November 13th, 2011
“A Hard Man, A Generous Master”
The church calendar is winding down. With the beginning of December, and the season of Advent, we start our new year – but in these last few weeks of November, the lectionary brings into focus the last day – the second coming of Christ – the judgment day.
Today, a parable of Jesus concerning that day. The parable of the talents. And while a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, it's easy to get that heavenly meaning wrong. One bad interpretation goes something like this:
“When Jesus comes again, he will settle accounts, and those who have used their time, their talents, their money wisely – for things he'd endorse, will do well. You know, the people who give lots of money to church, the people who are always volunteering for this or that. And the people who generally do what God wants – be like them. Not those other people who just bury their talents, and keep everything to themselves. Don't be so selfish and fearful, or you will be condemned!” We might even think of the bumper sticker that says it succinctly, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!”
But there's all kinds of problems with this interpretation. For one, it makes your salvation about you and your works. But we know that salvation depends on Christ alone. That interpretation can't be so good, because who among us is a good steward and invests wisely? If you have any regrets in life whatsoever, or any small fear that God could call you out in the end – you know you're not a very good steward of his gifts. If the point of this parable is, “get to work!” then we are all on shaky ground at best, and lost at worst. If we look at ourselves, our own works, we'll surely despair.
But let me direct you instead, away from yourself. Consider the character of the Master in the parable. He is a hard man, to be sure. He reaps where he doesn't sow. He expects a lot of his servants! Perfect obedience, yes. And for such a small sin of just keeping his money safe and not losing it (and in today's economy, that's not so bad, is it?). But the Master isn't satisfied. He calls that servant wicked and lazy, and casts him into weeping and teeth-gnashing. And you think YOUR boss is bad?
But this is the same Master, who before he goes, gives generous, lavish, even crazy amounts of money to his servants. Without asking qualifications or interviewing them. Without collateral or contact. He throws his wealth around with abandon. He gives recklessly. And when his servants are faithful, in the end, he says, “that was only a drop in the bucket! You've been faithful with a little, I will set you over much” What's wrong with this master?
He is divine. The Master in the parable is, of course, God. He whose justice is perfect, whose righteousness is most righteous, who is holy, holy, holy. He who establishes the law – and holds sinners to it. He who decreed that sin means death, now and eternally, and who knows every sin you've committed in thought, word and deed. He is the ultimate, terrible, fearsome judge, whose harsh condemnation will stand forever against the objects of his wrath. God means business.
But He is also the one who gives. He who gives even more generously, freely, and fully than any character in a parable. He gives us life, and breath and health and wealth. He gives house and home, wife and children, land, animals and all I have. But most of all, and best of all, he gives salvation in Christ. He sends his son to live and die and rise for you.
He, Jesus, stands in the gap between you and the fire of God's wrath, and he, Jesus is consumed instead. He stands before the bench of God's jurisprudence and bears the sentence of death in your place. He suffers the punishment, the torments of hell for your sin and all sin of all time – at the cross. And. It. Is. Finished. He dies, but death cannot hold him. And his new life is your new life, too.
We in no way deserve all this. We're untrustworthy and unqualified and wicked and slothful servants – but by the working of the Spirit, and in the power of his Word, he makes us faithful. He looks at you and says, “Well done! Here's a reward!” because when he looks at you he sees only Christ.
So don't let this parable scare you. Only those who don't know the true character of the Master need fear. For while according to the Law, our God is a fearful judge – according to the Gospel, he is a kind and loving Father. So look to his Gospel promises in Christ.
And what about those talents? What about the gifts that he gives you!? You don't have to, but you get to – put them to work. But how? How does one “invest” the treasures of God?
For one, by faith. By the word and sacraments are our spiritual treasures. Don't bury them in the yard, but plant them deep in your heart. And there they will bear fruit that will not stay buried. The Confessions say, “cling to God's Word, pray diligently, abide in God's goodness and faithfully use the gifts...received.” Receive and cherish his gifts, and they will grow in you. Love God with all your heart.
But also love your neighbor. Love him by helping him in bodily needs. Love him by showing kindness and respect. Love him by telling him the truth, even sharing your faith. Love him, even if it means dying for him, for that's how you've been loved. Love him by using whatever gifts God has given you, time, talent, treasure. Love him, or her, or them... as best you can, even the least of these, and you do it unto Christ.
A tall order. We'll need God's continued grace all the while. But in Christ, we are blessed to love God and one another, empowered by his Spirit. And when he comes to settle accounts, we have nothing to fear. The gifts will keep on coming, as ever greater surprises are unveiled. For Christ is ours, and we are his, forever. Amen.