Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Master's Property

Texts:    2 Timothy 4:1-5; Matthew 25:14-30

    HAVE YOU EVER DONE RENOVATIONS to your house?  Or maybe you watch DIY programs like Holmes Inspection on TV.  If you do, you know how it goes.  You start out to do some improvement, to put in a new bathroom or whatever, but when you do the tear-out you discover there's rot in the walls or the foundation is weak or the plumbing is about to burst.  And instead of getting straight to the fun things like tiling and painting, you have to go back and redo the basic structure.

        We're in that position this morning as we look at Jesus' parable of the talents as it comes to us in Matthew chapter 25, verses 14-30. We've got to do some tearing out before we can begin to build.  The problem is this word "talent."  In ancient times, it had nothing to do with someone's personal endowments or abilities, it was simply a unit of weight, used especially for mass quantities of precious metals.  Over the centuries, however, the English language has taken this word, from this very parable, and changed its meaning to connote our God-given natural abilities, or, as we say, our talents.  So we build on that to conclude that Jesus will hold us accountable for how we put our natural gifts like singing or reasoning or entrepreneurship into service for Him.

    And this is true. He will hold us accountable for that.  But in this parable the word "talents" is referring to something different from our abilities.  Look at verse 15.  It says there that the master gave talents of money to each of his servants, "each according to his ability."  The servants' abilities or natural gifts were something different from the property their master entrusted to them. What profit they would make from it would go along with the abilities-- or, as we would say, the talents-- they already had.

    The talents in this parable do not naturally belong to the servants themselves.  They are, as it says in verse 14, the master's property.  Very valuable property, too.  The weight of a talent varied across the ancient world, but in 1st century occupied Israel it came to 2,080 ounces.  To get an idea of its value, let's reckon it up as gold.  At yesterday's price, one of those talents would have been worth $3,718,728.00.  Just one.  This property is the master's, and it is very, very precious.

    As we heard last week, in these parables our Lord is answering the disciples' question in Matthew 24:3, " . . . what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"  In the parable of the talents, a master goes away, and after a long time, the master returns.  The Master is Christ, and He warns us to be prepared for His coming at the end of the age. 

    Jesus begins the parable by saying, "Again, it will be like . . . " What will what be like?  Look back at verse 1 of chapter 25: "At that time"-- the time of His coming and the end of the age-- "the kingdom of heaven will be like . . . "  He is speaking of the time of His return.  So when Christ returns as Judge, it will be like a master who has entrusted his great and precious property to his servants and gone away, expecting to find they've turned a profit with it when he returns to settle his accounts. 

    Brothers and sisters, the kingdom of God will not begin with the moment of Christ's return.  We who believe in Him live under Jesus' rulership right now, and it affects how we His servants work with His property in the long weeks and months and years until He comes.

    So what is this property He puts into the hands of His servants?  If it isn't our natural abilities, if it isn't even the spiritual gifts He gives us for ministry, what could it be?

    We can find a clue in Matthew 13, in the parable of the sower.  There, various kinds of soil receive the same seed and yield different amounts of increase, depending on the nature of the soil.  In the parable of the talents, different kinds of servants receive the same kind of money in different amounts and yield different amounts of increase, depending on the nature of their abilities and attitudes.  Jesus tells us in Matthew 13:19 that the seed sown is the message about the kingdom of heaven.  The Master's property in Matthew 25 are the same thing: It is the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God, come to earth to establish the kingdom of God as its divine Lord and King.  As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15,

    [This is] the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. . . .  that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures [and appeared to many faithful witnesses].

Christ's servants the apostles were good and faithful.  By their labors we have received the trust of this good news, too.  His glorious gospel is the currency of the kingdom, and in this parable Jesus our Master charges us to put it to work for Him until He comes.

    So again, if we're talking gold, one servant receives five talents, worth around $18,600,000 at today's prices; one is entrusted with two, about $7,400,000; and the last servant is handed one talent at about $3,700,000.  Verse 16 says the first man immediately put his five talents to work. This man exerted himself to do business with his master's property so it might be increased, and the second servant did the same.

    So how do we exert ourselves in the business of the Gospel?  What is the Gospel's business, anyway?  The Word of Christ on earth has three primary purposes: For grace-- that is, to bring salvation and redemption to the sinner; for growth-- to build up the Church and each individual member in it so we achieve the full likeness of Jesus our Saviour; and for glory-- for the greater glory of God, and for the ultimate glorification of all His saints in Him.

    Each of us is given the Good News of Christ crucified and risen for us and for the sins of the world.  Our depth of understanding may be greater or lesser, but each of us in the Church have heard-- or should be hearing-- what Jesus has done for us.  According to the abilities we have from God, we minister this Word to one another and to the pagan at our door, so that grace, growth, and glory may increase and abound.

    Five-talent people might be those like St. Paul, or, more recently, someone like C. S. Lewis.  When the Holy Spirit brought him out of the darkness of modern paganism, Lewis took the wonderful riches of Christ's gift of salvation and multiplied it in his speaking and writing, and his profit to his Master increases to this day all around the world.

    We can't all be five-talent servants of our Lord.  But we can be good and faithful in our sphere and according to our abilities.  We can be like that wise Sunday School teacher who influenced the children in the church for grace, growth, and God's glory up to the time of her death.  We can be godly parents who lead our children in the way of the Lord, and never take it for granted that they know that Jesus died for them.  We can exert ourselves to increase in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as we study His word and participate in His sacraments.  We can be good capitalists of the Word-- if I dare use the term in these protesting times-- and follow Paul's charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy chapter 4, being prepared in season and out of season to communicate the Word of Christ.  For all Scripture-- all of which speaks of Christ, as He Himself reminds us-- is God-breathed and is useful-- profitable-- for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  So, put it to work, beginning in your own life and the life of your household.  Paul's charge applies especially to us pastors and elders, but all of us who have been entrusted with the good news of Jesus Christ should be prepared at all times to give anyone who asks a reason for the kingdom hope that is within us, so our Master's property might increase.

    What about the third servant?  The other two each increase their master's property 100% and the master commends them, entrusts them even more responsibility, and invites them to share in his great happiness.  But this man buries his $3,700,000 in the ground and very disrespectfully hands it back to his master on his return.  In our understanding of the parable, did he ever truly belong to Jesus Christ at all?

    As any human being belongs to God, yes.  Physically, he was a resident worker in the master's household.  But in his heart and mind, he was not the master's man.  He's like those who sit in church for decades letting the preaching wash over them, but they're never actually converted.  They think they know all about God and what He's really like, and they think they're smarter than He is.  And kinder and more loving, too.  The Jews in Jesus' day knew that God for centuries had made a practice of only saving a remnant of His chosen people. But then He'd go and have mercy on Gentiles.  How was that fair?  "Hey, God, don't You have enough to do taking care of us Jews?  Why meddle with people who pledge allegiance to other gods?  They don't belong to You!"  And so in the parable, "Master, I knew you were a hard man, harvesting where you had not sown and gathering where you had not scattered seed."  A man like that today might reason, "God's going to save whoever He's going to save, whether I say anything to anybody about Jesus or not.  And He'll send to hell anybody He feels like, even if they're really good people.  So why should I get myself in trouble in this world by going around talking about Jesus?  Let God get back what He gave, and keep me out of it."

    This is a terrible distortion of the truth.  But many church members use it so they don't have to exert themselves to increase their Master's property in the kingdom of heaven.  The master in verse 26 in effect says, "So that was your opinion of me?  In that case, you should truly have been afraid to return my money to me profitless.  You should've at least put the money to the bankers so I'd get some interest out of it."

    Now, I humbly admit that I am not certain how our Lord wants us to understand and apply this.  Most Bible commentators I've read skip right over it!  Jews weren't allowed to charge interest, so perhaps the master is saying, "All right, you've called me a cruel man and a thief; why didn't you put my money out at interest so you could call me a usurer, too?"  In that case, it would be a warning against speaking ill of our Lord and God.  But Jesus often used the unrighteous practices and people of this world to illustrate truths about the good of the kingdom of heaven. So Jesus could be saying to so-called followers like that, "You were afraid to speak the Gospel yourself?  Very well, you should at least have opened your home to My apostles who were speaking it.  You should have supported My missionaries and evangelists, even if you never said a word about Me yourself.  Then you would have received for Me some of what they earned."  (This is just a possibility, and if the Holy Spirit commends it to you, good; if not, let it alone.)

    But Jesus' conclusion is clear: As Paul says, when Christ, the righteous Judge, returns on the last day, He will reward His good and faithful servants with a crown of righteousness-- a crown that will signify their responsibility over much more than He entrusted to them on this earth.  But those who take the Gospel for granted, those who think the message of Christ crucified is a word of intolerance and exclusion, those who play it safe in church and bury their Master's property, they will be cast away from His presence into outer darkness forever.  They will find that what they thought they had of Christianity and Jesus will be taken away, but those who truly have laid hold on the truth of the gospel and increased grace, growth, and God's glory in this world, they'll find their share in Jesus Christ and His work wonderfully increased in the world to come.

    Which kind of servant will you and I be?  Our Master Jesus has entrusted His property to us, the infinitely valuable good news of sins forgiven in His blood.  He has also given us abilities, natural and spiritual, so we can put the Gospel to work.  May we be those receive His trust and immediately set to work for the increase of His kingdom.  And when Christ comes again in glory, may He gladly say to us,

    "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"


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