receive something else. This word from the master they admire so much: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” They have pleased the one they admire. They’ve been given new opportunities and authority. And they’ve been invited into the joy and satisfaction of their master. For the original audience hearing this parable, there could not have been a sweeter, more enviable reward.
The third servant, though, took that which he was given and buries it in the ground and lets it sit untouched. And the master is not happy. For one thing, there is zero Return on Investment. Nothing except some dirt that is stuck to the gold. That’s bad enough but there’s actually something else that this servant does that seems to bother the master even more. This servant assumes to speak for the master. The servant essentially says, “I know you’re tough and I know that you’re powerful. I was afraid of what might happen to me if I lost any of your investment, so I didn’t do anything.” The third servant does not get the “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Instead, this skittish and lazy servant has taken from him what little was given and is left with nothing.
In this parable, Jesus is talking to his closest friends and followers, the disciples. The catalyst for this story and conversation actually comes back at the beginning of chapter 24. Jesus’ friends ask him about the end of things and about where Jesus will be. Jesus responds with a few warnings and a few stories, one of which is the one we are exploring this morning. People invest with one thought in mind: the future. Whether it’s a financial investment, an investment of our time, or even something more personal…we invest because we have desires for the time to come. Jesus has the same thoughts. He knew that the time would come when his presence on earth would cease. And so, the investment Jesus began making, from the moment he called out to a bunch of no-name fishermen and nobodies, was an investment in people just like us. All of the truth, grace, and power of the Son of God was entrusted with us. We are the servants with bags of precious gold. The question is this: what do we do with that investment?
When we become followers of Jesus, we inherit a wealth beyond measure. Our identity as God’s creation is given new purpose. The potential within each of us is unlocked in a brand-new capacity. The contributions and compassions that we share with this world take on a brilliant new intensity and beauty. We are like the servants of this parable who are handed riches and given free rein to decide how best to steward it. And while some of Christ’s teaching can be difficult to decipher, I think it’s fairly easy to see in this parable which servant we want to avoid being associated with.
So how do we be like the good and faithful servants? Probably even more pressing: how do we be good and faithful servants right now amidst everything going on surrounding COVID-19? Preachers like me love to say that Scripture is applicable in all circumstances. And while I can’t reference any commentaries written specifically for biblical exegesis in a viral pandemic, I can tell you that this parable offered by Christ gives us much we can apply right here and now.
First and foremost, we have to avoid the costly mistake that lead our wayward servant down the wrong path. And that mistake is assuming we know better than God. The third servant tells the master, “I knew that you are a hard man.” From the start, this servant catastrophically misunderstands the heart and intention of the master. And that misunderstanding leads to a squandering of what could be, and ultimately, consequences the servant never wanted in the first place.
Christians spend most of our lives wondering what the will of God is. That mystery is complex enough as it is, but it is also continuously overlaid with other assumptions and equations that we live through every day. Our hopes and dreams, our relationships, our vocations and callings, our joys and desires, our fears and regrets. Everything about who we are gets assimilated, or at least it should, into us seeking out the plans God has for us. And those plans include everything swirling around us. Our identity as followers of Jesus cannot be quarantined. But it can be transformed. We have to know and explore the difference.
Another thing we can learn from this parable and something we can truly celebrate is the differences we all possess. The two servants who took the gifts of the master and fostered a Return on Investment started off with different amounts. And all we’re told about the reason why one received five bags of gold and one received two and one received one is that it was distributed “according to their ability.” It doesn’t say one was better than the other. It doesn’t say one was more trusted by the master than the other. In fact, for the two faithful servants, they both received the same reward.
Each of us are given what we are given by God. Our gifts our different. Our stories are different. And each of us have unique and meaningful opportunities to invest the love and mercy and hope of the Gospel in meaningful ways. Especially right now. I get it. It has been a bizarre and confusing last several days. A lot of things have changed. The spaces we call our office or classroom. The amount of screen time our kids usually get. The meticulousness in which we count rolls of toilet paper. But what hasn’t changed is the desire our Master has for each of us to take what we have been given and generate a Return on Investment.
And like I said, the story Jesus shares highlights how we all have different abilities and opportunities. I have spoken to several of you who feel uncomfortable being out and about and you’ve shared how you are making charitable donations to organizations mobilizing to meet the needs of our neighbors. Sabrina Smith shared how she received a doorstep delivery of muffins from someone in her small group. Our own Ann Lamkey tried to get out and visit many of our kids this week and drop off Sunday school in a bag.
My challenge to you is this: What is something you can do to share the treasure of Christ with someone else? Maybe writing a letter to a friend or neighbor. Maybe offering to pick up groceries for someone who is nervous about venturing out more than necessary. It’s very possible the most precious gift you can offer someone is a phone call and reassuring conversation and a calming prayer. Find your opportunity, friends. And then act on it.
We all want what the first two servants received. We want to be invited into the joy and happiness of God. We want to hear our Creator say those words to us: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” So, let’s not bury what God has given us. Let’s be the church and share God’s great gifts. Let’s go and create a Return on Investment.