Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pentecost 22 (Proper 28), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 13, 2011 (Proper 28, Series A)

The word talent as we know it in modern English actually comes from today’s Gospel lesson.  In today’s language, talent is defined as “a special natural ability or aptitude,” such as the ability to be good with numbers, good with music, great at basketball or running, or any of a thousand other things a person might be good at.  But in the Greek of the New Testament, a talent was a unit of money, specifically, a large gold coin.  Now, many interpreters of this parable have taught that the gold coins given out to the servants represent various gifts and abilities God gives to His Christians, which He then expects to use them in His service.  The association between these natural or special abilities and the gold coins of today’s Gospel lesson has historically been so strong that the Greek word for these gold coins became the English word for these abilities.

And that interpretation of this parable has some merit to it.  Each of us is unique, and each of us has unique abilities and areas of life that are our particular strong suit.  As we consider our place in life under the Ten Commandments, one of the things we must look at as we consider our place in life, is the various abilities which God has given each of us.  After all, that’s part of how our particular place in life is determined.  Some are good at physical labor, others are good at intellectual pursuits and abstract thinking.  Some are talented in music, others in visual art.  Some have the ability to read facial expressions and body language very well and are thus able to figure out the politics of a situation when others of us are totally clueless.  And the list could go on.  As we think about how we serve God and our neighbor in our own place in life, our own particular talents do figure into the picture.  A strong swimmer has an opportunity to keep the Fifth Commandment by helping and supporting his drowning neighbor in every physical need in the way that a man who can’t swim simply can’t do.  And so it can be useful to see the parable in this way, as an exhortation to actually use the abilities that God has given us and not to hide them or cover them up out of fear of messing things up.

The problem, of course, is that, just as with all the other gifts that God has given us in this life, we have been unfaithful stewards of the abilities God has given us.  Music can glorify God; it can also glorify as god things that are not God.  Intellectual ability can be used to deny Him as well as to understand the world He has created.  Physical prowess can be used to hurt as well as to help.  And so on.  And so the mere use (as opposed to hiding away) of our abilities is not what gets us right with God.  In fact, if we glory in ourselves and our own abilities instead of glorifying God, our abilities can drive us farther away from Him.  That was what the third servant was afraid of doing; that’s why he hid the talent he had been given in the ground; he was afraid of what using it might do to hurt his relationship with his master.  Because apart from the Gospel, apart from Christ, our God really is “a hard man, reaping where He has not sown, and gathering where He has not scattered.”  There really is zero tolerance for those who abuse God’s gifts if their transgressions are not covered by Christ.  And that’s where we find ourselves as we look in the mirror of God’s law: we are either abusers of His gifts, or we are those who are afraid and hide them away.

Here is where I think we need to look at this parable a little differently.  If the talents of the parable are our natural abilities, then we have all failed to use them properly, if not failing to use them at all in God’s service.  That doesn’t really help us much.  However, if the talents in the parable are seen as something different, something special that God has given His Christians, then it changes the whole picture.  I’m not speaking here of any particular “spiritual gift” of the sort that many churches give their members surveys for.  Most such “spiritual gifts” are actually only natural talents, and, depending on how the survey is designed, often what is measured is not a person’s aptitude for a particular position in the church, but merely how much they happen to enjoy doing that thing.  You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it, or even to think that you’re good at it, for that matter.  No, there really is only one thing that God gives to Christians and not to everyone else.  All the blessings we have in this life are things that God gives both to the just and the unjust; as Luther reminds us in his explanation to the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone, even the wicked, without our prayers.”  No, what God gives specifically to Christians is faith and trust in the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation which was won for us by Christ on the cross and proclaimed to the world in the empty tomb.

That faith, that trust, is what works in us to produce all sorts of other good works.  That faith that God forgives, loves, and will save us is what gives us the freedom to serve God and our neighbor with whatever else He may have given us without fear.  It is precisely the absence of that faith that the third servant showed when he buried the coin in the ground.  He was so afraid of using the gift wrongly that he failed to receive the gift as a gift, but instead saw it as a burden.  And that is the exact wrong thing to do with the gift of faith.  In fact, to do that with the faith God has given you is to deny the content of that faith.  True Christian faith trusts in the forgiveness of sins.  It is doubt, not faith, that causes us to see God according to His wrath against sinners.  There is no wrath for those who trust in the forgiveness of sins, only the joyous freedom to go about our lives and do whatever we do to His glory and out of love for our neighbors.  To bury faith is to doubt God’s goodness.  But the gift here is God’s own demonstration of His love for us: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  It’s true that faith buried is no faith at all.  To see God as a harsh master is to see Him outside of Christ.  But that’s the beauty of His gift to us: faith gives us Christ Himself.  And it is He that works in and through us to love and serve our neighbor, both in the ordinary ways that come about as we go about our daily work, as well as in that most extraordinary way that God gives us, namely of telling our neighbor about Christ and thus giving him that eternal life where we will all share in the joy of our master.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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