Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 11/19/2017

Today’s Parable of the Talents is the second of two connected and rather difficult parables in these late chapters of Matthew.  Last week it was the Parable of the Bridesmaids, five of whom were foolish, five who were wise, wise because they were prepared, because they brought oil for their lamps as they waited for the bridegroom’s arrival while the foolish didn’t.

In that respect, the parable is pretty straightforward; be prepared!  It’s difficult though, because being compassionate Christians, when we hear this, there’s a part of us that wants to say that the wise should have shared with the foolish.  Isn’t that what Jesus teaches?  Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  Didn’t he say that?  Had the wise bridesmaids shared though, there would have been no light when the bridegroom came; no one would have been prepared. 

To be sure there is an ethic of charity that is part of Jesus’ teaching, really part of the ethic of the entire Bible.  As he tells the Parable of the Bridesmaids though, that’s not what Jesus is talking about.  This section of the gospel is about the future and Jesus uses apocalyptic, sometimes frightening imagery to announce that there will be a reckoning, there will be judgment.  He cautions that one shouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about just when this will happen, but nonetheless, one must be prepared because the time is coming.  

There’s also a need to recognize that there will be a point when time runs out and those who are unprepared will be left in the dark, knocking at the door of the wedding banquet, but finding it locked.  It’s harsh and maybe that’s why we’d rather make this a fable about sharing; talk about harsh judgment that leaves some out in the dark, makes us uncomfortable.     

Then there’s the Parable of the Talents.  Even though talents in this case represent a sum of money, this is one that is often turned into a fable about working hard and doing the best you can with your God given talents whether those talents are great or small.  That’s not bad advice; it’s an important lesson to learn, but it’s not what the parable is about. 

The Parable of the Talents is introduced by the words, “For it is as if…” which connects it to the previous parable and associates the money entrusted to the three slaves with the preparedness of the bridesmaids; so it’s another parable about being prepared. 

Similar to the first parable, we’re bothered by the harshness of the ending because again there’s the issue of judgment and on top of that, from our perspective, slave number three did nothing worthy of being thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It seems unfair.  Like the first parable though, where we miss the point if we get stuck focusing on sharing, in this one, if we get stuck focusing on issues of fairness we again miss Jesus’ point.  This isn’t about fairness and justice, not that Jesus doesn’t address those things in other places, but similar to the bridesmaids parable, we have to look at the overall context and avoid making this about something other than being prepared for judgment.

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus approaches the issue in what I think is a rather Lutheran way.  I don’t know if he knew that, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to see this as being about God’s grace and our response to that grace.  In the parable, all three slaves are given a gift; one receives five talents, one gets three and the other gets one.  There is no indication that any of them earned what they got.  For all of them it’s a gift.  They get different amounts, that’s true but while I don’t think the amounts are the issue here, you can rest assured that they each got a lot, even the one talent slave. 

Estimates of the value of a talent vary but some go as high as the equivalent of $840,000, others are quite a bit less but all estimates represent a large amount, a large, unmerited gift.  So all three slaves were generously gifted with a gift of grace; they were given more than enough, more than any of them deserved.  The presenting issue then, has to do with what they did with the gift.

And what did they do?  The five talent slave traded and doubled the master’s money.  The two talent slave did the same.  Out of fear though, the one talent slave hid his money in the ground.  He didn’t lose anything, but he didn’t gain anything either.  When the master returned, the first two were praised and welcomed into the joy of the master, the third was called wicked and lazy, his talent given to the first slave who already had ten talents, and the third slave was thrown into the outer darkness.

All three slaves were given a gracious gift.  The difference between the first two and the third is that the first two responded to their gift, the third did not.  I claim that Jesus approaches this parable in a Lutheran way because what we have here is an illustration of the proper response to Luther’s theology of justification.  According to Luther, we are justified by grace through faith.  We don’t earn our way with works, with good deeds because Christ has done all that is necessary for our salvation.  However, that doesn’t mean that we do nothing.  That would be what is called cheap grace. 

Luther was so adamant about justification by grace alone and he reacted so negatively against any practices that even hinted at earning your way or contributing to your salvation that it can sometimes sound like he thought that good works didn’t matter.  If you read enough Luther though, you find out that’s not the case.  He very much advocates good works as a response to the gift of grace that’s been given. 

It comes out in Luther’s own writings and also in the Augsburg Confession which is the defining confessional document for Lutherans.  Luther didn’t write it, Philip Melanchthon did, but it very much reflects Luther’s thinking when it says, “Further, it is taught that good works should and must be done, not that a person relies on them to earn grace, but for God’s sake and to God’s praise.”  Good works should and must be done, not for us and for our salvation because Jesus has taken care of that, but instead they’re done for God’s sake and to God’s praise.

Going back to the three slaves of the parable; the first two boldly responded for the master’s sake and to the master’s praise.  The third slave had no faith in the master, only fear.  If the parable is about being prepared, in this case, to be prepared means to take action, to take action without fear in thanks for God’s gifts.  On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we could say that this parable is about offering and demonstrating thanks simply because God, the master, is worthy of such thanks.  From the context of the parable, I think that any of the slaves would have been praised even if their actions hadn’t resulted in a doubling of the gift.  They still would have been praised for acting in faith as an expression of thanks. 

I always say that parables are open to interpretation, that there’s not just one way to look at them and I’ve given you one.  With most interpretations, questions persist and that’s true with this one; the loose ends aren’t all tied up.  Most notably, the questions about judgment don’t go away.  The judgment rendered for inaction is harsh.  For Lutherans steeped in justification by grace through faith, this and other parables imply that not only is there a judgment, but that it is based on what you have done, works in other words and we’re not real sure where to go with that. 

What I see here though, is a caution against fear, in this case fear of judgment.  The third slave was paralyzed by fear and because of that, he did nothing and in the context of this parable, that mean he wasn’t prepared. 

Without question the Bible says that there will be a judgment.  According to this parable, what we need to know is that becoming consumed by when and how that judgment will take place and being afraid of it, gets in the way of discipleship.  We are called to be disciples.  We are called to be prepared for whatever is to come by acting in faith out of gratitude and thanksgiving for underserved grace.  As far as judgment goes, we acknowledge the reality of it but we don’t live in fear because we remember that Jesus is the judge.  His expectations of us are great, but so is his grace and forgiveness.

It seems that more and more giving thanks gets lost in the shuffle of everything else that goes on on Thanksgiving which is too bad because we know that there is much that we take for granted, things for which we ought to give thanks.  High on that list of things for which we ought to give thanks are God’s grace and forgiveness made possible in and through Jesus.  It’s grace that tells us that we don’t have to live in fear like slave number three, but that in faith we can act.  We extend the grace of God to others and in so doing, we are prepared.      

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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