Safety (Not) Guaranteed
+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation is from our Gospel reading, the parable of the three servants, but especially the third servant and his sheepish reply to his Master, … ‘I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…
“Safety first!” I’m sure we’ve all heard this old adage before – from sweet grandmothers and mothers looking out for the children under their care, to the driver’s ed classes and the reminders of what happens when you’re NOT a safe driver (I’m sure some people here were forced to watch “Red Asphalt” at some point), to the mandatory meetings and videos I’m sure people are required to attend and watch to fulfill the requirements of the human resources department where they work. Perhaps, though, the maxim of “Safety first” is seen in no place better than on playgrounds. I’m sure people my age and older remember playing on equipment that, by today’s standards, would have been condemned as horrific “safety hazards.” The jungle gyms and forts at my elementary school were made of wood and metal, with tire swings and a giant stride (if you even know what that is), and do you know what? It was AMAZING; not surprisingly, all that equipment has been gone for at least a decade now. The classic wood chips that we had to empty from our shoes has been replaced with cushioned mats, the metal slides that baked our backsides on sunny days have been replaced with plastic ones, and the tire swings and giant stride are just … gone. Gone in the name of safety. Safety first.
That seems to have been the attitude of one of the servants mentioned in our Gospel reading. The story goes like this: a Master had three servants and, before leaving on a journey, He entrusted to them His wealth. To one, He gives a small fortune – five talents, equivalent to 5-years’ salary. To the next, He gives two talents, and to the final servant, He gives one talent, and lest you think He’s being unkind in not distributing His wealth equally, this Master is being smart – Jesus says that He gives to them each according to his ability, so that the one who has more financial know-how has more to do with as he sees fit.
The Master goes on His journey, and in His absence, the servants carry on being stewards of what the Master had given them. The first servant is apparently quite savvy, even though he is, undoubtedly, a risk-taker, investing the Master’s five talents and in the process, doubling what he had been given. The one who’s given two talents has a similar idea, with similar results – doubling what he had been given. But that third servant … the one entrusted with only one talent … leans upon the axiom of “Safety first!” and does nothing. Granted, he doesn’t do anything bad – he doesn’t take that one talent, that one year’s salary, and blow it on pleasurable company or gambling. However, neither does he do anything good with it. He doesn’t even place it in a bank, where it could have accrued interest! He plays it safe, burying it in the ground, and as sometimes is the case, “playing it safe” comes back to bite him in the tuchus. The Master returns from His journey, and is delighted to see that the first two servants have done exceedingly well with the riches He entrusted to them. They made Him richer, and for this, He gives them highest praise – Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master!
Then … He comes to the third servant. You can imagine the sheepish look on that servant’s face as he fesses up, Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours. He thought he’d taken the safe route; neither did he make anything additional, but at least he didn’t lose it, either! Safety first, right? That should count for something, right?
You can imagine the surprise and, really, the horror that must have fell upon that servant as the Master spoke. You wicked … and slothful … servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? You know that, do you? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest! So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away! And cast this worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Wow. Harsh. Perhaps it sounds uncharacteristically harsh for a parable coming from the lips of our Lord, but here’s the thing: the Master is fully justified in carrying out this sentence on the wicked servant. That guy had one job to do … and because he feared for his safety, because he feared the retribution of what would happen if he failed … he ended up failing. His fear paralyzed him, preventing him from doing what he had been given to do. Safety first? It’s a nice sentiment, but safety is not guaranteed in this parable. Perhaps a better take away here is another well-known adage: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” or perhaps a similar one, “No sacrifice, no victory.”
So that’s our parable for today, and obviously, as a parable, it’s not meant to be taken literally; again, the different things, different characters represent something else in order to convey an eternal truth. We should not read this as Jesus giving us financial advice, or Jesus saying that CPA’s and investors are the crème de la crème in the kingdom of God. No, we need to look at who Jesus is speaking with in order to get the full gravity of this parable.
Our Gospel lesson is a continuation of a discourse that began in Matthew 24, where the Gospel-writer records, As [Jesus] sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” In our parable, Jesus is speaking with – and to – His disciples, those soon-to-be apostles, soon-to-be “sent ones,” who would be going out into the world to proclaim the resurrection of Christ from the dead and the coming of the kingdom of God, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and condemnation for the unrepentant! This parable is meant for them, for all those who are tasked with spreading this Gospel message. Thus, Jesus is also speaking to all who follow in His train, to all Christians throughout time and space. Yes, my friends. He’s speaking to us, and the “talents” that Jesus has entrusted us with is the same good news that was entrusted to the apostles those centuries ago. So, of course, the question becomes, which of the adages have you followed? “No sacrifice, no victory”? Or, “Safety first”? If we’re honest, I think we can all say that we’ve erred on the side of “Safety first” more than we’d care to admit. I know I have.
If you’re like me, there have been moments which were perfect opportunities for witness … and you kept silent, for fear of rejection, or anger. When you had the opportunity to reach out to help someone in body and soul … you stayed put and lifted not even a finger. When you had the opportunity to comfort a nonbelieving neighbor … you played it safe and said nothing. Even the most fervent missionaries among us, I’m sure, have had moments like this where we follow the path of least resistance. And for this, we should be ashamed. We ought well to be ashamed and contrite for our lack of compassion, choosing complacency and comfort over the necessary awkwardness that comes with addressing sin. We should be ashamed of our love of comfort, our reviling of things that make us work harder in service of God and neighbor. “God forbid that we have to actually sacrifice something in our lives for our faith! God forbid we actually have to make time for devotions and prayer! God forbid we give something up, like a pew or parking space, for visitors!” Friends, for this, we should be ashamed. We, like the third servant, have failed. We should be ashamed that we choose safety over mission. Make no mistake, we will not hear “Well done, good and faithful servant!” because we stay silent and unmoving! Safety is not guaranteed if we play it safe!
We are, instead, called to be bold, daring even. We are called to be risk-takers with the gift our Lord has given us, to follow the adage, “No sacrifice, no victory!” After all, Christ Himself did not play it safe. He is one Servant, a suffering Servant, who did not take the path of least resistance, but rather walked the Via Dolorosa. He endured the worst suffering imaginable, forgoing any comfort that could have been His. Far from pursuing safety, He died the cruelest death ever conceived, and He did all this … for a people who, by their very nature, hate Him. That is a the more difficult path, to be sure. Safety was not guaranteed by any means for Christ our Lord, but “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” “No sacrifice, no victory.”
I say this, not to exhort you to be more like Jesus, as if He’s a mere example to follow. No, I say this to encourage you with the reminder that, because of His risk-taking, because of His boldness in the face of suffering and death, your safety, in one sense, is guaranteed! Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, you can rest in security and safety, knowing that you rest safely in His hands, and that nothing in this world can separate you from your Savior! You can rest in the knowledge that, in spite of your flesh which aspires to nothing but complacency, comfort, and safety … in the waters of holy Baptism, you were given the Spirit of the living God who, by no virtue of your own, enables you both to will and to do what you are called to do! We have our moments of weakness, of putting safety first instead of the daring investment we know is required of us, but thanks be to God that the suffering Servant did so in our stead, and for His sake, on the Last Day, we will hear the Master declare to us, Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master!
+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.