Ready, SET, Go!

Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Date: Pentecost XXVII (Proper 28) + 11/15/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Last week the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel began making us Ready for the Lord’s final coming by telling us of the wisdom that relies on the grace of God; relies on it today before it is too late. Because we are still waiting for the Lord’s return this Sunday we can say once again, the door of God’s grace is still open and still reaches out to one and all, the grace that gives the forgiveness of sins, that makes one ready for the last day by making you a member of the kingdom of heaven now through your baptism into Christ and by faith in Him. Now, to this wisdom that relies on grace, over against the moronic foolishness that dangerously disregards grace altogether, Jesus today further gets us Set by telling another parable about faithfulness that makes full use of this grace in good works during our time of waiting.

It is called the Parable of the Talents. And whereas we use that word almost exclusively these days to describe a person’s special abilities or aptitude, the word originally meant balance, weight or monetary unit. The New Testament exegete and commentator Lenski defined a first century Roman “talent” (talanta) to be worth about $1,940 in 1932 U.S. dollars. So adjusted for inflation I figured out one of these “talents” today would be worth about $29,000 or $30,000! So the servant to whom his master gave five talents would have been around $146,000! For some of us that would be between three or even four years’ income, for others a year and considerably less than a year for yet others. At any rate it was not an insignificant amount of money left by the master of the place for his servants to deal with while he was gone.

And that’s what they were supposed to do with his property, his money, namely, invest it, work it to make it grow. “He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.” Likewise the one with the two talents. Each made a 100% gain (much to the envy, I’m sure, of the committees on appropriations, Budget and Financial Services of the U.S. House of Representatives). But then there was the one timid, fearful servant who didn’t invest the talent but hid it instead so that his master would at least get it back when he returned. For him it was as if the master’s gift didn’t exist at all. So it is for those who ignore these days of God’s grace, living and acting as if the grace of God were a cheap thing or that the door of God’s mercy is closed or can’t be found at all, until the Last Day when it will indeed be closed and it will be too late.

Notice the little detail that the master would not return until “after a long time” (v. 19). This is what was bothering the Christians in Thessalonica to whom the Apostle Paul had to write in one of the first three or four letters of the New Testament, around 50-52 ad, as we heard him say today, “you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (5:2). And, of course, here we are yet some 2,000 years after the Lord’s ascension still waiting. Nevertheless, as Paul wrote to the Romans, “you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11), and “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). And so it is, at least once a year, that we take notice and proclaim the doctrine of the Last Things, the coming day of judgment.

When the master returned and discovered what each had done with his property, he had nothing but good things to say to those who had faithfully employed and invested their talents while he was gone. These are words that all believers have good hope of hearing at the judgment seat of Christ, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But then the parable turns on the one servant who did not invest and employ his talent but, because of an unfounded fear of the master, only kept safe and alone that which the master had given him. “You wicked and slothful servant!” said the master. And what had been given him was taken away and given to the one who had the ten talents, and he “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For whatever else can be said about the agony of eternal separation from God in hell, it is a destiny to be avoided at all costs!

Now we said that this is a parable about faithfulness which makes full use of the grace of God in good works. Falsely are we Lutherans accused of denying that Christians should do good works. The Gospel and good news of the justification of the sinner by God’s grace through faith alone without the works of the Law still does not imply that we are saying a Christian should do no good works. The difference is that we do not do good works in order to be saved, but we do good works now because or as evidence that we are saved. “Our churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. [Yet] We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith,” Augsburg Confession, Article VI.

This parable before us today is mentioned in our Apology to the Augsburg Confession in (of all places) the article on the Invocation of Saints (XXI). But more to the point we read in the Formula of Concord these words:

“especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline and good works, and remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God, than that the works be not mingled in the article of justification; because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits” (FC Epitome, Art. IV of Good Works, Negativa, False Contrary Doctrine; Trig. p. 801).

So what are good works? Well, the chief good work is faith itself, as our Lord says in John 6, when the crowd asked Him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). This is precisely what this parable says, for faith is the creation and gift of our Master given to us. This faith is to be exercised, lived and invested in works of service.

Beyond faith itself, good works include everything the Christian is and does in daily life according to his or her station and vocation in life, whether that be your duties as a husband or wife, a father or mother, a son or daughter, then a student or teacher, a worker or manager. “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,” (as an expression of His ownership and Lordship and of your identity in Him), “giving thanks to God the Father through him…. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:17, 23-24).

Finally, those are good works which spring from the fruits of faith, anything and everything that comes from and encourages “love joy peace, patience kindness goodness, faithfulness gentleness self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23, uninspired Nestle text punctuation!). And here we might list also those unique or occasional works of mercy we may do such as giving special gifts to special needs or agencies of mercy whether in the Church or even in the secular community.

The Fifth Article, on Love and the Fulfilling of the Law, is the longest article in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, for the confusion of faith and works, of Law and Gospel was the fundamental issue at the time of the Reformation, and still is today. So to say it again using these words, Lutherans believe that Christians improve at keeping the Law, and they require good works. However, good works are not necessary for salvation, but are the necessary fruit of salvation. We can never pit our works, no matter how good or praise-worthy, against the wrath and judgment of God. Only Christ, our Mediator, our Master can stand for us in our place, take God’s wrath and punishment (which we deserve), and win for us eternal life, joy, and peace.

By faith in these words of Christ we are being made Ready and Set for the Lord’s final return and for the day of judgment. Above all we are to be wise in taking advantage of the grace of God and faithfully make use of His grace in good works. God grant that we may so do.