The Perils of Doing the Minimum

Pentecost 22A, Sunday, November 13, 2011


Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

What cheerful readings we have today!  The prophet Zephaniah starts us off with a passage about the day of the Lord—a day when the Lord will come in wrath and destruction.  “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”  Zephaniah’s words are pretty harsh: blood shall be poured out like dust, and flesh like dung.  One might expect that with such harsh penalties, God would be moving against the really wicked people: murderers, rapists, pedophiles, idolaters, and the like.  But that’s not the case.

The ones God is condemning in today’s reading haven’t done much of anything bad … but they haven’t done much good, either.  They’re the ones who rest on their dregs—the people who are complacent, who coast through life, who do the minimum and play it safe.  God is condemning those who say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  In other words, what those people were saying was that they didn’t believe God could—or would—act in the world.  They didn’t believe God really mattered in how they lived their day to day lives.  “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  That’s something people might say today!  Let’s be honest with ourselves: how many of us know people who think like that?  How many of us have thought things like that ourselves?

It’s pretty easy to go through life like that.  Comforting.  You can coast through life, get by with resting on your dregs, and doing the minimum.  After all, if God doesn’t care enough to act, why should you?  Why spend the extra effort to do something awesome instead of something ordinary?  Why take the risk of standing up and pointing out the evil and broken things in the world?  Why not just go along to get along?  Why not just take the easy way out and let someone else do the hard work?

The Parable of the Talents is also about someone taking the easy way out.  This parable is told in the middle of a group of four parables about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  So, again, we’re talking about the coming of the day of the Lord.  And again, the Parable of the Talents has a harsh condemnation of someone who takes the easy way out.

A master entrusted his servants with money before leaving for a long time.  A ‘talent’ was an amount of money worth somewhere between 15 and 20 years worth of wages for an ordinary person.  That was a huge gift—extravagant, awesome, and far beyond anything the servants could earn.  Now, in those days they didn’t have much of a financial system.  They didn’t have reliable banks, or a stock market.  In fact, the prudent thing to do with money was to bury it—that way, it wouldn’t get stolen and you’d have it when you needed it.  And that’s just what the servant who was given one talent did: he buried it.  Nothing bad was going to happen to that money—but nothing good could be done with it, either.  The servant was safe, he thought—he’d done the minimum.  He could rest comfortably in the knowledge that he’d done his part.  The master’s angry response seems a little harsh.  After all, the servant didn’t lose or damage the gift; he didn’t do anything really bad, he just didn’t do much good, either.

In the last few days, we’ve seen a graphic real-world example of the consequences of that attitude.  Jerry Sandusky, a respected and influential member of the Penn State athletic faculty and a leader in a great charity, allegedly raped several boys over the course of several years.  I am sure we are all praying for the health and well-being of his victims.  But Sandusky could only commit his crimes because the people who knew or suspected what was going on, did little or nothing to stop it.  Joe Paterno heard the allegations back in 2002; others witnessed abuse starting (as far as we know) in 1998.  We all know that Coach Paterno is a good man, who has done many great things both on and off the field.  But in this case, he, like several others, did the minimum he was required to do by law: he reported it to his superiors at Penn State.  When the school administrators did nothing, he didn’t pursue the matter.  It was someone else’s problem.  And because all of the people who knew about or suspected the abuse took the easy way out and did the minimum, it went on for years.

Taking the easy way out can be very tempting, and there are so many excuses.  The people in Zephaniah’s day took the easy way out because they didn’t believe God cared.  The servant in the Parable of the Talents took the easy way out because he was afraid of failing.  And a wide variety of excuses and explanations have been offered for the people who knew or suspected about Sandusky’s actions.  We look at the excuses other people give and we see them for the flimsy things they are.  But what about ourselves?  Are we just coasting through life, making excuses for resting on our dregs?

In the Parable of the Talents, there were two other slaves.  They also received extravagant gifts from the master, but instead of taking the easy way out they used those gifts the master had given them.  They took those talents out into the world rather than hiding them away.  Our translation calls them “good and trustworthy,” but that phrase could also be translated “happy and faithful.”  They lived their lives in hope and joy, rather than in apathy, fear, or cynicism.  What would our lives be like if we did the same?  What would our world be like?

God has given us many blessings.  The Lord God Almighty created us, and the whole world around us, everything that is, seen and unseen.  All the good things that we have come from God.  Jesus Christ came to save us from our sin, giving us the gift of salvation which we could never have earned.  Jesus lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose again that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came that we might become children of the light, rather than children of darkness.  The Holy Spirit is our comforter, our advocate.  The Spirit is with us always, inspiring us with God’s wisdom and grace.

God didn’t give us all these things so that we could bury them in the ground, take the easy way out and do the minimum.  God gives us these gifts so that we can enter into God’s joy.  God gives us these gifts so that we could use the blessings we have received to bless others.  God gives us these gifts so that we can be the body of Christ in the world.  May we receive God’s gifts with joy and faithfulness, and use them for the building up of God’s kingdom and the blessing of God’s people.



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