Zephaniah 1:7.12-18; Thessalonians 5: 1-11 Mathew 25: 14-30
The situation of the church post resurrection. Not fulfilled/fulfilled. Anxiety about the truth of Christ’s coming its immanence and/or delay. What to do?
In the Epistle, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we see some of the dysfunction in the church that this situation created. Some believed the promised great Day of the Lord had come already, others believed that since the Day of the Lord was immanent there was no need to plan for the future, so they stopped work and were simply waiting for it to happen. (St Paul told his church those ‘who do not work shall not eat’. 2 Thess. 3. A phrase taken up and made famous by Vladimir Lenin in his book State & Revolution.) Paul counters this situation by saying that the Day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. That the Day of the Lord is an event in the future that is entirely unpredictable. The same seeming contradictions occur in the Gospels themselves with the coming of the Lord appearing suddenly as Paul indicates and the view that the coming of the Lord will come after certain cataclysmic events in world history which will be obvious to all. This latter view has been in the church tradition a happy hunting ground for all sorts of fanatics and religious enthusiasts convinced that they know when it will happen. Witness the many times people have followed leaders to isolated places convinced that the place they are going to is where the Lord will come. One only has to listen to religious radio/TV programmes to see this issue still stirs up controversy in our own world; so much so that some have labelled such programmes religious ‘goon’ shows.
The lectionary reading looks forward to the revelation of the coming judgment of Christ as Lord of heaven and earth. At the time of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Lutheran Reformation recently many received a graphic indication of the obsessive fascination with the final advent of our Lord by the 7th Day Adventist people, who authored an expensive book and booklet regarding this event. This book and booklet showed people more interested in dates and times of the event of Christ’s coming than the One who is to come. That is, judging people because of their orthodoxy regarding the times and nature of Christ’s final advent.
The parable which is the subject of the lectionary reading from the holy gospel of St. Matthew for today however looks back as it were from the future judgement to the present time. Here it is not a question of when Christ comes but who the one who is coming is: Not when but who. For what is revealed in this future judgment is the present but hidden form of Christ’s church in the world now. The parable looks back from the future to the present time when Jesus the coming King and Judge is still hidden, incognito, in the form in which He accompanies His people through the changes and the chances of their pilgrimage through history.
According to Jesus word it is the coming Son of Man, the Master of the household in the parable, who will come in glory with the angels and gather before his throne all the nations of the earth and divide amongst them as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. In the centre of the picture, drawn from among all the nations, are God’s own people. It is they who are asked concerning their life in the present age in the light the approaching end which is now come upon them. This community which acknowledges the coming Judge as its present King and Lord.
This community, the church, is sustained in the present age by its faith and hope in His coming. The church expects to be vindicated in its faith and life by His coming. The coming Judge who will vindicate the church is the same One who now in this present age speaks His word of grace and judgement in the word of the apostolic testimony of the Scriptures and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist which He established as the foundation of His church and by which He is united with His people.
But these words of Jesus concerning the last judgment appear to indicate that contrary to what the New Testament proclaims as the basis of our relationship with God through the word and work of Christ to be one of grace, God’s unmerited goodness justifying the ungodly; here we are confronted by a series of sayings which indicate that it is our action or inaction in relationship to the talents given to each of us by the Lord, in the parable the Master of the Household, which is the determinative factor in our relationship to eternal life before God. Not the Lords free grace.
Like the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, which precedes this parable in St Matthew Chp. 25., the parable of the talents concerns the situation of the church in the interregnum between the first and final appearing of its Lord and the importance of what happens in this space between the first and final appearing of the Master of the Household.
In the parable the property holder, the Master, divides his wealth between his servants according to his judgment. His goods are not evenly distributed, as if the Master were bound to deal with his servants in terms of some abstract notion of equality or justice. He entrusts his property to whomsoever he wills according to his choice and not the assumed natural abilities of the servants or their understanding of “rights”.
The focus of the parable is on the servant, who from fear of the Master simply buried his property and then returned it to him in its original form, unchanged. This parable indicates in its reference to the place of the church in view of the coming rule of Christ that the grace of its Lord by which it lives, is not its property simply to allow it to be buried in the ground.
In burying the master’s property, the servant believed that being free from the master’s presence he could do nothing with what he had been given, bury it in the ground and wait for the Master’s return. His excuse to the Master of the House when he returns is that he feared the Master and the best thing he could do was to do nothing with the Masters wealth in case he made a mistake, then at least the Master would get what is his back in full.
What are we meant to understand in this exchange between the Master and the servant who buried the master’s money? It did not have a very good outcome for the servant. It ended rather badly for him, He had his money taken from him and he was unceremoniously thrown out of the master’s house. We are meant to see precisely same thing occurs when the church treats the master’s property, in this case the treasure of His grace in the gospel, as if it were something it could preserve. Possessing the precious gift of the Lord in Word and Sacrament but at the same time ignoring this precious gift. Hearing the word of promise but not believing it. Looking to preserve its life by simply being content to survive.
As once the children of Israel (Exodus 16:13) found with the manna God gave them to preserve their life in the wilderness, it had to be gathered new every morning; else it went rotten in their hands. So too the grace of the church’s coming Lord, when the church seeks to possess it and by possessing it believes it can justify its own indolence, indifference or unbelief..
The same applies to our Lutheran Tradition of worship and confession, the rich tradition of life and thought to which we are heirs as members. I felt some of the comments made in the recent discussion of cooperating in a common task with other Christians, the Point Church, there were those who, maybe following a suggestion in the Bishop’s letter that we would be swallowed up in the larger numbers of the other group resolved to stay apart. The opportunity to share the rich tradition of the Lutheran Church with other Christians would dilute its truth or spoil its riches. But the riches of the Lutheran tradition are not ours, whilst we are temporary caretakers of it, it will dissolve to nothing in our hands if we are not prepared to share its truth with other Christians.
Thus, the word of Jesus in this parable warns us that such a church has no future in the master’s House. We cannot think that we can possess the master’s treasure and not use it for the Master’s purpose. The parable of the talents, is a clarion call to be alert to how we treat the precious gifts the Lord has given the church for its life, the gift of His Word and Sacrament, by which alone the church is sustained on its earthly pilgrimage to the coming promised land of fulfilment, in the realised presence of the risen Christ in all His glory.
Dr. Gordon Watson.