Matthew 25:14-30 / Proper 28A / 13 November 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Today is the second to last Sunday in the church year. Hard to believe it, but we are coming to the end again. And with the end comes some thoughts about the End, that is the end of all things. The Last Day. The Judgment. The coming of Christ in glory. Eschatology. Last things.
With thought of the end comes a note of fear. What will happen to us? Will our Lord deal with us graciously or harshly? Will our faith be vindicated or will be ashamed, or worse, at the coming day? Will the Last Day be a day of wrath or a day of mercy? The prophet Zephaniah declared a day of wrath against God’s own people for their complacency, their lack of trust. He called it a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, ad day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness a day of trumpet blast and battle cry.
Yet the apostle Paul paints a somewhat different picture of the Last Day. It’s comes suddenly and without warning, like a thief in the night there is no warning. People will complacently lounge in their “peace and security” only to find destruction. And yet notice the metaphor Paul uses. Labor pains. The destruction of the end are the labor pains. He might have used death throes or some other death image. But he uses an image of birth and life. The pain of labor gives way to the joy of birth. In the same way, the death and destruction of the old creation gives way to the life and salvation of the new. It’s just like Jesus’ parable of the budding fig tree. When you see its branches bud, you know summer is near.
The Last Day comes suddenly and quickly, but it doesn’t come unexpectedly, at least to those who hear the words of Jesus and take them to heart. His last words to His Church in the Bible are “I come quickly” to which the Church replies “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” Christians have been living and praying in that expectation for 2000 years. Every generation, from the apostle Paul, to the early church, to Luther, to our day, has thought that the end would come in their lifetime. Paul says as much in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 when he speaks of “we who are alive at the day of Christ’s coming.”
For Paul in Thessalonians, the coming of the last day is the end of night and the coming of the Day. The world’s night is ending. The dawning light has already appeared on that glorious first day of the week when the tomb of Jesus was revealed to be empty. The new creation had dawned with the defeat of Death in Jesus’ resurrection. The early church called Sunday “the Lord’s Day” for that very reason. Whereas the Jews of the old covenant worshipped on the seventh day, the last day of the old creation, Christians worshipped on the 8th day, the first day of the new creation, signifying that all had been fulfilled in Jesus, and even now by faith we live in what is coming soon.
Christians are “children of the day” living in the semi-darkness of early dawn. The world perceives it as darkness and so it does the works of the darkness. But you, baptized believers, are children of the light and of the day. While the unbelieving world sleeps in a drunken stupor, you stand ready, like a soldier on watch – sober, vigilant, watchful, with the breastplate of faith and love protecting your heart and the hope of salvation protecting your head.
And here’s the point: God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake (that is alive) or asleep (that is dead) we might live with Him. That’s what the Last Day is about for the baptized believer – not a day of wrath but a day of salvation, not a day of death but a day of life. That is what we now must believe, and what we do not yet have in ourselves.
The time in-between is the time of faith, which brings us to Jesus’ parable of the three servants. Each is entrusted property in form of talents. A talent is large sum of money, about a thousand day’s wages or more. So 5 talents is over 15 years’ wages for a common laborer. No small piece of change. Nor is five or even one.
A rich man entrusted his wealth to three servants. To one five, to another two, and to a third one. And then the man went away without so much as a word of instruction as to what to do. The first two doubled the investment. The one who had five traded with them and made five more. The one who had two did the same. But the third one took a different approach. He dug a hole in the ground and hid it.
After a long time, the master returns to settle accounts. The Last Day. Judgment Day. The day when the books are opened and the accounts are settled. The two who turned a profit are praised with a hale and hearty “Well done” and get to share in the joy of their Master. The third is condemned to outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth for bringing back his buried talent all safe and sound.
On the surface, the parable sounds like a judgment of works. The one who made much received much and even got the talent from the third servant. And so do all that you can do for God, hope for the best, and pray that you show some sort of profit at the close of business or you’ll be joining that third servant in the eternal unemployment line.
But the third servant is the key to understanding the judgment. Why didn’t he turn a profit? Why didn’t he do business? Why didn’t he transact with the world and invest with money that wasn’t his in the first place? He really had nothing to lose, after all. It was his Master’s money, not his. And his Master gave no instructions, made no demands, set no profit margin goals. He simply sent out his servants to do business with his property. And he knew his coin was good. He knew there would be a profit and his servants would have a share in his joy. So why didn’t the third servant do anything? Why take that shiny talent and bury it?
Why do we? What keeps us from doing things, from taking risks, from going outside our own comfort zones? Fear. In a word, it’s fear. Fear of failure, fear of punishment, fear of loss, fear of our father’s (or mother’s) disapproving gaze. Fear is the great paralyzer that prevents us from even getting off the starting line.
I spoke with a young mother recently. She was so proud of her son. He got such good grades, and she told me that she always praises him for his grades and rewards him. I asked her if she ever praised him for trying something he wasn’t good at and failing. Which received more praise, the easy A or the hard-earned C? She smiled as she thought about it and said she was going home to praise him for taking that advanced math class that was just a little beyond his ability.
If you’ve grown up with hard to please parents, a demanding father or mother for whom it was never good enough, then this parable is likely to strike a raw nerve. Fear. You can hear it in the servant’s voice: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”
That’s you and me under the Law, my friends. The Law is a harsh taskmaster. The Law demands perfection. If you offend in one point, you’re guilty of the whole thing. The Law demands obedience but it cannot produce a single obedient work. All it can produce is fear, dread, terror of the final day of reckoning when our works will be put through the fire of judgment.
Fear kept the priest and the Levite from helping the beaten man in the ditch. They were afraid of becoming unclean, of having to endure the judgments of the Law, the criticism of their community and family. If you want to know the life of fear, read the life story of Michael Jackson whose life revolved around one theme: It’s never good enough. And the harsh voices of his judges – the critics, his father, his own inner critic, judged him and left him unable to sleep. It always had to be better, more perfect, and it was never good enough. Someone would notice.
And if that’s your view of God as your heavenly Father, and if the Law is the only way to deal with Him, that’s where you’ll wind up too. Cornered by the critics. Paralyzed in fear.
But the good news is that Christ has set you free from that. What matters is not the abundance of your works, because they are not your works anyway. They are God’s works worked in you. How can you take credit for something that isn’t yours in the first place? What matters is trust, trust that Jesus settled your account on the cross with His perfect life and death so that you can transact in this world without fear of failure. And like the servants in the parable, there are no rules. Simply faith toward God and love toward others.
What was lacking in that third servant was not a profit but faith. He believed that his master was harsh, demanding, and cruel. And he got what he believed. Had he believed that his master was happy go lucky and carefree, that so long as you did business with the world and spread the master’s good name around he didn’t care what you made, that servant would have gone out and boldly done business as one who had nothing to lose.
You have nothing to lose. Salvation is yours. Eternal life is yours. The treasures of heaven are yours. The judgment ends in Jesus, and Jesus was judged in your place. You are free in Jesus to do what God has given you to do, knowing that in the doing it is God at work and He never fails. And even through your failings, your shortcomings, your weaknesses, His will is always done.
Yes, our works will be judged. They need to be cleaned up. The dross of our sin needs to be burned away. The fingerprints of the old Adam need to be wiped off so that we can clearly see that what has been worked in us has been worked by God Himself. Our works will be judged, but we will not be judged by our works but simply by faith.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (John 3:16-20)
In the name of Jesus,