Some parables are about grace. Others are about the kingdom. The Parable of the Talents is a judgment parable. (Matthew 25:14-30)
Granted, Jesus does begin the immediately preceding parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven will be like,” but this parable is defined by the master’s response to his slaves’ work when he returns.
So this parable is about judgment. Final judgment. You know, Judgment Day kind of final judgment.
This is not one of our favorite subjects, unless maybe we’re talking about judging somebody that we don’t like.
|Closeup of Rembrandt’s Parable of the Talents|
Our aversion to God’s judgment arises largely from a misunderstanding. The word “judgment” has become for us a synonym for “condemnation” and “rejection.” We associate judgment talk with warnings about impending doom.
Contrary to our ingrained assumptions about judgment, Jesus teaches us something very different in today’s Gospel. At the very moment of judgment he says, “Enter into the joy of your master.”
When we believe in God’s judgment we look for impending joy, not impending doom. Let’s look closely at the Parable of the Talents, and it will teach us about judgment and true joy.
Many Christians mistakenly think of this life as a test for the next life. So it is no surprise that they see judgment as a kind of moral grading.
They might hope that God grades on the curve, but they suspect that it will be an unpleasant process nonetheless, because judgment is all about pointing out where we’ve gotten it wrong.
And the whole point of judgment is to see if your grade is high enough to win admission to heaven.
But Jesus doesn’t say any such thing about life. Look carefully at the Parable.
The landowner entrusts his property with three slaves. In other words, he trusts them to make something of his property on his behalf.
He gave them a purpose. And that is just what God does for each and every one of us. We have a role to play in God’s great plan for his Creation. We belong here. We are not outsiders or benchwarmers, we’re insiders, we’re a crucial part of the starting lineup.
No one is expendable or interchangeable.
|Aert de Gelder’s Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane|
And not only does God give each of us a vital role to play, he gives us the tools and the opportunity we will need to succeed. Just as the landowner gave his slaves “talents” or money, God gives each of us gifts and abilities and opportune moments to carry out our ministries.
The Christian ministry comes down to two basic activities: making disciples for our Lord and serving the poor, the helpless, and the suffering.
This is the starting place for abiding joy. We are part of something. Something big. God’s redemption of the entire Creation. His ministry of reconciliation.
Now I know what you’re thinking. But isn’t the effectiveness of our ministry just what God judges? Isn’t this the test we have to pass to get into heaven? To win God’s approval?
Didn’t he reject the third slave for failing to achieve anything?
No, this parable is not about measuring achievement at all. And we will get to that third slave in a moment. But first, let’s get clear about judgment.
Look closely at the parable. The landholder says, “You have been trustworthy.” He did not say, “You’ve made an adequate return on my investment.”
He praises the slave for remaining faithful to the original purpose. He was given his master’s property to care for on the master’s behalf. He never forgot that everything he did with the property he was doing for the glory of his master.
That is how followers of Christ live our lives. Whatever we do we do for our Master, our Lord, our Savior, our Friend. Success as measured by achievement is not what makes our lives significant.
Devotion to the one who loves us means that he will bless all that we do in his name. His blessing makes us significant. He rejoices in our efforts and he redeems even our worst failures precisely because we do them out of our devotion to Him.
Following Jesus means that we have purpose in life and that what we do in his Name will be significant for all of eternity. That is the source of enduring joy.
Our lives are not merely eventual dust scattered by the winds. We matter. What we do matters. Eternally. Because we matter to Christ.
Judgment is not merely condemnation or rejection. It is even more than a seal of approval. It is an infinite, eternal blessing.
So, what about that third slave? Judgment still looks like condemnation for him. But we are not back in the achievement-measuring game, even that third slave.
Listen to what that third slave says to the landowner: I knew you were harsh, “reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed” (Matt. 25:24)
We know that this is not true of God. God provides and provides abundantly.
He does not reap what he does not so. Instead, he makes whatever we reap possible.
So what this third slave says tells us nothing about God. But it tells us everything about himself.
He gives the talent back and says in essence, “Here, take what’s yours. But leave everything that is mine to me.”
Surely he did not sit idly by all the time his master was away. On the contrary, he probably worked just like the rest of the slaves. Perhaps even harder and more effectively than his fellow slaves.
But here is the difference. He did nothing but serve himself. He gave back the original talent and identified it as what belongs to God.
In other words, apparently he believed that everything else belonged to him. The fruits of his achievements belonged to him and he grudgingly gives God only the small portion that he calculates belongs to God.
The problem here is not that he was a low achiever. The problem is that he invested his whole life in his own achievements.
You see, the question is not how much we achieve. It’s how faithfully we serve.
The previous two slaves did all that they did for their master and happily gave back to him what was properly his: everything.
The third slave set about building a kingdom of personal achievements and served only himself. In essence, he was in rebellion against the very idea of being a servant.
God does not measure our achievements, even our moral achievements. He judges the heart. Our heart is either faithful and obedient, or it is rebellious and self-serving.
Notice that I said that God does not judge our moral achievements. There is one achievement that God judges. All of Christian life is a response to that one achievement, Christ’s achievement.
The Gospel is news. It is about what has already happened. We do not believe and spread the Good Rules or the Good Directions or the Good Instructions. We proclaim the Good News.
That Good News is that Jesus has died for our sins and has risen from the dead to pave the way for our eternal life.
Everything we Christians do in this life is response, never achievement. And we do not respond from fear of condemnation or dread of impending doom.
We spring forward serving the poor, telling an unbelieving friend about Jesus, and bringing up children in the way of our Lord.
We are driven by a sense of purpose and confident of the significance—the eternal significance—of what we do.
We are drawn forward by an inextinguishable sense of impending joy.
(This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral November 13, 2011.)