Faithfulness and Fruitfulness
Faithfulness and Fruitfulness by Rev. L. John Gable
March 5, 2017
The past several weeks we have been talking about God’s grace and our response to it. While admittedly grace is freely given to us we have also seen that there is some response, some responsibility or requirement that we actually do something with it. This morning we will look at a story Jesus told which underscores this very point. As we listen to Jesus’ telling I will ask you to consider not only your individual response to God’s grace and goodness, but our collective response as a church as well. Given all that we have been given, what is being asked of us in return? What is our responsibility given all that God has entrusted into our care? This parable informs us that one day God will ask us to give an accounting and will expect us to have been both FAITHFUL and FRUITFUL in our good use of all of it: Faithful to Him and His Kingdom purposes and fruitful or productive in our works of righteousness, witness, service and justice in His name.
In this story, often referred to as “the parable of the talents”, a master entrusts great sums of money to his servants before going on a long trip. To one he gives 5 talents, to the second 2 talents, and to the third 1 talent, “each according to their own ability” to manage it. Just so we are clear on the terms of the story, a talent was the greatest unit of accounting in the Greek currency, equivalent to approximately a lifetime’s worth of a common laborer’s wages. Lest we excuse the activity or inactivity of the last servant saying he was deprived by only getting one talent remember how much that actually was. Take your own annual income and multiply it by 40 working years and you’ll start to get a handle on the proportions we are talking about here. This is not chicken feed, even for the servant given only one talent. Clearly the master trusts these servants.
The story begins on a note of grace as each is trusted and entrusted by the master; but it ends on a note of judgment as each is asked to give an accounting of how the talents he gave them were put to use. Friends, this is the same question the Lord will one day ask of you and me, what did you do with all I gave you?
Clearly this parable is about money, but let us also be in agreement that it is not only about money; it is also about our best use of all of the resources we have been so graciously given: our time, our abilities, our “talents”, our relationships, our educations, and so on. We often mistakenly refer to “stewardship” as only having to do with our financial resources, when in reality it has to do with all that God has given us because one day God will ask us what we did with all of it, not just our money. How did we use it to serve and glorify Him and to expand His Kingdom influence? I am taken by the definition that “stewardship is everything we do after we say, I believe.”
Back to the parable: the master returns and asks the servants to give an accounting. What have you done with what I gave you? The servant who was given five talents reports he put the money to work and made five more. The master’s response was glowing, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter in to the joy of your master.” Don’t you long to hear those words one day? “Well done, my good and faithful servant”? The second servant who was given two talents also returns with two talents more and receives the same blessing. Each of them had put their talents to work, doubled their master’s money, and so commended for it. A very clear take away from this parable is that faithfulness on our part requires that we put the gifts and talents God has graciously given us to work in ways that please and honor Him. We are not the master in this story, we are the servants. We are not the owners, but the stewards; and one day we will be held accountable for all that God has given us, all of it. We can also see that God not only expects us to be faithful, but also fruitful in our use of the gifts He has given. The seeds of grace which God plants in our lives are intended to bear fruit, fruit worthy of the Kingdom.
It is often said that God does not expect us to be successful, only faithful, and I believe that to be true. However, we also need to us accept the responsibility that God also expects us to be fruitful or productive with the resources He has given us. He expects there to be results from our labors in His name, and so we should as well. In the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus says to His disciples, “I appointd you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” One measure of our faithfulness may be our fruitfulness in the work of the Lord. I take that to mean that the Church is intended to grow, not for growth’s sake, much less for any reasons of pride or boasting, but so that Christ’s Kingdom influence can be enlarged. Our ministry is intended to expand, our mission involvement and impact is intended to touch and change lives and improve social conditions in Jesus’ name. We are called to be both faithful and fruitful, for the Lord will surely hold us accountable in both of these things.
Finally, the third servant comes before the master. Perhaps it might be argued that the servant given one talent was attempting to be faithful with his master’s money, but he certainly made no attempt at being fruitful. We could say that by burying it he was trying to ensure that, at least, his master would receive again the original return on his investment. Those of us who tend toward being fiscally conservative probably find nothing wrong with his action or inaction; but the master didn’t see it that way.
Rather than commending this servant for his prudence in risk-free investing, the master found his behavior irresponsible and deplorable, so criticized him for being “wicked and lazy”. Rather harsh, wouldn’t you say? It was hardly his fault, he argued. He said he buried the talent because he knew his master to be a hard businessman who “reaped where he did not sow and gathered where he did not scatter.” He was merely acting out of self-preservation and fear. He was terrified by the responsibility given to him, so he took every measure possible to preserve the capital. Better to return the initial investment than to risk losing it all, he figured; so he cut his losses by burying his talent, and for this the master roundly criticized him. Self-preservation is not excuse for inactivity. Service always ranks higher than security.
So, how might we apply this parable to ourselves, individually and together as members of Tab? Clearly, this parable is a vicious attack on the “innocence” of laziness. Burying one’s talents is not an acceptable response in the life of faith, unless of course you think your talent is criticism or gossip, then I do encourage you to go out and bury it. God has given us, individually and collectively, gifts and talents and abilities and opportunities, not in order to make us safe and secure, but to make us useful in the work of His Kingdom. He is not asking us to return to Him in exact measure we have been given. Such non-activity and non-productivity is unacceptable. To do so indicates spiritual laziness on our part and for this, the parable tells us, we will be judged. God didn’t keep us here at the corner of 34th and Central just so that we could say “we stayed”, but because He intends us to do Kingdom work from this outpost. The life of faith requires us to venture out and to risk investing the resources God has given us. It requires us to move out beyond our comfort zones, and like the first two servants in the parable, to put our talents to work in Christian service. Perhaps that means speaking a word of faith to a friend, a neighbor, a colleague or classmate, even when that may mean setting us up for criticism or rejection. Perhaps it means walking the streets of our neighborhood on a prayer walk, sharing a meal at the Open Door, sitting with a child from School 48, coaching a team or sitting with a player’s parent during a game, even when any one of those things sounds way out of your comfort zone. Perhaps it means advocating for the needs of our neighbors even when our needs are well taken care of, perhaps particularly when our needs are well taken care of, because they cannot advocate for themselves.
The life of faith asks us, demands or requires of us, to take risks for God’s sake knowing that those risks are grounded in the confidence of the love and trust of the Master. Without question, the first two servants must have taken substantial risks in order to have doubled the money entrusted to them. How could they dare risk in that way with someone else’s money? They must have known and the loved the master, and trusted that he would honor their best efforts, even if those efforts proved to be unsuccessful. Some call this “failing faithfully”. That was the basis of the criticism of the third servant, wasn’t it? Not that he risked and lost, but that he refused to risk at all, and the master found that to be unacceptable.
As the parable closes we find that the first two servants are welcomed in to their master’s joy, but the third is cast out in to the darkness. The first two are rewarded for their good service by being given more responsibility, while the third has his portion taken away from him. There are several applicable principles at work here, and this is not just another case of the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor. Rather we are being instructed to use our gifts or lose them. It is unfair for even minimally gifted people to think they can focus their lives solely on their own security. Even they will be asked to give good measure in return. As Dale Bruner puts it, “Instead of spending eternity in the lighted banquet hall, persons whose preoccupation in life is self-pleasing will find themselves out in the dark, feeling forever the regret of lost opportunities, misspent chances and stupid choices.” By refusing to risk in the life of faith we cut ourselves off from entering in the joy of our salvation.
There is also another principle at work here: to whom much is given much will be required. The reward of fulfilled responsibility is greater responsibility, apparently both in life and in faith. The Rabbi’s had a saying “the reward of duty done is greater duty to be done.”
Friends, you and I, and we together as a church, have been blessed richly in ways beyond our deserving or imagining. Much has been entrusted to us, which means much will be expected from us. With blessing comes responsibility and with great blessing comes responsibility greater still. We dare not deceive ourselves in to thinking that we have been so blessed by God so that we can sit back, happy and well-satisfied. No, we have been blessed so that we can be a blessing to others in God’s name. We have opportunities to invest our lives, our talents, our gifts and abilities and resources in ways that can make a tremendous impact on our world for Jesus Christ, starting right outside our doors. We have the opportunity to make a difference. Let me restate that. We have the responsibility to make a difference for Christ, but it will not happen if in our fear and desire for self-preservation and security we decide to bury our talents and treasures. Rather we must put them to good use in service to the One who entrusted them to us in the first place. For one day we will be asked to give an accounting as to how we used all of the talents we have been given. On that day may we be found both faithful and fruitful. Amen.