Monday, November 17, 2014

What Can Be Taken Away From Someone Who Has Nothing?

    Well, today we have a very interesting parable before us.  For nearly a year, I have been laser focused on the Gospel: the early proclamation of the earliest disciples and the early church which said, “You have been saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.  You did nothing to accomplish this.  It was done for you by Jesus as He satisfied the wrath of God by facing it on the cross.”  I have repeatedly inserted John 3:16-17 in every sermon since last November, and now we have before us a parable which seems to indicate the Gospel is not enough.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.  (That’s the Gospel.)  And God bestows upon His people immeasurable gifts, but if they do not use those gifts, then they will be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!  Or so the Parable of the Talents seems to indicate.  This teaching of Jesus has been used ad nauseum as a stewardship text for as long as I can remember.  I have used it as a stewardship text.  I’ve also used it as a text to promote risk taking in our daily lives and as a congregation.  Maybe I was wrong.  Because if this text is about stewardship and a failure to use our gifts as we should; and if this text indicates our salvation is dependent upon how we use the gifts given to us by God, then we are all in a lot of trouble.  None of us use our gifts as we should.  None of us.  Furthermore, if indeed this text indicates that our judgement will be based upon the use of our gifts, then why does Matthew even bother to head to the cross?  Every other world religion and philosophy judges a person based upon his or her works.  Is Christianity just like every other religion after all? 

    Hardly.  In fact, as I studied this parable this week and listened to numerous sermons and consulted several commentaries, there were some things that started jumping out at me–things that I had never considered before or tried to reconcile.  Why?  Well, because I was stuck in dealing with the interpretations I had been hearing all my life.  I was stuck in hearing all the chatter about what we were supposed to do as Christians.  I was stuck in hearing this parable as a commentary about what we were supposed to do instead of leading us and pointing us to what God has already done.  And so, this morning, I would like to share with you some of the insights I came upon as I studied this parable.  I’d like to perhaps help you see it in a different light, and then take us to its application–all the while being faithful to the certainty that Christianity is not primarily focused on what we do, but on what God has already done through Jesus Christ.

    And so we turn to this parable.  It begins innocently enough.  A very, very wealthy man decides to go on a journey, and he summons his slaves.  He entrusts his property to his slaves according to each slave’s ability. 

    Let’s stop here for just a moment.  Let’s make sure we understand a few important details.  First, the men the man summoned are slaves.  They are not servants.  They are not hired help.  In the ancient world, slavery was an acceptable practice, and oftentimes a person sold himself into slavery.  Why?  Well, there was no such thing as bankruptcy protection in those days.  If you found yourself deep in debt, you had to come up with the money somehow.  To pay off the debt, you would sell yourself into slavery and gradually work your way out of debt.  Slavery was not a life-long proposition, but it was a tool to pay off one’s debt.  Slaves were also appropriated in military conquest.  They also had the capability to work toward their freedom in such cases, and it is important to note that ethnicity was not a governing factor in such slavery.  There were slaves taken from all over the world, of every tribe and color.  So, at this point, do not associate the kind of slavery in this parable with the kind of slavery that happened in the history of our nation.  They were two different things.

    And yet, these men were still slaves.  They were indebted to and completely dependent upon the master.  He governed their lives and had control over them.  As such, as slaves, they had nothing.  Let that sink in a moment.  The master allowed them to use his property, but the slaves had nothing themselves.   Even in this story, the talents which are given to the slaves are not the property of the slaves!  They are the property of the master!  Are we clear so far?  I hope so.

    Each slave is gifted differently.  They have differing ability, so the master entrusts his wealth according to the slaves’ ability.  To one the master gives five talents.  To another two.  And to the last, one.  The master is shrewd in his dealing, minimizing his risk. 

    However, the master is still risking a lot!  A talent was a measure of weight.  The talent could be silver or gold, and it was worth 15 year’s wages.  You mathematical types are probably already calculating.  If it were silver, you are talking about a million dollars.  If you are talking about gold, you are talking about a whole lot more.  So, in effect, the master is entrusting these three slaves with millions upon millions of dollars, and then he walks away.  He leaves. 

    The next part of the parable is straight forward.  Two of the slaves go out and begin working with their master’s money.  They invest it.  They trade with it.  They put it to work, and each doubles what he was entrusted with.  The third slave goes, digs a hole in the ground, and buries the talent.

    Now, before we deal with the master’s return, let’s talk about how reasonable it was for the third guy to bury the money in a hole.  The guy is obviously playing it safe–some might argue too safe.  In our day and age we would argue that at least he should have put it in the bank, maybe in a CD and accumulated a bit of interest.  We will see that the master even makes this argument later.  However, we need to remember that during this time in history, there was no such thing as the FDIC.  There were no checks and balances on banks.  Investing in them was no certainty of keeping one’s money safe.  The banks invested in caravans and other such things which could be wiped out, and then one’s money would be gone.  Those who wanted to retain their money–wanted to keep it safe–did exactly what this third slave did: they buried it.  It was the only way to ensure that one’s money would not be lost.  So, the guy is simply doing what every other very wealthy person would do–keep things safe.

    Now, after a long time, the master returns.  He comes to settle accounts.  He calls the first slave, and the slave says, “Master, you gave me five talents.  I’ve earned five more.  You now have ten talents.”

    The master is overjoyed.  He says, “Well done good and faithful slave.  You have been trustworthy in a few things.  I will put you over many things.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

    Let’s stop here for just a moment because in a sermon by D.A. Carson, I heard something I had never considered.  Listen to what the master says again, “You have been trustworthy in a few things...”  A few things?  This slave was given millions of dollars!!!  A few things???  The master considers millions upon millions of dollars a few things!!!  This speaks perhaps both to the wealth of the master AND the master’s view of money.  Millions of dollars are considered small fry to him.  Think about that.  Secondly, D.A. Carson points out, the idea of a master inviting a slave to enter into his joy is unreal.  A slave’s purpose is not to share in the joy of his or her master.  A slave’s purpose is to serve the master.  Period.  The slave is responsible for bringing his or her master joy, not entering into it.  This says something rather profound about the master as well.  This master is generous enough to bring a slave up to his level of joy.  Quite an astonishing thing, don’t you think?

    And the master doesn’t just do this to the one slave.  He also does it for the second slave who accomplished the feat of doubling the master’s initial entrustment.  “Well done good and faithful slave.  You have been trustworthy in a few things.  I will put you in charge of many things.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

    Now, the third slave comes forward.  The exchange is quite different: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    I want to approach this snippet a little differently.  We see what the slave says, and we see the master’s reaction.  Everything seems to hinge upon what the slave has done, but I want to look at this carefully.  I want you to look at it carefully and begin asking the question that I asked myself as I read this.  What can be taken away from a slave who has nothing?  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

    Interestingly enough, as I listened to another sermon, it was pointed out that this is not the first time Matthew has used this particular phrase.  Matthew also used this phrase in chapter 13.  I had to look it up.

    Matthew 13 actually begins with the parable of the sower.  The parable where the sower casts seed all over the place.  It falls on rocky ground.  It falls among weeds.  It falls among the path.  It falls upon the good soil.  Only the good soil produces fruit.  After Jesus tells the parable, the disciples ask, “Why do you speak in parables?”  Jesus says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” 

    Let’s come back to the parable of the talents.  Remember the slave’s initial response?  “I knew you were a harsh man reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  We are told that the seed in the parable of the sower is the word of the kingdom of God.  Is God the only one who sows that seed?  Is Jesus the only sower of the Word?  No.  Absolutely not.  Yet, is God the only one who reaps?  Is Jesus the one who comes and gathers the fruit?  Absolutely.  Do you see the connection?

    And what is given?  The secrets to the kingdom of heaven.  What is the secret to the kingdom of heaven?  Well, if we understand the Gospel, we know that the secret of heaven is that Jesus has come into the world as the Messiah to reconcile the world unto God.  We know that Jesus has come to be the spotless lamb of God to be the perfect sacrifice of atonement satisfying the wrath of God because we could not do this.  Jesus’ action has revealed to us that we are now free to respond to the acts of God without fear of punishment.  We do not have to act out of our own self interest to please an angry God.  We are free to seek the will of God instead of trying to save our own skin.  This is the reality of the Gospel.  This is why God sent Jesus into the world.  For God so loved the world...

    But what about that slave?  Whose interest was he seeking?  “I knew you were a harsh I was afraid.  I hid your talent.  What you have is yours.”  The slave was afraid.  Afraid of what?  The master’s wrath.  The master’s anger.  The slave didn’t want to endure it.  He didn’t want to face it.  He played it safe because he was seeking his own self interest!  He didn’t care about the master; he cared only for himself!  He was trying to save his own skin.

    And what was the master’s response?  Well, he wasn’t happy about it at all.  Which leads us to that final question: what can be taken away from someone who has nothing?  Obviously, the slave has nothing–nothing in the way of material possessions, but he does have something even more precious.  He has a relationship with the master.  The master who provides for him; who feeds him; who shelters him.  Because of his self-interest and his self-centeredness, the master takes even this away from him and casts him out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    I have said before in sermons that hell is separation from God, and the way we end up in hell is not by doing all the wrong things, but by seeking something other than God.  When our hearts are captured by our own self interests and our desire to save ourselves, then God will allow us to seek that from eternity.  We will end up separated from Him, and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But if our hearts are captured by the Gospel–when we know that salvation has already been accomplished on our behalf, our hearts are changed.  We are freed from our self interest in trying to satisfy God; we are freed from fear; and we are captured by the desire to seek the master’s goodness and expand the master’s kingdom instead of our own.  Indeed, this parable takes us right to this place–it takes us squarely to the foot of the cross where we can look upon what Jesus did; lose our fear; and then act with reckless abandon as we too seek to expand the Master’s kingdom by spreading His word.   Amen.

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