The Returning Master
It must now be 50 years ago. As a teenager at school I was in class enjoying a French lesson. The time was just after 11.00. Our French master was a lazy man. He would set us some work; then leave at 5 past 11. At 5 to 12 he would return, assuming we’d completed the work he’d set us. So we always knew we had 50 minutes without him in the room. We knew where he’d gone – into the Masters’ Common Room to watch the Test Match on the telly.
He must have had great faith in our desire to study (totally misplaced, of course); or maybe he just didn’t care. Anyway, as soon as he left the classroom, chaos reigned! Some boys lit up cigarettes; others started staring at very questionable reading material. A group of us, including me, pushed back some of the desks to make room for a cricket pitch. Out came the bat and the tennis ball. The ball was wacked all around the classroom. Those smoking and reading hid behind their desk lids; while the fielders desperately tried to catch the ball.
One particular day it was my turn to bat and I hit a fine shot, which sailed over the bowler’s head. Unfortunately it smashed into the clock on the wall, breaking the glass and stopping the clock. As fast as we could we picked up the broken glass and hid it. It was 10 to 12. Quickly the desks were replaced; the dodgy reading material hidden; the fags stubbed out. Right on schedule, the master came back at 5 to 12. All was quiet. Thankfully he didn’t notice that the clock was a trifle slow. The only other clue to what had been going on was a smoke-ring which curled slowly upwards towards the ceiling.
What we got up to 50 years ago is a sad example of human nature at work. If you had been sitting in that classroom would you have been mugging up on your French vocabulary, or would you have joined in the chaos?
What has all this got to do with our reading today? Well, in this gospel passage we see another Master, Jesus, who says he is going away; but promises to return. Unlike the class I was in, his students are distraught about the prospect of his leaving. But he, too, gives instructions about what he expects of them while he is away.
In 3 parables Matthew sets out these instructions in Chapter 25. First there is the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, 5 wise, 5 foolish. The wise ones had lamps full of oil, ready and waiting for the bridegroom’s return. The foolish ones hadn’t thought to fill their lamps. They had to rush off to get some oil but when they got back it was too late. They had missed the bridegroom. They were shut out. The oil refers to the Holy Spirit. The wise bridesmaids were full and ready. The foolish ones….
The 2nd parable is about a rich man who goes away leaving most of his wealth to his servants. This gives them great opportunities. What will they do with them?
The 3rd illustration talks of works of mercy. Whenever we feed the hungry, give the thirsty a drink, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison; we may think we are doing those things for these unfortunate people; but in fact we find we are doing them for Jesus himself – what an inspiration for anyone involved in such caring work?
The first story of the bridesmaids refers to the flame burning inside us, in our own personal spiritual lives. The second story refers to the gifts we have been given for our active service for Christ, mainly within the church. The third illustration refers to compassionate work, mainly outside the church.
So this chapter is beautifully balanced. The 3 areas work perfectly together. Obeying what we see in this chapter won’t earn us our way into Heaven. It’s simply what is expected of his followers in this interim period, before our Master comes back.
Jesus was brilliant at using people, events or places familiar to his listeners in order to illustrate his teaching. The second parable, which we are particularly looking at this morning, is no exception; because this story rang a loud bell those around him.
25 years before, in AD 6, King Herod died. (He was the horrible Herod who ordered all the children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 to be killed.) His son, Archelaus, wanted to take over from him. To do this he had to go to Rome and make his case to the Roman Emperor. Before he left he gave the responsibility for the running of his castles and his treasury to his officials. When he came back he asked them how they had done. Some had done well – they were promoted. Some had done OK – they were to continue in their jobs but were given less responsibility. However there was a third group who had appealed to Rome and asked that none of Herod’s sons should rule over them. When Archelaus got back all in this group were immediately put to death.
Jesus uses this piece of history to wonderful effect. His listeners would know all about Archelaus. They would remember how he went away leaving his officials in charge; and then came back.
This 2nd parable is called the “parable of the talents”. But what is a talent? It’s a huge amount of money. In today’s terms one talent is worth about half a million pounds. We’d all like to be given that, wouldn’t we? Here we see a rich, successful man. He is going away, so he can do nothing with his assets. Therefore he hands out massive amounts of money to 3 servants. It’s up to them to make the most of these fortunes while he is away. He has been successful and he expects the same from them.
The first servant has been given 5 talents (£2,500,000), He goes to work immediately. He makes another £2,500,000. The second one has been given 2 talents (£1,000,000). He at once gets cracking. He makes another £1,000,000. They are keen. They are enthusiastic. They have learned from their master. They want to follow his example. They know they have been given these assets to achieve success. And, lo and behold, they do. They are thrilled. They are full of joy and so is he. “Well done, good and faithful servants”. He says warmly. “Because you have done so well I shall give you yet more money and responsibility”.
That’s what the Christian life should be like. Jesus has gone away. We are his servants. On top of our human gifts, time and possessions he has given us forgiveness, he has left us his teaching, he has left us his Holy Spirit. What “talents” we now have! What is to stop us, now, going out and using what we have to his glory?
In 1949 the Communists took over the running of China. During the previous 100 years missionaries had arrived from the West to preach and teach the gospel. They’d had great success and by 1949 it was estimated that there were approximately 1,000,000 Chinese Christians. When the communists came they threw out all the 140 Christian missions. Church buildings were destroyed. The missionaries despaired. A century of work, all for nothing; or so it seemed.
Not a word was heard of the Chinese church again until 1966. Eventually news trickled out. The church had not been wiped out – far from it. The numbers of Christians had in fact increased. And their faith, despite persecution, had deepened immeasurably. Their mentors had had to leave but the Chinese Christians had diligently pursued the work they’d been given. As the church buildings had been flattened the Christians met together in homes, obeying the words we heard in our first reading – “encouraging one another and building one another up”. Their talents were restricted but they were using, to the full, the ones they had. And now the Chinese church is the fastest growing church in the World, with nearly 100,000,000 Christians, and growing at 10% a year.
This is all very well but, unfortunately we must also look at the 3rd servant in this parable. What a sad case he was. He had been given half a million pounds. But he looked at his hard-driving master and he was scared. “I have all these assets but what if I lose them? I think I shall just go and bury them in the ground”. His master was furious. He was immediately sacked. His one talent was taken away from him and given to the servant who had 10.
My first boss at work was a tough man. He was only 34 when I joined. Already he was the top broker in the firm. He had a brilliant brain. I was terrified of him. However, working for him, I knew 2 things. He was always right and he was always fair. But if he gave you something to do you did it! And to the very best of your abilities.
So we look at this third servant and we easily say, “What a stupid man”. But…. But then we think again, “In the Christian life am I like two those successful servants? Am I itching to get on with the work our Master has given me? Am I really using my gifts, human and spiritual? Or am I burying them in the ground?”
What are my gifts anyway? Here our British false modesty can get in the way. “No, no, old chap, I am just an ordinary bloke. I have no talent, no gifts”. And when we say that, the answer surely is: “Nonsense. You have a house. You have a car. You have time. You have money. If you are a Christian you have a wonderful message to tell. Get on with the job. Use what you have. Don’t just bury your talent in the ground”. Frighteningly, we know from the end of the passage what the reward for that is – not very pleasant.
If I dare, can I go back to that class 50 years ago? Surprise, surprise, I failed my French O Level! Along with the rest of us I wasted my time while the master was away – in that interim period. My cricket might have improved but, even now, I cringe, I hang my head in shame. I threw away my opportunity.
How much better to be like those two servants in the parable who grabbed their opportunities with such enthusiasm. Leaving his wealth in other people’s hands must have been a tough thing for the rich man to do. What relief he must have felt when he came back. How pleased he must have been. No surprise then, that he exclaimed, “Well done, good and faithful servants”.
I wonder, when our Master comes back, when we see him, will he say the same to us?