Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Date: Pentecost XXII + Proper 28 + 11/13/11
It is the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, the next-to-last Sunday of the Church Year. As you would expect, therefore, the lectionary readings have become particularly urgent concerning “the times and the seasons” and especially the last day of the Lord when He will come, as St. Paul said today, “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:1-2).
The clouds of judgment gather,
The time is growing late;
Be sober and be watchful,
Our judge is at the gate. (LSB 513)
Judgment Day. Jesus’ story or parable of the “talents” is part of that section of Matthew’s Gospel that began with the disciples’ question, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matt 24:3). Everybody is somewhat interested, some even to the point of making embarrassing predictions. In answer Jesus foretold of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the “abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (24:15), the signs of the cosmos falling apart, the “lesson of the fig tree,” and the repeated call to be ready. St. Paul chimes in saying, “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6). Then we have today’s little gem called the Parable of the Talents. Typical of our fallen, sinful nature, however, that always thinks in terms of a person being saved by works and not by faith alone, this story strikes us as if it were saying your salvation depends on how good a steward you have been in your life. If you’ve invested your resources in good works the fruits of your increase will qualify you to be rewarded by “the master” and invited into “heaven.” If, on the other hand, you are selfish and show no fruits or accomplishments you will be condemned. I mean how else are we supposed to understand “the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away,” and “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness,” and “in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (24:29-30)?
Well, that’s what I’m here for, to proclaim to you the Gospel in its unconfused relation to the Law of God and the grace of God. On the one hand, this parable is speaking about stewardship, the managing of those resources God has given whether that be in terms of finances or a person’s gifts and abilities. The Greek term “talanta” or “talent” refers first of all to a huge sum of money. On the other hand is our English word “talent” referring to a person’s particular abilities, athletic, creative or artistic aptitude, intelligence or the like. It works either way. And the story is about using your (let’s call them) gifts to produce something of benefit to yourself or others. The problem in our understanding of the point of the parable, however, is like the third servant who produced nothing. But the reason he produced nothing was because he didn’t understand that the “talent” he was given was a gift of a graceful God, not as a test of (as he called God) “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed.” In other words he really didn’t know the master. He was like those Zephaniah spoke of as, out of fear, “saying in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good” (Zeph 1:12). And how many today think of God primarily as an unjust or even capricious judge who is only in the business of punishing people and draining what little joy or happiness there is in life by setting up all sorts of impossible requirements for a moral and God-pleasing life?
The third servant was not condemned because he didn’t invest and bore no fruit. He was condemned because he didn’t know his master. He made God His enemy. So also all who do not know the one, true God of grace do not belong to Him, do not recognize His gifts and receive the condemnation they fear in return.
True servants of God, sons of the kingdom, do not work to produce fruit in order to “go to heaven someday.” True servants of God, sons and daughters of the King, use their resources and exercise their talents in the service of God and neighbor because they are members of the kingdom already! Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are liberated, freed to joyfully use the resources and gifts God has given to the benefit of His kingdom and the benefit and welfare of our neighbor. Notice that both the first two servants ended up with a 100% profit! The servant with five talents made five more. The servant with two talents made two more. There may be servants with only one talent, limited financial resources or interests or abilities in life. But if the last servant would have invested it, lived his gift freely out of thanksgiving to God, he also apparently would have made one more! 100% is 100% after all. As it is, because he didn’t know his master, out of fear he made nothing but trouble for himself.
This parable answers the question not “what must I do to get into heaven?” but “how am I to live faithfully and joyfully as God’s child even as I wait the final day of complete deliverance from sin and death?” Notice that neither of the first two servants were invited to enter “heaven” or “the kingdom,” but to “enter into the joy of your master”! They were already servants of the master, citizens and members of his kingdom, enjoying His provision and gifts just like you are. What they longed for, what we long for, is the final joy of being rid of sin which hangs on and “doth so easily beset us” (Heb 12:1 KJV) until sin is ended and we attain the fullness of salvation.
I have a friend who was a fellow classmate at Minneapolis Lutheran High School and the first two years in college. He had quite a keen sense of humor and he and I teamed up briefly to perform some “Laurel and Hardy” skits on campus. If you can guess which one I played you will have a mental picture of my friend as the other one. He is a fellow Missouri Synod Lutheran Christian. What I didn’t realize at the time was his great intellect. He pursued his initial interest in science and specifically genetics. I remember hearing about his work with fruit flies and the like. He became a rather important person in genetic science. In fact, I remember the day he phoned me out of the blue to tell me (in his best Stan Laurel imitation), “Ollie, I just wanted you to know I got my ‘phid.’” I, of course, responded in character asking, “What do you mean ‘your phid’?” “My Ph.D.” he answered. He earned his Ph.D. in 1976.
After some more years I heard that he was pursuing a law degree to become a lawyer! He earned his JD from Harvard in 1989. What he did with these two seemingly unrelated “talents,” however, is put them together and he became actively involved in the legal implications of genetic science as in licensing and counseling in the medical biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology, diagnostic, pharmaceutical, and medical science fields. In other words he became a sort of watchman protecting God’s creation of human life!
My friend Mark has certainly been a good and faithful servant of many gifts and abilities. But I am sure he has never once considered his great accomplishments as having anything to do with his standing before God. His standing is the same as those of us of simpler design, namely, baptized into Christ, members of the body of Christ, sons and daughters of the King of grace by faith.
Dear fellow baptized and redeemed by Christ, we are ready every day to enter the joy of our master. Until then let us joyfully use the gifts God has given us to His glory and the benefit of our neighbors, however impressive or simple they may be. It is our witness and works of mercy in our life together, the fellowship of the faithful, that our Master and Lord and gracious God desires for His Church, His people, for you.