Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 15, 2020
Matthew 25:14-30 Commentary
“Well done, good and faithful servant.” How often haven’t we heard—or even spoken—these words at the funeral of some beloved member of the church? How often haven’t we seen these words etched onto tombstones in a cemetery or printed on the cover of the memorial folder for a funeral? This is what every believer hopes to hear his or her Lord say when approaching those proverbial “pearly gates” of heaven.
Since no less than Jesus himself speaks these words twice in Matthew 25, there is no denying that they carry biblical clout. But is it really a great idea to latch onto this phrase and use it as the be-all and end-all of how we assess what the Christian life is all about?
I thought we were saved by grace alone!
We do teach that, and yet I have long held the suspicion that a lot of people come to church each week with the nagging fear that they are not “good enough” for God. Hence, a lot of even the most virtuous of Christian deeds get fueled by guilt and fear accompanied by an overwhelming desire to hear God say “Well done . . .” when the roll is called up yonder.
So a main job of gospel preachers is again and again to proclaim the real good news that in Christ, we are all saved by grace. If we are in Christ, then what God will say to us at the end of days is not in question and is most certainly not determined by whatever grade we managed to achieve on the Report Card of life.
So what is Christian living? Where does it fit? Maybe the Parable of the Talents gives us a ready-made answer and maybe it is one that ties in with an image Eugene Peterson has used. Peterson says that in most languages (like English, for instance) there are just two verb voices: the Active and the Passive. In the Active Voice, the subject is solely responsible to initiate action: “The boy throws the ball.” “I am painting the wall.” In the Passive Voice something is done TO the subject: “The boy was hit by the ball.” “The tree got struck by lightning.” This linguistic way of talking affects our thinking in other areas: we assume that all of life comes down to a choice between our initiating activity or activity being visited upon us. Either I do it or someone else does it but there is not much in between.
But in the Greek language there is also the Middle Voice. In the Middle Voice the subject enters into an action that was started by someone else and that will ultimately be finished by someone else. It’s sort of like jumping with an inner tube into an already-flowing river. You didn’t create the river nor cause the current to flow. What’s more, it will keep flowing to its destination even if you hop out of the river at some point. But in the meantime you can jump in, float happily on the current, and also do things to steer yourself well, to position yourself well, to avoid rocks and overhanging tree limbs, etc.
And the Christian life, Peterson suggests, is like that. We are saved by God’s grace alone but then are also given the opportunity to jump into that already flowing river of grace. The river and everything we get a chance to do while floating in it are ultimately all the work of God. Our actions in the river would not be possible were it not for God. But what a joy and privilege it is to be in that river at all!
Of course, if like the third servant you are convinced that there is no joy to be had—that the Master is a “hard man” who is more to be feared than loved—then even grace cannot make a dent. But if you catch all the joy of the grace that kicks all this off in the first place, it makes all the difference in the world in what you then do in response.
In the Parable of the Talents, although the third servant missed it, the very giving of the talents was itself a divinely initiated act of grace. Everything else that happened after that was all a direct result of grace, grace, grace. What we do in the midst of this great river of grace is important and every true follower of Jesus who knows and experiences something of his holy joy must want to get in on “the master’s happiness” with every fiber of their being.
Indeed, we demonstrate that we understand this joy when we do throw ourselves into such Christian living wholeheartedly. Hence, the motivation for getting busy with our talents is not fear and not guilt but the very joy with which those talents were handed out in the first place! And it’s not a matter of what we do versus what God does but is a matter of our cooperating with God by participating with God in his great program of cosmic restoration!
Frederick Dale Bruner notes that a talent was a huge denomination of currency in Jesus’ day. One talent would have been the equivalent of a lifetime’s worth of wages! But as Bruner notes, that means that what this master gave away at the outset of this story was a whopping sum of money. And to Bruner’s mind, that is semaphore for grace. Giving that much away indicates the master’s confidence in these people and is indeed a shorthand way of getting at the idea that this story begins with grace. The question for each servant is not firstly what will he do with what he has been given but will he realize what the very reception of this means?
Near the end of C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” Aslan the Lion takes Lucy, Edmund, Peter and everyone to the New Narnia–to what we would call “heaven” or the New Creation. It is a place of astonishing light and beauty; a place where every blade of grass seems to mean more and where every creature sings for the sheer joy of the Creator. It is a place where everything is just so real in depth and color that the mere sight of a daisy takes your breath away and makes you weep for the sheer beauty of the thing.
But then, in the midst of all this splendor, the children see a group of dwarves huddled together, convinced that they are sitting in the rank stench of a barn–a place so dark that they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. Lucy is so upset that the dwarves are not enjoying the New Narnia that she begs Aslan to help them to see. Aslan replies, “Dearest Lucy, I will show you what I can do and what I cannot do.” Aslan then shakes his golden mane and a sumptuous banquet instantly appears in front of the dwarves. Each dwarf is given a plate heaped with juicy meats, glistening vegetables, plump grains of rice. Each also receives a goblet brimming with the finest wine anyone could ever imagine.
But when the dwarves dive in and begin eating, they start gagging and complaining.
“Doesn’t this beat all,” they lament. “Not only are we in this stinking stable but now we’ve got to eat hay and dried cow dung as well!” When they sip the wine, they sputter, “And look at this now! Dirty water out of a donkey’s trough!” The dwarves, Aslan goes on to say, had chosen suspicion instead of trust and love. They were prisoners of their own minds. They could not see Aslan’s gift of the New Narnia for they would not see it. Aslan can but leave them alone to the hell of their own devising.
Might something similar be going on with the third servant in this parable? Could it be that he just could not see the goodness of his master, choosing fear and suspicion over hope and joy?
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