by Kurt K. Hendel
Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History
The pericopes for the last Sundays of the church year are, indeed, rich and challenging. They contain a great deal of law and focus on such themes as divine expectations, human accountability, judgment and even punishment. They confront us with our failures and our tendencies to make excuses, and they challenge us to be worthy of and faithful in our callings. Surely the lessons for this week are no exception. These lessons have an eschatological focus, and they address us in ways that make us uncomfortable, that incline us to seek creative or selective interpretations of the texts, that compel us to struggle with God's identity and will. At the same time, this week's pericopes, as well as those for the other weeks before Advent, also contain good news, words of encouragement and reminders of God's gracious will for God's people. We just have to look for this gracious news more intentionally and more diligently.
The parable that is our gospel lesson for this week is obviously a familiar one. The master is about to leave for a long journey, and so he entrusts his servants with some of his property, each according to his abilities. To the most capable he gives five talents, to the next he gives two and to the third he gives one. The first two servants increase the money they had been given while their master is away, while the third simply keeps safe what has been entrusted to him, fearing the master's retribution if he did not invest the money wisely and lost all or a portion of it. When the master returns he requires the servants to give an account. He then praises and rewards the first two servants but chides the third and punishes him severely by expelling him from the household. The central points of the parable are both obvious and striking. First of all, the master has clear and reasonable expectations. After all, he considers the abilities of the servants and adjusts their responsibilities and his expectations accordingly. Secondly, all three servants are held accountable, and, thirdly, each is either rewarded or punished, depending on whether he had met the master's expectations or not. The good news of the parable is that the master considers his servants to be trustworthy; that he is, therefore, willing to entrust them with his property; that he recognizes and considers their individual gifts and abilities and that he graciously rewards those who meet his expectations. The challenging message of the parable is that the master has clear expectations, that he requires the servants to give an account of what they had accomplished and that he punishes as well as rewards.
If the parable were simply a story of human successes and failures, diligence and incapacitating fear, reward and punishment, we could say that it is quite realistic, that the master was both fair and reasonable and that the servants received what they deserved. We might wish that the master had given the third servant another chance. We might wonder why that servant was so afraid of his master and suggest that the reasons for that fear justified his caution, or we might note that previous experience should have made it clear to the servant that he would either have to produce or suffer the consequences. All in all, the story would ring quite true as an account of normal human behavior.
However, if parables do teach us something about God; about God's dealings with humanity; about God's intentions and expectations, then we are confronted with a variety of questions or, rather, implications about who God is, about God's dealings with us, about God's activity. We are also presented with a clear vision of our vocations, our callings, our responsibilities as God's people and of the opportunities God sets before us to serve God and the whole creation.
The question which particularly confronts and troubles me as I consider the meaning and significance of this parable is whether a God of grace and love, a God of forgiveness, a God who gives us chance after chance after chance, a God who clearly desires a positive and life-giving relationship with us can also be a God who has expectations, who holds us accountable and who even rewards or punishes us. The former is the God in whom I trust, whom I want to celebrate, who gives me hope and assurance, whom I want to be my God. The latter is a God who seems so demanding, whose expectations I cannot possibly fulfill, in whose presence I am filled with awe and uncertainty and who instills fear in me. In light of these realities, I can surely empathize with that third servant—the fearful one, the one who could not bring himself to act. Nevertheless, the parable insists that this is precisely who God is and how God functions. As we struggle with this reality, and I am, of course, assuming that you share my struggle, we must remember one crucial reality. Luther always insisted that if we want to discover who God is and what God's will for and attitude toward God's people are we must focus on Christ. Christ is, after all, God's ultimate self-revelation, and that revelation is trustworthy and redemptive. When we focus on Christ, and that is what people of faith do, we recognize and we are assured that the God who has expectations and who holds us accountable is, in fact, the God of forgiveness, of love and of grace. Thus God's expectations are always seen in light of God's love. This holistic perspective must always inform us as we seek meaning in the parable.
What, then, does God expect of us? What has God entrusted to us? Why does God hold us accountable? In order to answer these questions, it is, indeed, crucial to focus on Christ. At the end of his earthly ministry Jesus made it quite clear what He wanted His disciples to do: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…." (Mt. 28:19) Jesus uses action words here. He clarifies their mission by telling them precisely what to do. It is abundantly clear that He is not making a proposal or giving them a choice. He expects them to make disciples by teaching others both the message and the way of life that He had taught them. Throughout His ministry, Jesus had given the disciples a precious gift. He explained the Scriptures to them and modeled the godly life for them. They listened to His words and were gradually, though dramatically, transformed by them because they heard a message of life and freedom, of forgiveness and wholeness. They witnessed His mighty deeds and received glimpses of who God is and how God functions. They saw Him reach out to the despised, to those without power, to those in need, even as He challenged the oppressors, those in power, those who thought more highly of themselves than they should. They were present as He healed those broken in body and spirit. They wondered and marveled as He modeled meekness and humility, as He praised the peacemakers and as He exercised power, not in oppressing others but by bringing assurance, comfort and hope to them. The disciples heard good news preached, and they saw the godly life lived to perfection. That is the unique and precious gift that Christ entrusted to His disciples. However, He did not entrust it to them so that they could hoard it or use it only for their own benefit. He expected them to share it freely and generously, as they had received it and thereby to make disciples.
We are now Christ's disciples, and He has entrusted this very same gift to us as well. Through the gift of faith we have heard what the first disciples heard. We have witnessed what they saw. We have experienced what they experienced. We are also given the same vocation—the same mission—that they received. God still expects us to invest what God has entrusted to us by sharing the gift, humbly but faithfully, through words and actions. Both words and actions are necessary because our words will be more believable when they are accompanied by deeds that are consistent with our words. God also still holds us accountable. Why? Because our witness is necessary and because God depends on us. Our witness is necessary because it is through the gospel message of life, salvation, forgiveness and wholeness that God transforms human beings, makes them truly free, heals their brokenness and grants them new life. That is truly God's will for all of humanity and this is the reason for God's activity in human history. Ironically, God has chosen to work through means, and God has chosen us to be God's instruments of grace and mercy, of forgiveness and wholeness, of life and salvation in our world. Is it any wonder that God holds us accountable?
Expectations can be legalistic burdens. They can be unreasonable and unfair. However, expectations can also be a matter of trust and confidence on the part of the one who has the expectations. They can embody surprising possibilities and inspire people to do more than they ever thought possible. That is the case with God's expectations, for God always expects those things of God's people that are consistent with God's will; that are wholesome and life-giving; that foster wholeness, freedom and joy and that enable God's people to manifest who they are and whose they are. However, God's expectations are not only just and beneficial, God also provides us with the resources that are necessary to meet those expectations. The gift which we are called to share itself inspires us to share it. The gospel, this radical good news of life and salvation, is God's effective and powerful word that transforms both the speaker and the hearer. As we share it, it addresses us, as well as our listeners, and it strengthens us to be what God intends us to be. Furthermore, God does not expect us to pursue our calling alone. When Jesus clarified their mission and His expectations for His disciples, He also assured them that He would accompany them as they pursued their callings—that He would be with them until the end of time. That promise and assurance is also addressed to us. Christ is present among, with and in us through the Word and the sacraments and through the gift of His Holy Spirit. The Spirit guides, inspires and strengthens us as we seek to meet God's expectations, as we proclaim good news in word and deed and as we strive to be Christ's faithful disciples.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God does have expectations of us because of who we are. By God's grace we are God's servants and Christ's disciples. We are the ones whom God entrusts with a precious gift and whom God calls to do God's work. Through our ministry God is at work bringing life, salvation, wholeness and freedom to God's people. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that God depends on us in order to do and accomplish God's will in the world. As I have already said and as we all confess, our wondrous and surprising God has chosen to work through means, and we are God's means. We have been given the gift of life that is God's gift to all of humanity. However, we cannot hoard that gift or hide it away in some safe place. It is our call and responsibility to invest it by sharing it freely and generously, as we have received it freely and graciously. As we share it, the gift is multiplied, people are transformed, their lives are renewed and they receive all that God is so eager to give. After all, God is at work through us. It is no wonder that God has such high expectations of us and that God holds us accountable. We are God's instruments of grace and life. That is the responsibility, the calling, which God has given us. The wonderful surprise is, of course, that the gift which we have received and which we are called to share also empowers us to pursue our calling as messengers of grace. Thus the God who has lofty expectations of us is ultimately the God of grace who enables us to be the "good and faithful servants" with whom God is well-pleased. May it be so with all of us. To God be all glory and honor now and forever. Amen.
Zeph. 1:7,12-18; I Thess. 5:1-11; Ps. 90:1-8[9-11],12; Mt. 25:14-30