10. The Slothful servant

Matthew 25:14-30

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents,to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19  After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

29 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. 30 As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 The Problem?

To many down the centuries this has been one troublesome parable. They have asked,

  • “Why such severity towards the third man? Was it revenge because he insulted his master?
  • Does this story really approve of American Capitalism?
  • Why does the parable conclude saying that the one with much, gets more, and the one with least, loses even that? That doesn’t seem fair at all.
  • Would the master have been happier for the servant to have invested the money, but lost it all?

The story is about three men who were trusted with vast amounts of money, but its central motif is all about risk. The story is full of risk takers. It is also the story of one man who refused to risk anything, and as a consequence, lost everything.

The Risk Takers

The rich man, who is an owner of great wealth, is a risk taker, some would even say a gambler.  There comes a day when he must take an extended journey.  He cannot tell how long he will be away.  It will end up as an absence of several years. That means he will not be able to make the big decisions of his corporation in its day by day management. He calls into his office the three executives with whom he has worked closely over the years.

And he entrusts these three men with his entire wealth.  I need to include a footnote here as we begin to look at this story.  A talent is the largest denomination of money in that ancient world.  If we read the word talent as “ingot of gold” we might be closer to the meaning of the word.  It does not refer to talents as abilities or any such thing.  It is a story about three men who were trusted with 5 million dollars, 2 million dollars and one million dollars.

The rich man trusts these men with his 8 million dollars and puts the future welfare of his corporation into the hands of three men who work for him and his interests.  He trusts them because he knows something of their character. They are honest men.  They are somewhat gifted in their skills.  Though they are different in abilities.  One of these men is very skilled in his work and can handle a lot more complexity than the others.  The second man is skilled though not quite as clever as the first. And the third one has shown less skill in the business, but has been a good manager of resources.

Into the hands of these three men he deposits apparently all his resources and gives each one the responsibility of handling the wealth and showing a good return for it when he returns. He is a gambler.  A risk taker.  He does not know for sure how these men will fare or how his fortunes will do, but into their hands he surrenders his wealth.

And two of these men are risk takers, just like their master.  The first one leaves us an interesting note, “The one who had received 5 million dollars went at once and traded with them.”   Went at once.  He had an idea.  He may have had it for a long time. He had said to himself many times, “if I had a bit of extra cash, I know what I’d do with it.”  Now he has it.  Immediately he is outfitting ships with goods to trade in foreign ports and grants authority to his employees to buy goods needed in Palestine.  Every ship that goes out is a risk.  Will it survive the journey?  Will it find a market for his goods?  Will the employee find things that will sell well at home?  All questions he asks.  But he throws his bread upon the waters. Probably keeps his fingers crossed a good part of the time, and his hands raised in prayer every morning.

Time goes by, five years altogether.  And then the owner returns.  When the figures are totaled he has doubled his money.  The owner is ecstatic!  And for his reward he promotes him and gives him even more responsibility.

The second man also left the presence of the owner with his line of credit for 2 million dollars.  He too has had a dream in mind.  He has noted how much traffic there has been on the roads leading into Jerusalem, especially at feast days.  He has also noticed that travelers come tired and hungry into the city, scrambling for the few bed and breakfast places that are available.  So he goes out and buys some real estate on the four major roads leading into the city.  Builds four inns, hires four managers, and then keeps his fingers crossed and his hands squeezed together in morning prayer, as he watches his hotel business expand.   At the end of the five years his risk and hard work have paid off.  He has doubled the money.  The owner is delighted.  He gives to this faithful employee a promotion into even more responsibility as his reward.

These men were risk takers. They were gamblers.  Just like their master was. Courage and daring earmarked their way of working.

The Slothful Servant

But one of the three was not a risk taker.  He was entrusted with a million.  Now this man is not a crook. He is not a bad man. He has too much conscience to spend anything on himself.  He is not an embezzler.  He intends no evil to the owner or anyone else.   He is scrupulously honest.

But he is a coward.  He is hyper-cautious.  If you have a million dollars just think how much you can lose? If you have a million dollars what if a thief hears about it?  You could be the source of temptation for all sorts of villainy.  Why if you have a million you are no longer sure that your friends are real friends or only friends to your money.  But good news.  The Rabbinic law of Israel gives some guidance on matters such as this.

Rabbinic law says that whoever immediately buries property entrusted to him is not liable if it stolen because he has taken the safest course conceivable.  But whoever merely binds the money in a cloth (or puts it in a sock and sticks it underneath the mattress) is liable if it is lost because he did not keep it safe enough.

Hiding money in the ground was frequently the way money was kept safe.  If you did not want to invest money, then you stored it in a safe place until it was needed.  (see Matt 13:44)   Our friend with a cool million decides to play for safety!  He is reticent to be a risk taker.  In him courage is overcome by caution and cowardice.

He did not invest his money with the bankers for a reason.  Bankers were risk takers too.  Oh they were minor risk takers.  They required collateral, and they required guarantors for the loans they made.  But money was not stored by the bankers, it was invested in a variety of ventures, some risky and some relatively safe. But there was some gamble even in putting out money for mortgages.  They could not guarantee the outcomes of their investments. And so our friend decides that any risk is too much risk.

Plus, he knows something about his boss.  He thought him to be a hard man.  “Reaping where he had not sown, just in case; gathering where he had not winnowed, just in case.”  Always looking for a profit.  Always upset when an investment didn’t work out.  So our friend decided to play it as safe as possible. “I may not gain anything,” he said “but this way I sure won’t lose anything.”

Five years later he meets the owner.    He has heard the words of admiration and commendation for his fellow employees. He knows that he will not get the same gushing gratitude.  He is feeling a bit defensive, and has been talking to himself to re-justify the decision he had made five years earlier.  So he says, “I knew you were a tough boss, and I didn’t want to get you angry at me, so I hid the money in the ground.  Here it is. Safe and sound! You can have it back.”  He plunks the bag with the million dollars, on the table.

And the owner is furious! And he has the man grabbed by the collar and the seat of his pants and has him thrown outside.   But why? Isn’t the owner being overly greedy? He already has 14 million. He invested 8 and got back 14.  Not a bad overall return.  What’s the fuss?

But the boss may not be interested only in the bottom line of profit and loss. He has given three men the opportunity of a life time.  He has given them a test to prove themselves fit for leadership.  Two have passed with flying colours for both courage and wisdom. One man has proven that even a small job was too big for him. He will need to be fired instead of promoted. The owner may be angry because of the waste money, but he may be more angry at the waste of a man and the waste of an opportunity.

The owner knows that all coins have two sides.  One side says “privilege” the other side says “responsibility.”  To whom much is given, much is required.  And this servant given so much, has given nothing in return.  It is a tragedy.

The servant is cast out into the darkness of the night.  Inside the owner’s house there is light and festive rejoicing over the master’s return. The feast has also become an awards banquet for faithful service rendered.  They have entered into the joy of their Lord.  But the third employee has been thrown outside, into the dark streets, without a gold watch.  He has been fired.  And it was night!

There are three audiences that need this story. 


The first audience is the one standing before Jesus on the day he tells this story. Israel had been entrusted with so much.  The nation had received a legacy from God.  Abraham and his descendants had been blessed by God so that they might be a blessing to all other people and nations.  The coin on one side had said, “privilege!”  On the other side it had said “responsibility!”  But, for too many centuries Israel had been saying, “we want only the privilege side, thank you.”  And the light that God had intended to be a light to the gentiles had been hidden instead.  The good news about God had been kept from circulation, and buried in Israel’s back yard.

In the five centuries before Jesus came, Israel had developed a harsh view of God.  God was the bulling boss they thought.  He is hard to please.  He is always asking for more than we could give.  God is a hard task master.  But if we play it safe, if we keep the letter of the law, we will be safe from his wrath.  We may not get much reward, but we won’t be punished either.  We will protect the investment he gave us, and if he ever arrives on location, we can tell him we kept what he gave us safe.

And Jesus is justifiably angry at the wicked and slothful nation that was more concerned for its own security than the will of God for the world.

Matthew’s Church

But Matthew writes these words in his version of the Gospel for the Christians in the early 80’s, fifty years after Jesus spoke them.  To the Christian Church God has given a trust. They have received the good news about God.  They have received the good news of sins forgiven. The good news about a life that can be full and free.

But all coins have two sides! The side of privilege.  The side of responsibility.  Matthew’s church has been glad of the gift received.  But they have not been prepared to handle the responsibility of it. They have had a failure of courage. They have turned into cowards. They do not want to feel the pressure from the Roman government and Jewish peer pressure.  They do not want to put themselves at risk.  They are quite content to be safe/saved, but would rather not have to be servants.  They are glad to be chosen to be God’s children, but they are not sure they want to carry out the commission to rick themselves for the master.   And Matthew is saying, “one of these days Jesus will return and will ask, what did you do with what I trusted you with.”  And how sad it will be to hear, “well we kept the message safe.  We give you back the kingdom in the same shape as we inherited it.” And Matthew is angry that sloth is taking over in the lives of the church and puts in this story to help arrest the disease.

You and I

There is a third audience, however, that needs to hear this word.  You and I.  This word has been passed on through the centuries and has landed on our doorstep as well.

The message is: God is a risk taker. He has given into our hands his kingdom. He has given to us significant resources.  He has trusted us with the gifts from His Spirit.  He has given us the task of being change agents for this generation.

But all coins have two sides: Privilege and Responsibility.   Fulton J. Sheen reminds us that there is a Statue of Liberty on the East coast of this continent.  “We are free!” it says. But Bishop Sheen says that we need a matching statue on the West coast, a Statue of Responsibility.  To have one without the other is to make us wards of the state instead of the servants of God.  To have privilege without responsibility is to maintain us in perpetual childhood, instead of bringing us to responsible adulthood.  To have privilege only is to make us into getters and takers, not givers and sharers.

And what is the diagnosis of Jesus that stands over this third servant.  It is the word “Slothful.”  Sloth is inertia in the face of possibility.  It is a failure of courage when the adventure is afoot. It is playing for safety, instead of doing the needed thing.  It is constantly saying to oneself, “I would have done it, but I was afraid.”  If I could choose a song to conclude these words I think I would choose that old Sunday School song “Dare to be a Daniel” or for a more mature reader the song by Harry  Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace and God of Glory” which goes on to repeat the prayer, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, that we fail not them nor Thee!”