The Sin of Omission

Matthew 25:14-30

The Parable of the Three Servants
“At that time the Kingdom of heaven will be like this. Once there was a man who was about to leave home on a trip; he called his servants and put them in charge of his property. He gave to each one according to his ability: to one he gave five thousand gold coins, to another he gave two thousand, and to another he gave one thousand. Then he left on his trip. The servant who had received five thousand coins went at once and invested his money and earned another five thousand. In the same way the servant who had received two thousand coins earned another two thousand. But the servant who had received one thousand coins went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The servant who had received five thousand coins came in and handed over the other five thousand. ‘You gave me five thousand coins, sir,’ he said. ‘Look! Here are another five thousand that I have earned.’ ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant!’ said his master. ‘You have been faithful in managing small amounts, so I will put you in charge of large amounts. Come on in and share my happiness!’ Then the servant who had been given two thousand coins came in and said, ‘You gave me two thousand coins, sir. Look! Here are another two thousand that I have earned.’ ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant!’ said his master. ‘You have been faithful in managing small amounts, so I will put you in charge of large amounts. Come on in and share my happiness!’ Then the servant who had received one thousand coins came in and said, ‘Sir, I know you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not plant, and you gather crops where you did not scatter seed. I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. Look! Here is what belongs to you.’ ‘You bad and lazy servant!’ his master said. ‘You knew, did you, that I reap harvests where I did not plant, and gather crops where I did not scatter seed? Well, then, you should have deposited my money in the bank, and I would have received it all back with interest when I returned. Now, take the money away from him and give it to the one who has ten thousand coins. For to every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him. As for this useless servant—throw him outside in the darkness; there he will cry and gnash his teeth.’

Gregory-window-croppedAll he ever wanted was somewhere that was quiet. Somewhere he could be alone with his thoughts, where he could tend to his prayers and his education as he meditated on the wisdom of those who had come before him. A place where he could love God, preferably alone.

The boy had grown up with every advantage. His parents were wealthy, well-educated and generous. They loved the church, and raised the boy with a love for God.   Life was good for the boy and his family.

But then the war came—invaders who killed and stole and made life difficult. The boy never recovered from the sadness that the wars of his youth brought him. He carried the scars with him. But he survived. Survived and grew into a man who became a top ranking civil official in his home city. It would seem he had it all: wealthy family, connections, the power to make a difference and make a name for himself.

But he gave it all up for a place that was quiet. One day, he turned in his fine robes and gave up his land and his money and became a monk. He walked away from enough wealth to build six monasteries, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to live quietly, simply, in communion with God and his brothers. He was finally happy.

But God had other plans for him. The man who had finally found peace in the monastery woke up one morning to find himself tapped to be ordained as a deacon of a great city, a position of political and religious authority. But that was not all. He was chosen to serve as an ambassador to another land, a post that took him far away from the monastery and the quiet that he craved.

All this he was willing to take, for the God that he loved. Until one morning he awoke to the news that the pope had died. Before he knew what was happening, his brothers and fellow priests had elected him pope. Faced with the reality that he would never have his quiet monastery to himself, he attempted to flee, but was apprehended and ordained as pope against his will.flee(1)And this is how it happened to be that Gregory the Great, revered by the Catholic and Orthodox churches as a saint of epic proportions, came to be what John Calvin called “the last good pope” of the catholic church.

How interesting is it, that someone so incredibly gifted, someone whose zeal for God was oozing out of the pores, someone whose whole life had been dedicated to the church, would be so intent to avoid being named pope that he would quite literally run away from it?

But then again, all he wanted was quiet. Gregory just wanted to live out his days quietly in a monastery, and being the pope was possibly the furthest thing from that. Even though he was gifted, even though he would make a great leader and guide to the faithful, this quiet saint hoped to bury his talents for leadership because he would rather pray out his days in a monk’s cell.

I wonder if perhaps this is the sort of message that Jesus was getting at in the Gospels when he compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a wealthy Landowner who left his possessions in the care of three servants.

According to the story, three servants are given three amounts of wealth according to their ability. The first receives 5 talents, the next servant is given 3, and the final servant gets 1. At this point you may be wondering how much a talent is. Doesn’t sound like much. Well, it turns out that a Talent is roughly equivalent to 10,000 denarius, which equaled a days wage. So I did the math. Based on my ‘daily wage’, a talent would be somewhere between 660,000 and 800,000 dollars. The point here is that we aren’t talking about a paltry sum of money. We are talking about an abundance of wealth here.

So what happens to that wealth in the story? The first servant takes the 3.5 MILLION that he was given and doubles it. The second takes his 2.1 MILLION and doubles it. The final servant takes his 700,000 or so and buries it.

When the master returns, he commends both of the first two servants for their hard work, and welcomes them back to himself. But when he hears the story of the final servant, the master is angry—“what have you done?” He cries. The bank would have at least given interest, and here this servant has left his talent in the ground, where it can do nothing but sit and wait to be found.

In interpreting this parable, faithful Christians have had all sorts of ideas about what it means. Some have argued that the talents correspond to different groups—Jews who accepted Jesus, Gentiles, and Jews who denied Jesus. Others have said that the talents refer to spiritual levels of understanding. But St. Gregory, who once tried to bury his own gifts, has the heart of it, I think. After reading this parable, he reflected that, when it comes to God, to whom much is given, much is required, and that the greater the gift, the greater the reckoning.

John Calvin reflected that perhaps Jesus is trying to tell us that our gifts have value, that they are not unlike currency, and that we can use them to enrich one another.

But here is the point: the talents, whatever they may be, are meant to be used.

The greatest sin turns out to be the sin of omission—of seeking to opt out of using our talents altogether. These last few weeks we have been reminded that biblical stewardship consists largely in the reminder that whatever we have, we hold in trust—in other words, we have been given life and breath, abilities and vocations and blessings by God, and that we are called to put them to work in God’s service. That means we can’t afford to bury them out of fear that we might lose them. To fail to use our gifts is the greater sin. God would rather we lose them in the attempt than to not use them at all.

Instead, we are called to be like the first two servants, who joyfully invest what they have been given in the hopes of a great return. We are called to be like the Macedonians whom Paul praises in 1 Corinthians, who, though they have little, give joyfully to support Paul’s ministry in the world. Consider the fact that these poor Macedonians’ generosity helped ensure that the Christian faith would reach as far as Rome. Consider that, without Paul, perhaps none of us would ever have known about Jesus at all. Consider that perhaps WE owe our faith to generous Macedonians who gave out of their poverty thousands of years ago because they could do nothing less.

What seeds might we sow with the talents we have been given? How different might the world look in 5, 10, 2000 years because we were generous with what God has given us?

I leave you with some words from Gregory, the quiet saint who preferred the abbey but accepted the papacy because God would not let him bury his gifts:

“Let him then who has understanding look that he hold not his peace; let him who has affluence not be dead to mercy; let him who has the art of guiding life communicate its use with his neighbour; and him who has the faculty of eloquence intercede with the rich for the poor. For the very least endowment will be reckoned as a talent entrusted for use.”

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