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Sermon on Matthew 25

Dr. James A. Nestingen (Professor Emeritus, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

November 18, 2002


Grace you in Peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

No doubt there is a threat rumbling through this Parable of the Talents. But there is also a promise breaking loose here, a promise full of the freedom of the Gospel. In fact, one of the things that makes this parable so fascinating is the very different reactions of the characters Jesus portrays. That one talent man is no fool. He has learned to get along with little, not to take too many chances. He has developed a bureaucrat’s sense of a threat. He hunkers through life like Cain, crouched, protecting his vitals, able to field an insult at a thousand yards. And now he has got that threat located right out of the box, and he takes steps accordingly.

But then there are these two characters, the multi-talent men. What the one talent man sees as threat, they see as full of promise. They are ready to rip, ready to take what they’ve been given, and go for it. So, while the one talent man is looking for his spade, the other two are seeing visions and dreaming dreams, figuring out ways to make something good out of what they have received.

What in the world could explain such very different reactions? I suppose that in one dimension we really shouldn’t even ask that question, let alone try to answer it. Unbelief and faith, finally, are some of the deepest mysteries of life. One believes; another does not. And when you go fishing around behind, trying to figure out as Luther said, you run into the hiddenness of God. Eventually, the God of wrath, who damns so many, and who saves so few.

Maybe it is best to just leave the question alone. But if, ultimately, we can make no progress with it, maybe penultimately we can play with it a little bit. Sorting through the threat, in hopes that this gorgeous promise will emerge full blown, freeing us from our fears so that we can enter into life, taking on its risks confidently, expectantly, shoulders back, going for it.

So, let’s look, first of all at the threat. I think the temptation, with all of the talk of Christ’s return and judgment, is to hear this Parable from the perspective of the one talent man. Maybe there was a time in his life when he wasn’t so dreadfully self-protective. Maybe he had taken a course in systematic theology, and learned that God has not yet realized all of his potential for omnipotence, and is still working on it and has left a little room for us.

Or, maybe he had learned from the culture that God is safely abstracted in the distance, and nothing to really worry about. You remember H. Richard Niebuhr’s great characterization of the theology of his time, “A God without wrath, brings men without sin into a Kingdom without pain, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Well, if that’s what we are dealing with, might as well join the Kiwanis Club and just forget it.

But now something has happened to this man. Something dreadful. Something that you don’t have to use your imagination too much. Maybe he has lost a child. Maybe he has awakened in bed next to a dead spouse. Maybe some project in which he had invested his whole self has gone sour. Maybe looking back on himself, he has come to be filled with shame, convinced that he isn’t much, that he has got not much to offer, that there is really no alternative to life but more of the dreadful same.

Of course, this is what happens when he get stuck on our side of the story. We start taking our own inventories, we start examining ourselves, and then we get stuck. We get tied. We start seeing all of the empty cupboards, all of the bare spots, everything that is lacking. And, of course, then it turns from bleak to bleaker still. And by the time that we’re done, there is nothing left but to build enclosures, to protect ourselves, to try and preserve the little we’ve got. Above all, not to take any chances. Too risky; it’s too risky.

Either that or we become convinced of our success as moral reclamation projects, advertise ourselves as a self-transcendent, and just put off the disappointment for however long it takes for the illusion to break. Either way, there’s no way out; nothing left but to take that one talent, bury it, and hope against hope that nobody will find it. And then hope against hope that this riotously investing landowner will be satisfied with merely getting it back.

If that’s the threat, what in the world do you suppose possessed the multi-talent guys in our story? What was it that moved them to act so recklessly, so confidently, so expectantly? Well, to begin with, hidden behind these three guys is that landowner, who typically, like the prodigal father, is behaving in a strange and irrational kind of way. You know how it is to go on trips. You call the burglar alarm company. You make all the arrangements to get the newspapers taken in. You make sure the mail is being collected at the post office. My dear Carolyn, an attorney, when people come to visit her for a will, asks, “Where are you traveling?” We start making the arrangements to protect.

But now look at this guy. One’s got five; one’s got two . . . without a word of instruction. No rules, no regulations, no talk of eternal structures. No management by objective, no theories. No eternal descriptions of a perfect church order. He just hands over the gifts; hands them over flat, entrusts these gifts to his guys and takes off in utter confidence. No doubt he knew in advance what that one talent man would do.

But there were the multi-talented, and having entrusted himself, he knew better than to micromanage, to hang over anxiously, asking questions, “Are you sure that’s a safe investment? Don’t you think you are being a little aggressive in your investment style?” He backs off and lets them go. And these guys, recognizing a good thing when they see it, take him at his word. They act accordingly. Sensing the good faith that has been invested in them, they invest what is theirs fully, and then the master returns, they hear some of the most beautiful words that could possibly be spoken, “Enter into the joy of your Master. Enter into the joy of your Master.”

In fact, the good Lord has gone beyond this crazy management style. He’s already tipped off the last word. He has spoken the final word over each one of you folks. I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Your sin is forgiven for Jesus’ sake. This is my body given for you, my blood shed for you. You know those words. They’ve been spoken over you again and again. In them, the good Lord has invested himself so that when the judgment comes, you are not going to be rejected; you are going to be welcomed. And when he enters into scrutiny over the investment that he has made in you, he is going to be sorting through that investment graciously, and the assurance of his Grace.

More than that, unlike this landowner who charged his servants and went to Florida or Arizona, the Lord God has invested his Holy Spirit in you to make sure that the investments you make together come to fruition. So then, you are free . . . free. You know the last word. When Jesus says yours sins are forgiven, he is assuring you of an open-ended future, controlled not by your failings, but by his sheer abounding goodness.

More than that, unlike this landowner who charged his servants and went to Florida or Arizona, the Lord God has invested his Holy Spirit in you to make sure that the investments you make together come to fruition. So then, you are free . . . free. You know the last word. When Jesus says yours sins are forgiven, he is assuring you of an open-ended future, controlled not by your failings, but by his sheer abounding goodness.

And so there is only one thing left, to throw yourself down. Some of you are going to come back with double the money, sure as shootin’. Some of you are going to labor long and lose much of yourself. Some of you are going to look back and say, “It doesn’t amount to a lot.” But each of you is going to hear the Lord Jesus say to you, “Well done. Enter into the joy of your Master. Enter into the joy of your Master, the only Master finally worth serving.” Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ, Jesus. Amen.