Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – November 19, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I would like you to imagine that someone has decided to give you two million dollars. That’s a pleasant thing to imagine, isn’t it? You’re probably already thinking about what you would do with it, aren’t you? But before you spend too much of it in your head, consider who gave you the money. Would that make a difference in how you used it? It most certainly would!
If the money came from a beloved, trusted relative who encouraged you to use the money freely, a loving relative who had plenty more where that came from, whose love you could never doubt no matter what, if that’s who gave you the money you would be empowered to take risks with it. If it came from a wealthy relative whom you knew to be merciful and patient and kind, and had no shortage of resources, you would be empowered to share it, to put it out there into the marketplace. You would not be afraid to fail. Instead, you would be free, and in that freedom, that gift would become a blessing to many beyond yourself.
If, on the other hand, the money came from a mafia boss, if it came from Vito Corleone, who handed the money over to you through a cloud of cigar smoke while his henchmen were cracking their knuckles and looking at you menacingly, you would handle that money very differently! You would NOT take risks. You would NOT share it. You would put it somewhere safe. You would be terrified of failure, terrified of losing the money, terrified that they would come looking for it and you wouldn’t have it anymore. Instead of being free to use it, you would feel trapped by that money. You might even grow to hate both the gift and the giver.
This morning we hear another parable from Jesus about the final judgement. It’s that time of year in the liturgical calendar. We had one last week and we have yet another next week. In the parable we hear this morning Jesus describes the final coming of his kingdom as being like a master who gave large sums of money to three of his slaves. These sums are called “talents” in the parable. We hear the word “talents” and think of things we’re good at, like singing or doing math or juggling. But that’s not what the word means here. In the ancient world, talents were a measurement of weight used to assess the value of precious metals. Five talents might be thought of as fifty pounds of gold or 500 ounces of silver. Translating those amounts into modern dollars and cents is tricky, because it depends on what you’re weighing and the market value at that moment, but it is widely agreed that these talents represent A LOT of money. One professor I heard on a lectionary podcast this week said two million dollars per talent, so let’s go with that.
The amounts aren’t as important as what the slaves do with the riches given to them. The first two trade with them. They take risks. They put that money out there and it multiplies. It grows. It becomes a blessing beyond themselves. And in the freedom of sharing and using those riches, they come to enter the joy of their master. But as the parable unfolds, we come to learn that there is something even more important than what they do with the money. How they perceive their master makes all the difference in the world! We see that what they believe about their master, what they believe about who he is and what he is like, shapes their behavior, determining what they do with the riches they have been given.
The third slave believed that his master was “a harsh man.” He describes his master as a gangster and a thug, “reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” He saw his master as demanding returns on his investment and taking them one way or another to get what is his. And so the third slave buried his allocation of the riches. Better safe than sorry, right? When you believe your master is harsh and unforgiving, the last thing you want to do is come up short.
But when the master returns and sees what this third slave has done, he calls him wicked and lazy. He is judged, alright – but it isn’t so much for his failure to produce even interest as it is his utterly wrong belief about what kind of a master he had. He isn’t just accused of being lazy, this slave is also called wicked. He had no faith in his master’s goodness. He had no faith in his kindness or his mercy. “Oh, you knew that I was a harsh man, did you? That I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? That’s how you think of me, is it?” And as it happened, the master he believed in was the master he got. The one talent he did have was given to the others and he was thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It would be very easy for us to hear this parable as a threat. It would be easy to interpret this parable as: “God has given you much. Use it, or else.” But that, my friends, would be to make the exact same mistake that this third slave made. It would be to turn God into a gangster, into someone who makes demands and comes looking for a return on his investment, bringing with him all the muscle he needs to get what he wants one way or another. But something else is going on here. It is hard to see at first glance, but there’s a bigger point being made.
Back in Matthew 13, Jesus himself said that the meaning of many of his parables are not readily apparent to many people (Matthew 13:13-15). Jesus is purposefully obtuse at times! Many of these parables need to be looked at from a certain slant, in the light of the whole gospel, and with eyes of faith, in order to be understood. This is one of those parables that is operating on a deeper level than what we see on the surface. If we look at it with a normal human sense of how the world works, we’re going to get the “use it or else” message. We’re going to get a harsh gangster God. But if we look at it in light of the entirety of the gospel, we are going to get something different.
This is a parable about perception. It is not just warning us about using God’s gifts rightly. It is about that too, but it goes deeper than that. It points to something more fundamental. It is encouraging us to see God rightly. It is encouraging us to perceive who God really is, what God is really like. Yes, God has wrath. Our reading from Zephaniah makes that painfully, viscerally clear this morning. St. Paul refers to it too in our epistle reading.
But God is not a gangster. God is not a “harsh man.” The fullness of God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God’s true heart has been revealed as full of mercy and forgiveness and love for us. The final judgement will be a day of great darkness, Paul says in the epistle reading, but not for you, not for those whose faith is in Christ. “You, beloved, are not in darkness,” Paul writes. “You are children of light and children of the day. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, God has bestowed riches upon us. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
This passage would have been a great epistle reading to pair with this parable, because it ties everything together. It shows us in no uncertain terms who God really is! It shows us what kind of a God we really have! God is a loving, generous, wealthy benefactor, and in Christ his Son he has freely given us everything – not only everything we own and every skill we have, God has also given us forgiveness, life, and salvation. This God is good! This God is rich in mercy and grace. And so we have nothing to be afraid of – we can take everything God has given us and put it out there. We can take risks with it. We can be generous with it. Our good works are not what saves us – they are instead what God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life. They are just what we do when we know and trust and believe that God is good and kind and patient and forgiving.
When I train acolytes, I will ask them what they’re most afraid of happening when they are serving as acolytes. They will sometimes mention not being able to light the candles, or tripping, or – worst case scenario – dropping a communion tray. When they tell me what they’re most afraid of, I tell them that any of those things might happen, but if it does, I won’t be mad at them, and God won’t be mad at them either. I tell them we should try our best because we love God, but not because we are afraid of God. Mistakes will happen, but we will just clean them up and move on, trusting in God’s mercy and forgiveness. You can almost see their anxiety level drop!
This is something I need to hear too. It is a principle that empowers everything I do as a pastor. I have a meme I keep on my phone that says, “When God put his calling on your life he already factored in your stupidity.” I draw inspiration and comfort from this on a regular basis. In my office I have a print of Luther’s Sacristy Prayer for pastors, which says much the same thing in prayer form, calling on God’s help and grace, “for without it,” it says, “I would have ruined everything long ago.” It is trusting in God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, that empowers ministry, that frees us to risk and to dare and even to fail.
Now apply this to your own life. It is trusting in God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, that empowers your discipleship. It is what empowers your stewardship. It is what empowers your service here in the church and in your families and in our community and in the world. God has given you the riches of his grace, and God has plenty more where that came from. God created you and has endowed you with gifts and skills and resources. God has given you everything you have, everything you are. God loves you more than you can begin to imagine. He sent his Son to give you forgiveness for every failure and freedom for faithful service. And so you have nothing to fear.
That other so-called god that so many people believe in, including too many Christians, is a lie. You can believe in that gangster god if you want, if you insist. But that so-called god is a wicked liar who will only drag you into darkness.
The real God, though, the God in whom Jesus invites us to place our trust, is like a powerful, wealthy, and loving Father who pours out upon us the riches of his kingdom and invites us to have fun with them, to freely and fearlessly put it out there, to share it, to multiply it, so that it becomes a blessing for others beyond ourselves.
Put your trust in this good and loving and true God, and you will find yourself entering into his joy – today and forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church