Tuesday, November 18, 2014
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Cast ye out the unprofitable servant into outer darkness.
One of the most comforting messages of the Bible is that no injustice will escape the judgment of God. All of the lessons this morning highlight this affirmation of Scripture, as well as emphasizing the immediacy of this judgment. Zephaniah, like many of the Old Testament prophets, speaks of “the day of the Lord,” a day of reckoning in which the Lord will give to each according to his desserts. In the Epistle, Paul speaks of the day of the Lord as coming like a thief in the night; the Lord's return will be swift and unexpected. Finally, in the Gospel lesson, our Lord describes in a parable the final judgment; the parable describes an accounting for entrusted goods at the return of the rightful owner of those goods
The first thing that needs to be said about this parable is that the talents referred to are a measure of weight that was used in the ancient world for precious metals. Basically the owner entrusts his money to his servants; in modern terms they might be thought of as day traders. So the parable is representing the shrewdness of the servants with their master's money. It would be a mistake to conclude that the parable is basically about financial stewardship.
Let me explain. We all know that we come into this world entirely dependent on others for our care and nurture. In fact, we don't even have a choice about being born, and for many years, we are dependent on the love and care of others to provide for all of our needs, from the basic needs for food and shelter to the more subtle but no less necessary things like human interaction and conversation which allow for the development of speech. From a theological perspective, we would say that our entire lives are dependent for their origin and continuation on God. Everything we have and are is dependent on others and in the final estimation all is dependent on God alone.
What is interesting about the servants in the parable is that they have no property of their own. They are not told to go out and build a fortune out of nothing. The parable would have had a very different message had it been about many of our forbears who came to this country with nothing and by hard work and discipline achieved great success. Such a story would be inspiring, but it would not be good news. The servants do not have anything of their own. They trade what they have received. This is an honest assessment of the human condition. We have our origin in God. We owe our birth to our parents. We owe our eduction to our parents and teachers. Should we have it, we owe our good health to doctors and the Lord's care. Our response to all this really should be an immense sense of gratitude. There is a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving in the prayer book that probably many of you know. It states this truth in a beautifully poetic way: we bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life. But as Christians we have even more than these things: we have the knowledge of God's abundance grace and the power of faith to hold us through all of life's trials. The prayer goes on to say, but above all, [we bless thee] for the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.
Occasionally, people will ask questions like, if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, the only way to the Father, what will be the eternal fate of the native, half a world away, who has never had occasion to hear the Gospel? My friends, I have much greater concern for the bishops and ministers of our church who have been entrusted with so much; some of whom cannot state with sincerity or faith the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have no desire to be a controversialist, but I am very dismayed at how our Gospel witness is undermined when Christian leaders speak of Jesus as a way, or my way to God, as if our faith were a decision of expediency or convenience rather than the life-preserver thrown by God to us in the midst of a life-and-death struggle.
We have been given much; our life and being, our health and continuance, access to immeasurable grace and love. The parable and the other lessons remind us that we have to give account for what all this, and the judgment of God is imminent. We know cognitively, even if we don't apply it practically, that we can die at any time. What God demands of us is not that we magically produce quarters out of ears or dollars out of empty hats, but that we open our hands in surrender. You see, the two servants did not pretend that the talents were theirs. We hear no report that they were particularly anxious to guarantee the return of the investments. We know that investments by nature have a measure of uncertainty. Those two servants opened their hands to put into trade that which was not theirs anyways. It was the third who thought he needed to cling to it, in a futile attempt at self-preservation. It is the third servant who represents the solitary way, the fallen instinct to go-it-alone, apart from God and others. When we tell God and others, I don't need you, we are essentially like this third servant, clinging to our talent. The first two servants represent the way of surrender; giving away what isn't yours anyways. It is the way of love and self-sacrifice, but paradoxically the way to fruitfulness and abundant life. Love is the only thing that does not diminish when given away; in fact, it grows. My friends, how will the master find us: clinging to that sole talent, or surrendering what he has put into our hands for his purposes?