No Digging
Matthew 25:14-30

by | Nov 22, 2023

PRAYER:  Loving and gracious God, scripture teaches us that we are called OUT of darkness and into your marvelous light.  Draw us into the light today, inspire and teach us to be your disciples; enable us to take the first of many steps that will draw us closer to you and one another… that we may build community in your holy name.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.

One of the coolest things I’ve ever done was go ziplining through a rainforest in Alaska.  In 2007, we took an Alaskan cruise and on one of the excursions, I got to go on a ziplining tour while Anna did something else that she thought was fun.  For the ziplining, we went up this staircase and stepped onto a platform built around a tree.  They’d hook up our riggings to a wire that ran from one tree to another and then one by one, we’d jump off one platform and fly to the next.  It was awesome.  They had a whole course of lines going through the forest, and after about 15 different zips, we ended up back at the main office where we would disconnect and go back down the steps.

At each platform, depending on where you were standing would determine who goes first, second and so on.  It just so happened that on the second to last platform, I was in line to go first.  So I stepped to the edge of the platform and pushed off towards the last stop.  When I got there and turned around, everyone on the other side was standing pointing at me and looking amazed.  When the second person came and joined me, they told me that as soon as I jumped off the platform and started zipping, a Bald Eagle swooped in and flew the entire distance directly underneath me.  I was the only one who didn’t see it.  But it was so cool!

When you go ziplining, there’s one pretty obvious cardinal rule: you can’t be afraid of heights.  There has to be a lot of trust to step off that first platform and know that you’re not going to plummet to the ground.  You’re at least 50 feet off the ground at any time.  I remember that there were a few people in the party that were pretty nervous, and once you step off that first platform, there’s no going back.  It was difficult to be sure, but it was definitely doable.  At the end of the day, you have to overcome your fears if you want to get back to the starting point.

In today’s parable, only two of the servants would have stepped off the platform; the third would have been gripping the tree in fear with his one talent.  In the first century, this was the largest unit of currency available at the time.  Some scholars guess that it would have been worth between 15 and 20 years’ worth of a salary for a day laborer.  The exact figure isn’t as important for understanding as it is that this was no small pocket change.  Imagine having that much money at your disposal, that you’re responsible for.  Of course the servant dug a hole and buried it to keep it safe.

On the one hand, there’s really nothing wrong with being cautious.  We view caution to be a virtue and rightly so.  But in the case of this third servant, his caution turned into fear.  Walter Brueggemann writes that “Prudence and wariness easily become self-protectiveness and restraint. Inhibition turns to fear, and the servant ends up refusing the risk of trading in the marketplace”.

The parable says that the master was gone a long time.  I can only imagine the fear this third servant would have lived with for all that time, worrying and waiting for the return so he could dig it up and give it all back, every penny accounted for.

And yet, when the master returns, the prudent decision of the servant is not rewarded.  It seems there were some better options for how to pass the time while the master was away.  The first two servants had invested their sums, 5 and 2 talents respectively, and each doubled the amount.  They are rewarded and given additional responsibilities as a result.  Then, the master turns to the third servant, who immediately begins offering explanations and notes that he was afraid to do anything but hide what he had been given in the ground.

The master is furious, calling the servant lazy, saying he could have at least put it into a basic interest-bearing account.  And as a result, he is punished.  Quite frankly, in all the stories in the Bible, this third servant got one of the harshest treatments of anyone.

It’s a hard pill to swallow.  I mean it’s not like the third servant went out and bought himself a new house or a Corvette chariot.  He didn’t go out on a shopping spree of any kind.  He just maintained what he started with.  He was safe and cautious.  And that seems to be the heart of one issue Jesus is trying to teach in this parable.

As John Buchanan notes, “The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. It is about living. It is about investing. It is about taking risks. . . The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently.”

As Jesus tells this parable, he is just days away from being arrested and crucified.  These are the words in the final act of his ministry.  There is a sense of urgency that you can’t miss.  He is expressing what he hopes and expects of his disciples after he’s gone.  This is a parable about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, faithful to him, even when he’s not there to show you firsthand how it’s done. And so, it is a parable about you and me as well.

This is a parable that’s often heard in the context of stewardship or even a reminder that we should use the skills we have rather than keep them hidden.  And while those are reasonable interpretations, they miss the mark in capturing the bigger picture of the parable.  God called those disciples in that time and place to make a difference, to take the opportunity to be influential.  And likewise, God has called us in this time and place to do the same.  The third servant had the opportunity, the calling, to take what had been put before him and do something for the glory of the master.  And instead of building up, he dug a hole in fear.

This parable teaches us that we have the opportunity to explore ourselves and seek to do more than just what minimal thing we can do.  We are called in this moment, as the disciples were called in theirs, to know what it means to re-present Christ.

From the first century until today, God’s people have had trouble stepping up to live fully into Christ’s call to live actively as disciples.  In the 1940s, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with this as he wrote in the midst of the Holocaust.  He offered “that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility.”  Running from responsibility looks a lot like digging holes.

One of the most influential things I’ve ever read is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.  I try to re-read this document at least once a year, and if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it.  While he sat in jail, King was responding to the letter to the editor that was published about him by several white pastors in Birmingham who declared that he was over-stepping his authority and should be more patient in the cause of civil rights.  King wrote:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;  who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

The middle ground, you see, the ground of inaction, the ground of passivity of the third servant, of the hiding in a hole is no ground to stand on at all.

When we live in fear, when we hide who and whose we are, that fear overtakes us and our desire to do the things we know are right – our ability to do the things we know are right become atrophied and immobile.  When we don’t use our voices for what’s right, the voice of Jesus becomes mute.

When we hesitate to volunteer because we are unsure of our abilities, or if we covet our time, we are digging a hole and burying the lessons of Christ in it.  The holes we dig for ourselves are all around us.  And, even when confronted with it, we keep digging.  In today’s discourse, we tend to dig our heals into the ground and refuse to listen to others simply because we disagree with them, and it only makes the holes we dig deeper.

This parable teaches us to choose another way.  It teaches us to stare fear in the face and stand on the side of Christ.  It calls us to be bold enough to take a stand instead of burying ourselves in the holes of fear and uncertainty.

The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church say that,  “The community provides the potential for nurturing human beings into the fullness of their humanity. We believe we have a responsibility to innovate, sponsor, and evaluate new forms of community that will encourage development of the fullest potential in individuals.”

Let us embrace our calling to take risks, not dig holes.  This is one of our primary callings in our mission statement to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.  To live into the kingdom of heaven that this parable describes means being ready to present ourselves to God not as maintainers of the bare minimum, but as faithful investors who lived fully into the lives God gave us.  It means that when we go out into the world, we re-present Christ to the world over and over again, sharing God’s love, sharing God’s compassion, living fully as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Rather than reaching for a shovel to make the holes of fear and insecurity deeper, let’s grab hold of the zipline, ready to step off the platform, ready to take the risk, ready to soar like eagles.  When we put down the shovels of fear, the light of Christ will shine our way; we will be bearers of light to the world with good news… Good news that will double what we’ve been given.

To God be the glory