Monday, November 17, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30, for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, "Banking on the Master"

“To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” Amen. Last week, this week, and next, we’re in Matthew chapter 25, a series of three parables that all focus on Jesus’ second coming, and our readiness. Last week we heard about the five wise and five foolish virgins, and how those who were wise were well supplied with God’s free gifts, and were ready for Jesus’ return. This week we have the parable of the ten talents; a lesson in stewardship and how we use God’s gifts until Jesus returns. Next week shows the final judgment and God’s sorting out of the sheep from the goats. Each lesson shows a different aspect of why some pass through the judgment of God into His blessing and glory, and others fall under the judgment and go to their eternal punishment.

In the parable today, the master who leaves on a long journey, and entrusts his possessions to three servants—represents Jesus, who has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven, until He returns to earth to judge the living and the dead. Jesus, or the master, gives some very large sums of money to each of the servants, each according to their ability. A talent was a unit of measure, that varied somewhat, but was approximately 75 pounds. And in this parable its 75 pounds of silver, so we’re not talking about just a couple of coins, but sizeable sums of money. The Bible tells us in Romans 12:6, that God gives us our differing gifts according to the grace given to us, and that we are to put them to use. Ephesians 4:7 tells us that our gifts come “according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” God is very generous in His giving, but we don’t all have the same gifts as everyone else. Everyone has different gifts. But we’re not to grow jealous or complain, but be thankful for what we have, and even what someone else has, and to be content to use whatever God has given us. God doesn’t call us to answer for what someone else has been given, but for what He has given to us. And God also promises in the parable to give more to those who show themselves responsible with what they are given.

We should pause and reflect on the incredible generosity of Jesus, that He entrusts His people, His church, with these gifts in the first place. It’s an incredibly trusting thing to do. The imagery is similar to the idea of a wealthy businessman who owns a successful company, and divides up the capital between three of his children, and puts full trust in them to manage it faithfully while he’s gone. It’s a great weight of responsibility, but it also shows the love and trust he has. So also, when God has blessed us with His gifts in Christ Jesus, this reflects God’s great trust and love for us. But notice that His evaluation of the servants is not based on how successful they were, in the amount of profit they produced, but simply their faithfulness to put what was His to good use. In the same way for us, God charges us with faithfulness to Him, but He’s in charge of the results.

Now what might those gifts be? What are the “talents”? If I asked you which of God’s gifts should not be counted, might that help you to answer? Everything that God has given to us, gifts great and small, are blessings and gifts from His hand. We each separately enjoy different measures of God’s gifts of creation, such as our natural intellect and abilities, material possessions like money, home, or a job. Our health, our creativity, our family, etc. Any of these can be put to good use, or they can be wasted and squandered. We also as Christians enjoy even greater gifts; spiritual gifts that Jesus entrusts to His church. Forgiveness of sins, God’s Word, or gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some may have the gift of teaching, or administration, or encouraging, or generosity, or cheerfulness. Any and all of these gifts have their usefulness and place in God’s kingdom. No gift is so small that we should despise it or think ourselves unworthy or of no good to anyone. No one should think that they have no gifts, or nothing with which they can serve Christ and His needy ones. In next week’s text, we’ll hear about the simple act of giving a drink of water to the thirsty. Or visiting the sick and the poor and the imprisoned. Some people may be confined to a nursing home bed, but devote themselves fervently to prayer, and accomplish great things for the kingdom of God, that go unseen.

What is different about the two servants who were rewarded, and the third servant who was punished and cast into the outer darkness? The first two eagerly received their talents, and they banked on their master. The master entrusted them with these gifts, and they trusted in the master and His gift, and put it to work right away. They risked putting them to use, and the investment paid off. Why should we be bold and confident to put our gifts to use? Why should we trust God to bless the outcome of putting to work what He has given to us? Because we can bank on our master. We can be assured that His gifts are good and that they will flourish when put to use, not left idle. God promises us that His Word is powerful and effective, and will not return to Him empty. Just consider God’s Word—if we put it to use, hearing and living it in our lives, speaking it to others, examining our lives in its light and receiving the blessings it gives to us in Jesus—we will see how powerful and effective God’s Word is! If we put our creativity or artistry, or the voice God gave us, or our sympathy for the needs of others, or the gift for encouraging others and building them up—if we put these gifts to use, we should not be surprised to see God bless them. If our gifts seem small or few in number, or underdeveloped—put them to use! Show yourself faithful in a little, and God promises that He will entrust you with more.

The difference between the first two servants and the third servant, was that he didn’t bank on his master at all. He despised the gift, as shown in his indifferent words: “Here, you have what is yours.” It’s as though he never even wanted the gift and was glad to give it back. Didn’t put it to use, didn’t do anything with it but bury it and hide it away. The master called this servant wicked and lazy, for doing nothing—not even leaving the money with bankers to earn interest. Just buried it in a hole where it profited nothing and no one, least of all the third servant. The lazy servant gives the excuse that he feared his master, because He was a hard man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he scattered no seed. He pictures the master like Ebenezer Scrooge, or someone who can squeeze blood out of turnips. But is this a fair picture of the master? When the master repeats these words back to the servant, as a question, is He admitting this is who He is, or is He putting the servant to his lie, by showing that he would have actually done something with the talent if he really believed the master was so hard? In either case, the punishment for the lazy and worthless servant is swift and severe.

This part of the parable raises an important question about how we perceive God. Do we encounter God as a generous and trusting master, who wants what’s good for His servants, blesses them richly, and returns to give even greater blessings if we’re faithful? Or do we encounter God as a hard taskmaster who takes away the little that we were given, because we buried it and did nothing with it? Step back with me to look at another Bible passage that has intrigued me for the past few months. I think it relates to how we perceive or encounter God. In Psalm 18:25–26, we read: “With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.” There are three positive qualities—the merciful, the blameless, and the pure—and to those who reflect these characteristics, God shows Himself to be merciful, blameless, and pure Himself. But to the one negative quality—the crooked—God makes Himself seem tortuous.

I puzzled over this. God does not change in Himself—as the Scriptures tell us in various places. He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. So how can God seem merciful, blameless, and pure to some people, and yet seem tortuous to others? Aside from the question of how best to translate that last word, why would God appear differently to different people? The passage itself is telling us that it’s the way that God responds to our dealings with Him or others. God won’t ever be found as a friend to the corrupt, the wicked, or lazy. To them, He will appear hard or as an enemy. Not because God in Himself is that way or desires to be anyone’s enemy, but as He openly tells us, He desires the wicked to turn from their way and live. And the qualities of being merciful, blameless, or pure, are all qualities that don’t naturally arise from inside ourselves and who we are, but they reflect the working of God’s gifts in and through us. But the way that we live and orient ourselves toward or away from God will reflect itself in the way that we see God—whether as generous, loving, and giving, or stingy, angry, and unyielding. And if we see the latter, it’s again, not because we are seeing God as He actually is, but rather we’re seeing a reflection of our own sin. God is resisting our sin. Why does He do that? That if at all possible we may come to repentance, and turn away from sin.

Back to the parable—we should know and trust that God is the generous and merciful master. He has amply shown this to us in the generosity of His giving, and most of all, in giving us Jesus Christ His own Son. When it comes to “banking”—God has invested a wonderful lot in us, by giving up Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Other parables even show God’s generosity as extravagant —the feast for the lost son returned home, or the cancellation of an unthinkably large debt of 10,000 talents, in the parable of the unforgiving servant. God’s forgiveness is abundant and overflowing. He’s not stingy or short of blessings to pour down on us—but He does not tolerate hoarding or burying His gifts, and not putting them to use. It’s unthinkable to Him that His mercy would not produce mercy in us, or that we would despise His gifts so much that we would be eager to get rid of them, for fear of His demands. If this is how we see God, it’s because we completely misunderstand who He is in His generosity and love, and we have despised His grace.

But to know who God is, and to bear a little reflection of Him, when He welcomes us into His eternal joy, is to know Jesus Christ. To be given the praise, “Well done, good and faithful servant”—is to know Jesus, our master, who is truly the Good and Faithful servant, who did all of His Father’s will. All the way to giving Himself up and dying for us. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). His extravagant and generous love gave up everything to make us rich. Rich in grace, and in the fullness of salvation. To bear a little reflection of Him, and to be called “good and faithful” is because His grace has worked itself in and through our lives. “A disciple is not above His teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24). And we can bank on that master, we can bank on Jesus to know that what He wants for us is to bless us and bring us into His joy. Christ, who once offered Himself to bear the sins of many, “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” Hebrews 9:28. Wait eagerly for Him, and bank on His coming! In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Who is the man going away on the journey in Matthew 25:14-30? What is so remarkable when we consider that Jesus has entrusted to us His possessions? What promises accompany His gifts, that show they will flourish and bear fruit? Isaiah 55:10-11; Mark 4:26-29.
  2. How are God’s gifts measured according to our ability? Ephesians 4:7-8; Romans 12:6. Should this lead us to jealousy, or to complain that we are gifted differently than someone else? Whose gifts are we responsible for?
  3. What gifts and possessions has God given to you, and how are you using them? What gifts have you neglected to use, and what prevented you?
  4. How are the first two servants rewarded? Why is it a blessing to be given greater responsibility?
  5. How did the third servant perceive God? Was his perception accurate? How do our actions and attitude toward God and others shape how we perceive God? Psalm 18:25-26; 1 Samuel 2:30; 15:23. In Psalm 18:26, does God present Himself as contrary to the corrupt because He is that way in Himself, or because He is responding to their character? Cf. Isaiah 28:21. In this verse, what does it mean that God is stirred up to a “strange” or “alien” work? What instead comes naturally to Him?
  6. In Matthew 25:25, the servant sounds like he never even wanted the talent, and is glad to give it back. Why will this attitude and behavior never be rewarded? What was the minimum he should have done? What was his punishment?
  7. The commendation “good and faithful servant” is also a gift. Why does it perfectly describe Jesus Christ?  Why does God delight in commending Christians, as “little christs” for using the gifts and talents He has blessed them with? 2 Corinthians 10:12, 18; Hebrews 11:1-2.

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