24th Sunday after Pentecost

24th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 25:14-30

[And Jesus said:] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

“Well done, good and faithful servant.” 

  • How often haven’t we heard—or even spoken—these words at the funeral of some beloved member of the church? 
  • How often haven’t we seen these words etched onto tombstones in a cemetery or printed on the cover of the memorial folder for a funeral? 

This is what every believer hopes to hear his or her Lord say when approaching those proverbial “pearly gates” of heaven.

Since no less than Jesus himself speaks these words twice in Matthew 25, there is no denying that they carry biblical clout. But is it really a great idea to latch onto this phrase and use it as the be-all and end-all of how we assess what the Christian life is all about?

Some of you are shouting in your heads “I thought we were saved by grace alone!” We do teach that, and yet I have long held the suspicion that a lot of people come to church each week with the nagging fear that they are not “good enough” for God. Hence, a lot of even the most virtuous of Christian deeds get fueled by guilt and fear accompanied by an overwhelming desire to hear God say “Well done . . .” when the roll is called up in heaven.

So a main job of gospel preachers is again and again to proclaim the real good news that in Christ, we are all saved by grace. If we are in Christ, then what God will say to us at the end of days is not in question and is most certainly not determined by whatever grade we managed to achieve on the Report Card of Life.

This week’s parable, the second of three in a row in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, is as challenging as last week’s story about the foolish virgins who weren’t prepared for the bridegroom’s delayed arrival. To those of us who have grown up with capitalism, a story about servants giving an accounting to their master could sound like a warning from Jesus to invest our money well, or at the very least to deposit it in the bank for interest! However, the story isn’t about money: Jesus uses it as an illustration, but as always the meaning is surely much deeper than mere cash or bank balances.

The setting of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel helps: as Jesus nears his death, would he really be spending time telling his disciples to invest their money well? We suspect he would not, so the story must be about something “more.” As Jesus leaves his parting instructions to his disciples, Charles Cousar says, he uses these stories to “direct the hearers’ attention to the issues at hand, to faithfulness, preparedness, and risk.” In this story, we hear about a servant who buried the money he had been given, instead of circulating it in the world and multiplying its value and its effect. 

  • Have we buried the gospel, keeping it safely hidden and taking it out mostly on Sunday mornings? 
  • Or have we opened our lives up, joyfully, to the extravagant transformation of the gospel?

There is a lot about this passage that is a struggle. As the generous giver of livelihood and purpose who comes, departs, then returns again for a final reckoning, we can reasonably assume we are meant to link the “master” with Jesus in Matthew’s parable. How do we reconcile the generous Jesus of love and compassion we know with a slave owning capitalist who would deny housing and even life to a frightened servant? It just doesn’t make sense.

Maybe we should direct our attention to earlier in the passage where the servant describes just why he buries his large sum of money in the dirt. He accuses the master of reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter; completely denying that God is the source of all that grows. It is this remark that angers the master and inspires him to punish the servant and place the servant outside the circle of care and protection. 

If we are identifying the master with Jesus, clearly the problem here is that the servant doesn’t know Jesus. Despite trust given, love shown, and invitation extended, this person has made a deliberate decision not to recognize Jesus as he is, not to see or embrace the love that is offered. Just as we saw wedding guests refuse an invitation and Bridesmaids wonder around without regard or care for the wellbeing of the coming husband, this parable gives us another example of people Jesus makes every attempt to reach only to be refused.

I am beginning to see this parable as a invitation. An invitation for us to see what we can accomplish this week if we place our trust in God to return to us and to never leave us.  An invitation to love God’s people with such generous abandon and we leave our fear outside and walk into God’s presence with the joy it deserves.

So what is Christian living? Where does it fit?Maybe the Parable of the Talents gives us a ready-made answer and maybe it is one that ties in with an image Eugene Peterson has used. Peterson says that in most languages (like English, for instance) there are just two verb voices: the Active and the Passive. 

  • In the Active Voice, the subject is solely responsible to initiate action: “The boy throws the ball.” “I am painting the wall.” 
  • In the Passive Voice something is done TO the subject: “The boy was hit by the ball.” “The tree got struck by lightning.” 

This linguistic way of talking affects our thinking in other areas: we assume that all of life comes down to a choice between our initiating activity or activity being visited upon us. Either I do it or someone else does it but there is not much in between.

But in the Greek language there is also the Middle Voice. In the Middle Voice the subject enters into an action that was started by someone else and that will ultimately be finished by someone else. It’s sort of like jumping with an inner tube into an already-flowing river. You didn’t create the river nor cause the current to flow. Also, it will keep flowing to its destination even if you hop out of the river at some point. But in the meantime you can jump in, float happily on the current, and also do things to steer yourself, and position yourself, to avoid rocks and overhanging tree limbs, etc.

And the Christian life, Peterson suggests, is like that. We are saved by God’s grace alone but then are also given the opportunity to jump into that already flowing river of grace. The river and everything we get a chance to do while floating in it are ultimately all the work of God. Our actions in the river would not be possible were it not for God. But what a joy and privilege it is to be in that river at all!

Of course, if like the third servant you are convinced that there is no joy to be had—that the Master is a “hard man” who is more to be feared than loved—then even grace cannot make a dent. But if you catch all the joy of the grace that kicks all this off in the first place, it makes all the difference in the world in what you then do in response.

In the Parable of the Talents, although the third servant missed it, the very giving of the talents was itself a divinely initiated act of grace. Everything else that happened after that was all a direct result of grace, grace, grace. What we do in the midst of this great river of grace is important and every follower of Jesus who knows and experiences something of his holy joy must want to get in on “the master’s happiness” with every fiber of their being.

We demonstrate that we understand this joy when we do throw ourselves into such Christian living wholeheartedly. Then the motivation for getting busy with our talents is not fear and not guilt but the very joy with which those talents were handed out in the first place! And it’s not a matter of what we do versus what God does but is a matter of our cooperating with God by participating with God in his great program of cosmic restoration!

Near the end of C. S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” Aslan the Lion takes Lucy, Edmund, Peter and everyone to the New Narnia—to what we would call “heaven” or the New Creation. It is a place of astonishing light and beauty; a place where every blade of grass seems to mean more and where every creature sings for the sheer joy of the Creator. It is a place where everything is just so real in depth and color that the mere sight of a daisy takes your breath away and makes you weep for the sheer beauty of the thing.

But then, in the midst of all this splendor, the children see a group of dwarves huddled together, convinced that they are sitting in the rank stench of a barn–a place so dark that they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. Lucy is so upset that the dwarves are not enjoying the New Narnia that she begs Aslan to help them to see. 

Aslan replies, “Dearest Lucy, I will show you what I can do and what I cannot do.” Aslan then shakes his golden mane and a sumptuous banquet instantly appears in front of the dwarves. Each dwarf is given a plate heaped with juicy meats, glistening vegetables, plump grains of rice. Each also receives a goblet brimming with the finest wine anyone could ever imagine.

But when the dwarves dive in and begin eating, they start gagging and complaining. “Doesn’t this beat all,” they lament. “Not only are we in this stinking stable but now we’ve got to eat hay and dried cow dung as well!” When they sip the wine, they sputter, “And look at this now! Dirty water out of a donkey’s trough!” The dwarves, Aslan goes on to say, had chosen suspicion instead of trust and love. They were prisoners of their own minds, so they could not see Aslan’s gift of the New Narnia. Aslan could only leave them alone to the hell of their own devising.

Might something similar be going on with the third servant in this parable? Could it be that he just could not see the goodness of his master, choosing fear and suspicion over hope and joy?

I pray that even in the midst of a pandemic, we can continue to see the joy in using the gifts and talents that we have been given by God. It’s esy to overwhelmed and miserable, but let us see the light and look at God’s children and say: Well done, good and faithful servant, and live into God’s loving grace.