Finding Your Drill-o-matic

Sermon for this week comes from Matthew 25:14-30, and it references this article about a man who was unusually proficient at an arcade game.

Finding Your Drill-o-matic

Every few summers my Dad and my brother and I go on a big canoeing trip. We go up to the Boundary Waters, the lakes on Minnesota’s border with Canada. We put all of our gear into canoes, and we paddle across a lake. All of these lakes are glacier-made, and a lot of them flow into each other in little creeks too small to canoe down, or in big waterfalls. When it’s no longer navigable, we pick up all of our gear and then we carry it and the canoes to the next lake. That’s called a portage. At the end of one of these portages, we were loading the canoes back up in the shadow of a big waterfall. And we sent off the first canoe, and then my partner and I got in ours, and started paddling. They warned us not to go to close to the waterfall, but we scraped across a branch under the water that sent us back towards it and had a little trouble turning around because of the current. Once we finally got turned around, we breathed a sigh of relief. Only to realize we were being sucked back in towards the waterfall. The churn of the waterfall was causing an eddy that pulled us back towards the falls and we had to paddle our arms off just to stay in one place. It was then that we realized one of the great truths of the world. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. There is no room for staying in one place in this world.

This isn’t just true in business or competition; it’s true in our spiritual life as well. The great monastic Bernard of Clairvaux said that those who do not progress in the spiritual life regress. There is no stasis.[1] Martin Luther describes faith as semper in motu, always in motion.[2] If we aren’t moving forward in our spiritual life, we’re moving backwards. That’s what makes Sunday School so important, even for adults. There are thousands, perhaps millions of Christians in their 30s, 40s, even 50s, who are living their lives with the religion of their teenage years, the last time they really thought about faith.

In our Gospel for today we have the story of a wealthy man who entrusts three of his slaves with great sums of money to hold on his behalf. He gives ten talents to his best slave, 5 to the next, and one talent to the third. He goes away for a long time. The first two slaves take the money and put it to work as their master expected. They invest it, and by the time the master returns they have doubled his money for him. The master is proud. He commends their work. “Well done good and faithful servant,” he says. “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

The third slave, however, figures that the safest thing to do is to protect the money he’d been given. He buries the money. The law at the time was that if you bury money, you aren’t liable if it gets stolen.[3] The third slave was sure not to lose, because when his lord returned he could dig it up and return it to him, and if not, he couldn’t be blamed. He was trying to tread water. But there’s no room for staying in one place in this world.

In Greek, the word talent doesn’t make any reference to our skills or abilities. A talent was a measure of weight used for silver, between 50 and 65 pounds, something like 10,000 silver denarii. To make a modern comparison a talent would be something like $50,000 dollars.

In the Medieval era, the English language adopted the word talent on the strength of the central metaphor of this parable. The slaves were each entrusted with talents by their lord. And the word talent came to mean what we have been entrusted with by our lord. Not a set weight but the balance of our skills and abilities. Over the years that has evolved into the present meaning of the word talent, skill or ability. To put it shortly, in the Greek, a talent is a large sum of money. In English, a talent is something you have that isn’t money. And in the context of this parable, it’s both. Jesus is talking about everything our Lord has entrusted to us: our skills and abilities, our resources, and our connections.

Each of the slaves was entrusted with something by his lord with the expectation that he would do something with it before the lord returns. And in the same way we are entrusted with talents, both the financial resources we have as well as our skills, aptitudes, abilities and connections. They have been given to us by our Lord. And like the wealthy man in the parable, God expects us to do something with them. What we have, whether it is money or time or an unusual knack for knowing when people are upset, has been given to us for a purpose. They aren’t collectors items. We’re not put on this planet so that we can hang on to these things, and then go back to God with them still in their original packaging. We are put here so that we can use all of our resources to share the love of Jesus Christ.

The parable tells us that if we use our talents well, then they will grow. Using a skill is how you develop it. Practice makes perfect. I remember when I was a teenager I met someone who could raise one eyebrow. I couldn’t do that. My muscles weren’t coordinated for it. But I started trying (wiggle eyebrows). And eventually I developed my muscles and my ability to control them so now when someone in Fun and Worship is doing something a little bit suspicious, I can give them this look, and let them know that I’ve got my eye on them.

The flip side is that if you don’t use your talents they will atrophy and diminish. If you’ve ever been hurt you know that it doesn’t take long for your muscles to get weaker. Spend a week in bed and getting out of bed is much harder. That’s why we have to do physical therapy, so that we can develop our muscles and strengthen them to do more.

Kindness, generosity, compassion, and courage. All of these are like muscles. They grow stronger when you use them. And the grow weaker when you don’t.

A fellow named Owen Good was working for the Rocky Mountain News when he ran into a man at an arcade.[4] The man wouldn’t give his name. But he was sitting in front of one arcade game, called the Drill-o-matic. And hitting the jackpot every single time. He was winning tickets so fast that every once in a while an employee would have to open the machine and refill it with tickets so that he could keep going. Owen was so amazed at what was happening that he sat down to try and get his story.

The man, we’ll call him Robert, had grown up in the independent grocery store his parents owned. And in the store was this exact arcade machine. He played it obsessively, giving back the prizes, until he developed such good muscle memory that he could win the game every single time. He was a perfectionist, and he loved being able to do something absolutely perfectly. Eventually his dad got sick, and then his mother, and they were forced to sell the business to pay for the medical expenses. After they died, with the business gone, Robert found himself out of a job. And he wondered what he could do well enough to provide for himself. And he decided he’d do the thing he was best at: play the Drill-o-matic.

Every arcade you go into has prizes all along the walls. And the top shelf is full of really nice prizes, Xboxes, remote control cars, DeWalt power drills. Only the number of tickets you need to buy them is insane. Whenever I go into an arcade I wonder who it is that wins those prizes, and how long it takes them to accumulate enough tickets to trade them in for an Xbox. Robert is the answer to that question. And it doesn’t take him very long. Robert figured out every joint that has a Drill-o-matic, and he spent the next few years systematically going through each establishment, winning their biggest prizes, and then selling his winnings on ebay. He wins enough that he’s able to make his living travelling from place to place and playing the Drill-o-matic.

And so that’s what he does. Robert figured out the special talent that he had, and he found a way to use his talent in the world. It doesn’t matter how weird or useless that talent may seem, we were given our abilities and aptitudes and resources for a reason. To spread the love and joy of Christ. Each of us has a Drill-o-matic. Or two. Or four. Each of us has been entrusted with skills and abilities and resources. They don’t come from us but from our Lord. And we have also been entrusted with a mission. To share the love of Christ. To proclaim the redemption of the world. To care for the lost, the poor, the captive, and the downtrodden. The call for us is to look within ourselves to figure out what it is we are good at, and how we can apply ourselves to the mission of Christ. We have to find our Drill-o-matic, and use it for the glory of God.

And by investing our talents we will grow them, and we will find ourselves blessed, so that when our Lord returns and we are called to account, he will say “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”

[1] Steinmetz, David. “Matthew 25:14-30” Interpretation 34 no 2 Ap 1980, p. 175

[2] Ibid, p. 175

[3] Brisson, E. Carson “Between Text and Sermon; Matthew 25:14-30” Interpretation 56 no 3 JI 2002, p. 309.

[4] Good, Owen. “’The Ballad of Robert Jones’: Arcade Tickets Were His Currency” Gawker Media, 4 November 2008. Accessed 16 November 2014.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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1 Response to Finding Your Drill-o-matic

  1. Derek says:

    It’s neat to see a church reference the Robert Jones story 😉 cool!

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