Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Absurd Parable – Matthew 18:23-38

The Unforgiving Slave (with notes on first century slavery)
Topic: Forgiveness/Mercy/Grace
Intended Audience: Applicable to relationships generally but is targeted to relationships between members of a believing community

The parable

Matthew 18:23-35   23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents(1 )was brought to him;  25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.  26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.'  27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;(1 )and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.'  29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.'  30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.  31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.  32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?'  34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister(1 )from your heart." 

What comes before the parable is important to note:

18:12-14 – Here is Matthew’s version of Luke’s parable of the lost sheep. A crazy shepherd leaves 99 sheep unguarded in the wilderness to seek a single missing sheep, and then he celebrates when he finds it. Jesus concluded the analogy saying, “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:14) As we engage Matthew 18:23-38 below, it’s important to remember that this is the Shepherd-Father’s heart: that none should be lost. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

18:15-22 – Here the subject is forgiving “your brother” in “the church.” Jesus gives instructions on how to handle it if a fellow believer offends you: talk to him about it alone; if he won’t “heed,” take 1 or 2 witnesses with you and try again; if he won’t “heed them,” tell “the church;” and if he doesn’t heed them, “let him be as a Gentile or tax collector to you (plural).” Of course the punch line with a wink and a nod is that Jesus was guilty of being a friend of Gentiles, tax collectors, and manner of sinners! Confusing the matter with forgiveness, Peter asks how many times do you forgive someone for doing the same thing to you, as many as seven times? No, Jesus says. Forgive him 490 times (70 x 7). Here is another punch line with a wink and a nod. There is no reasonable cut-off point for forgiveness. The number 490 is a humorous and absurd extreme meaning that Jesus’ disciples forgive in their hearts no matter what, no exceptions. Forgiveness is unconditional and unlimited.

How much is 10,000 talents in US Dollars?

Average household annual income in the US in 2010 was almost $50,000, which will serve as a nice round figure. To get the equivalent of 15 years’ wages then, we just multiply $50,000 x 15 years.

$50,000 x 15 years = $750,000 (one talent)

To get the dollar equivalent of the slave’s 10,000 talent debt then, we simply multiply $750,000 x 10,000.

$750,000 (one talent) x 10,000 = 7.5 billion US Dollars

Key theological points in the parable:

An absurd extremeIt is an un-loan-able amount, an unforgivable amount, and an un-repayable amount. 10,000 talents is an incredible debt, meaning not credible. No slave could ever borrow this much and no king could ever loan it to another nation, much less a slave. We sometimes miss Jesus’ creativity and sense of humor because we fail to note his willingness to shock and delight his contemporary listeners. 7.5 billion dollars! Josephus recorded that the taxes paid in a year by Judea, Idumea, Samaria, and Galilee combined was only 800 talents. No king of that day could lend 10,000 talents, no king could forgive such a debt, and no slave could repay such a debt no matter how much time he was granted to do it.

Other absurdities

  1. To say that the slave “had no means of repaying” is the understatement of the millennium. The amount is so extreme that saying he couldn’t repay it is to state the obvious with two nudges, two winks, and two nods.

  1. Only the most inept of kings could be unaware of this much missing money. It’s not until he shuffles over to the books, slips on his bi-focals, and starts punching on the calculator that he figures out that a vast fortune is missing.

  1. Selling the slave, his wife, and his children is ridiculous. It recoups only a tiny fraction of the cost and is therefore pointless. And if it’s the king’s intention to merely punish the slave, how is it punishment to sell the slave to another master? Doesn’t that just let him off the hook and give him a fresh start with a clean slate?

  1. This bungling king who demands repayment from a slave of an impossible debt, this king whose useless plan to recoup it is to pocket some change by selling the slave and his family, graduates to a new level of senility by forgiving the debt in total just because the slave fell to his knees and promised to pay it all back if he could just have a little more time. No more time was granted, however. (No amount of time would have helped anyway.) Unexpectedly and beyond all reason, the king cancels a note the size of Russia. He lets him off Scott free. This is absurd—on purpose.

  1. Robert Capon points out that “this king is a bookkeeper, pure and simple.” “He will have no care at all except to get his money back as best he can.” “There is no forgiveness in the story so far.” But when the slave falls to his knees and begs for an extension, “the king’s attitude suddenly changes. He goes from having all the mercy of a loan shark to being a softy.” A shockingly absurd change of character, is it not? (Quotes are from p. 196 of Capon’s “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment.”)

  1. The slave rushed out to shake down a fellow slave who owed him a mere 100 denars. This is pointless and laughable. This amount is about 4 months’ wages. What difference is 4 months’ wages when you owe (or think you owe) 150,000 years’ wages? It’s an act of comic futility. He even grabbed the guy by the throat! And for what? For next to nothing!

  1. He’s clueless. This hapless slave is operating as one who was granted time to raise the vast sum he owed. He has failed to comprehend grace. He did not hear that he now owes nothing. He’s operating out of his proposed plan of self-salvation rather than resting in the king’s forgiveness. Forgiveness was incomprehensible to him. I’m reminded of the prodigal son who had a plan to be a slave to his father, perhaps to try to recoup the inheritance that he squandered, never once considering that his father still considered him a son and had already forgiven him. Grace never occurred to him. To him, grace was too absurd to consider.

  1. Though the slave who owed him 100 denars fell to his knees and begged using the exact same words he himself had used moments before with the king, the clueless slave was too deaf to make the connection. He did not have ears with which to hear. Because he failed to comprehend the mercy of the king, he failed to hear the plea in his own words, he failed to feel pity, and he failed to forgive. You can’t give what you don’t have. “He who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47) This is not just absurd, it’s tragic, and it’s outrageous.

  1. When fellow slaves report what the fellow had done, the king was outraged. The king who is asleep at the wheel of his own treasury, the king whose plan to recoup the debt was to pocket a couple of buck by the sale of the unforgiving slave and his family, now says, You’ll be tortured until you pay it! How can he repay it under torture? Alas and alack, he can’t! Another shocking ineptitude on the part of the king. Another punch line. Another absurdity.

A word on slavery

Jesus’ parables sometimes include slaves as characters. It’s true that the Bibles doesn’t come right out and denounce slavery, but . . .

  • The slavery most Americans are familiar with is the brutal slave trade of Africans right here, a cruel practice that ended with The War Between the States in 1864, only some 150 years ago. But slavery in the Roman culture of Jesus’ day was different. It’s estimated at the time that there were two to three million slaves in Italy, for example, which is between 35 and 40 percent of the population. The Romans captured or conscripted them on three continents, people of numerous races and languages, and they were people with valuable skills who were put to work, paid, and trusted, including physicians and accountants. They were recognized as valuable human beings, they obtained freedom and citizenship after six years of work, and they became trusted friends, adopted son, and beloved spouses. Legal documents, tombs, and other inscriptions from the time attest to this. Slavery should not be condoned. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. But this centuries-old, widespread socio-economic practice was obviously more humane—not to mention universally accepted in the ancient Roman Empire—than the tragic and inhumane slavery of our nation’s recent past.

  • Jews had slaves for centuries prior to the Roman occupation. Since Roman society used slavery successfully too, this practice continued in Palestine under Roman rule and influence. A high percentage of people that Jesus encountered, taught, and healed would have been slaves, perhaps a percentage similar to that in Italy (35-40%). So when Jesus included slaves in his stories, as he often did, he was including the slaves in his audiences, probably to their approval, appreciation, and delight. Slave is doulos in biblical Greek. It occurs in 119 verses in the New Testament. That’s a lot. And Matthew’s Gospel uses the word doulos more than any other New Testament book—in thirty verses—and most of those are in parables from the lips of Jesus. In his teaching he neither condones nor condemns the practice of slavery. Instead he tells parables about good slaves and bad slaves to demonstrate how the faithful and the unfaithful act. God’s slaves (all of us) are called to be good slaves, he teaches. Remember too that he healed enslaved and free people alike, showing no distinction, like the Centurion’s slave, for example. The Apostle Paul understood this. Powerfully he began most of his New Testament epistles (letters) with the words “Pau/loj dou/loj Cristou/ VIhsou/ . . . . ,” meaning, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,” a title which defined him and of which he was unashamed. In one of those letters Paul advised a slave owner, Philemon, to welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother. And in his letter to the Galatian Christians he proclaimed boldly that in Christ there is no slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

What Jesus meant

Is God planning to torture us for being unmerciful? No. In the parable the king was saying to the merciless slave concerning the impossible debt, “So you want to pay it back rather than accept my forgiveness? Fine. I accept your decision. Have it your way. You’ll be tortured until you pay it!” Perhaps now he will realize, I can never repay it, and I totally missed it that the king really had forgiven it anyway. What a fool I am!

Forgiving our debtors is impossible unless we ourselves comprehend, accept, and live in the liberation of God’s forgiveness of our debts. That’s why Jesus put it so strangely in “The Lord’s Prayer.” He taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Yet not to take away from that truth, Jesus also turned it the other way around. The point of the parable is: Let us forgive our debtors as we have been forgiven by You. Our asking God’s forgiveness for our wrongdoings is intimately connected to our practice of forgiveness to others. Both statements are true. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

Forgiveness is really letting go, and it is so hard to do. But unless we let go of self-salvation schemes, religious self-justification, and merciless scorekeeping with ourselves and others, we can never enjoy the real liberty of a grace that is already ours and has been ours all along.

The two ways that God chose to break through our prideful defenses involve parables and a cross. In the parables, the “God character” surrenders impossible debts, forgives impossible sins, and runs to embrace impossible prodigals. On the cross, God does no less, canceling all debt, forgiving even those who kill him, and stretching out his arms to embrace the whole broken, sinful, evil world. Capon wrote, “If we cannot face the price he has paid to free us, we might as well never been freed at all.” (KGJ, p. 198)

So the slave, by not perceiving the freedom he already had, ends up losing the life he was trying to save. That’s the paradox of God’s kingdom of grace:

Luke 17:33  “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”

It’s the panicked impulse for self-preservation that kills us. That impulse is deaf, dumb, and blind to the gift of grace, is hell-bent on operating gracelessly, and is truly a living torture.

A return to what comes before our parable

Lost Sheep (18:12-14) – Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep ends affirming the Shepherd-Father’s heart: that none should be lost. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it. To interpret “the parable of the unforgiving slave” as a threat by a hard-fisted God to torture you unless you straighten up your act flies in the face of the portrait of a God who is a shepherd who will risk everything to find you. His desire is that you not be lost. So what does he mean by lost? What if “lost” is precisely what the unforgiving slave was? Lost in a hopeless debt that he cannot repay? Lost in the lie that, given more time, he could bail himself out? Lost in the blindness that did not let him see that his debt had been forgiven? Lost in the delusion that he’d been given an extension to recoup it? Lost in the hard-fisted mercilessness he showed to a fellow slave who owed him a pittance? Lost in the deafness that failed to hear that fellow beg using the same words he had just used before the king? Lost in a graceless world of his own making? Lost in the torture of having cut himself off from the grace that was freely his already? Grace is there. It’s yours. But to enjoy it, to trust it, and to rest in it you have to perceive it. That’s called being found. Seeing that the debt has been covered is being found.

Seventy Times Seven (18:15-22) – Peter wanted to know what the cutoff number was for how many times we have to forgive someone in the church. The number Jesus gives, like the 10,000 talent debt, is irrationally huge—70 x 7 times, or 490 times to be precise. His meaning is that there is no cutoff number. Forgiven debtors forgive eternally. Forgiveness is dying eternally to the debt.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A God Who Gambles (The Parable of the Talents)

Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Topic: The judgment inherent in failing to gamble on grace
Intended Audience: Jesus is teaching privately to his disciples (Matt 24:3 and Matt 26:1)

I.                   The Parable

Matthew 25:14-30   14 "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.'  21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy 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.'  22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.'  23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy 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.'  24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'  26 But 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?  27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 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.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

      II.                The Talents

      A.    How much is a talent in US Dollars?

A talent is worth 15 years wages in 1st century Palestine. Here’s a simple way to estimate the value of a talent in US Dollars. The average household annual income in the US in 2010 was almost $50,000, which will serve as a nice round figure. To get the equivalent of 15 years’ wages then, we just multiply $50,000 x 15 years to find that one biblical talent is worth about three quarters of a million dollars:.

$50,000 x 15 years = $750,000 (one talent)

B.     In US Dollars, how much did the master entrust to each slave?

A man entrusted his three slaves with the following amounts before leaving on a trip:

Slave #1:   5 talents          $750,000 x 5 = 3.75 million US Dollars
Slave #2:   2 talents          $750,000 x 2 = 1.50 million US Dollars
Slave #3:   1 talent            $750,000

If you take into account that slaves in Roman times included skilled and trusted money managers, then leaving investment money with a slave doesn’t seem so strange. Nevertheless, the amounts are extreme. This is not grocery money. Absurd extremes in parables are used frequently by Jesus to shock, to delight, and to emphasize enormous truths about God and the kingdom.

The master, who trusted obscene amounts of money to his three slaves, returns and promises something even more absurd.

Matthew 25:21   21 "His master replied, '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!'

A few things? He gave the three slaves a total equivalent of 6 million dollars! He praises the first two slaves for being “faithful with a few things,” and then he promises to put them in charge of “many things.” That’s another real shocker. If 6 million is a “few things,” what outrageous amount could be “many things”? (How about 7.5 Billion--with a B--US Dollars, the amount owed by a slave in Matthew 18?) Again, this is Jesus at his exaggerational best.

So a question comes to mind: What did the first two slaves do right? Was it the amount of money that they were able to generate? Or was it something else? We’ll come back to this question.

C.    How much money did each slave generate?

So when the man returned from his trip, how much money did each slave return to him?

Slave #1    10 talents        $3.75 million x 2 = 7.5 million US Dollars
Slave #2      4 talents        $1.50 million x 2 = 3.0 million US Dollars
Slave #3      1 talent          $0.75 million

The result was that Slaves #1 and #2 had put the man’s money to work in some business endeavor or investment that had doubled their master’s money. Jesus says that the man was gone for “a long while” (vague on purpose?), but how long do you have to be gone for investments to double in size? Or to look at it another way, what kind of questionable investment or ponzi scheme could yield a 100% return?

That the first two slaves both exactly doubled their money suggests that they invested in the same thing, that perhaps they put their heads together and partnered in the investing. If so, the parable may be contrasting the advantage of working together in faith rather than going it solo in fear.

The owner, however, shows no care for how they did it, but only that they did it. He simply wants to commend them for doing it and celebrate. He is not interested or concerned about whether it was real estate or the racetrack, banking or bootlegging, legal or illegal. Now we can see why Slave #3 does not merely disappoint the owner; he enrages the owner. The third slave risked nothing out of fear. The master cares so much about faithful risking that “how” is irrelevant to him, and excuses for not faithfully risking are pointless.

One would think that the man would be happy. Given the efforts of all three slaves taken together, he cleared 5.25 million US Dollars and he didn’t lift a finger himself to generate it. Instead, the man was angry that one of them risked nothing. The success of the first two in no way tempered his feelings about the failure of the third. He had 5.25 million free and clear, but he is furious at the one to whom he gave the least (and therefore the one least likely to score the largest returns on the cash even if he had tried) and he tongue-lashed him. This shows definitively that the master didn’t care at all about the money. It was not about the amount, but about whether the trusted slaves dared to risk.

Slave #3 failed to understand his owner and hid the money in the ground for safekeeping. And while he proved to be trustworthy to return every penny, he still drew the ire of his owner. It’s not like he stole the money and ran. But in the mind of the owner, not only would it have been better at the very least to have put it in the bank to earn a little interest while he was gone (Matt 25:27), but it might have been better to have lost it all trying something rather than return it all having risked nothing.

III.             The Master

A.    The first two slaves’ perception of the master

The first two slaves understood their master. They somehow knew that they were expected to risk the money he’d put into their care. The whole point, they somehow recognized, was to risk the money, to turn it lose and roll the dice. The first two slaves “got it.” They knew the mind of their master. It wasn’t how much money they could make for him (after all, the master seems to have unlimited funds), but could they (would they) dare to risk the funds? Could they turn it lose? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. They knew that bold action would be considered faithful action, not because of how much money they might make (or lose), but because the master gambled the money with them, and they knew he wanted them to gamble too. They trusted their master, they trusted his gambling-nature, they trusted themselves because he trusted them, and they believed that good things might happen if they had the nerve to release it just as their master had. He called them “good and faithful servants,” but their “goodness” was not referring to their success or competence, but to their faithfulness, to their ability to translate the trust placed in them into trusting the money to a risky venture. They perceived the risk-nature of the master, so they too risked. And that is why they are called good and faithful.

B.     The third slave’s perception of the master

Matthew 25:24-25  'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'

The third slave operated out of fear, by his own admission, rather than faith. “I was afraid.” Was he afraid of his own lack of skill in investment? Probably. Was he afraid that he might lose the money? Probably. But was his biggest fear a fear of the master himself? Undoubtedly. The slave says as much. He sees the master as a hard man, a greedy slave-driving scrooge, a taskmaster only concerned with cash. He didn’t believe that the master really trusted him. So he did the least risky thing imaginable. He snuck out alone and dug his hole.

C.    Contrasting views and contrasting responses:

1.      Here we have a view of the master as one who is interested in the slaves, who trusts the slaves, and who wants to celebrate the slaves’ willingness to risk VERSUS a view of the master who is uninterested in the slaves, who is using the slaves, and who only cares about the money. (What do you do when you discover that your perception of God is wrong?)

2.      Here we have a response to the master of trusting faithfulness that is willing to risk on his behalf VERSUS a response to the master of fearful paralysis that is unwilling to risk. (What do you do when you realize that what you thought was a trusting faithfulness is instead a fearful faithlessness?)

IV.             Eschatology? Parousia?

Is the absence of the master for “a long time” a reference to the eschaton (end of time) and the delay of the parousia (the return of Christ)? Are we talking about the period of time between Jesus first coming and his second coming? Is that period of time one in which we are called to be “good and faithful slaves” who risk the treasures of the kingdom in hopes of increasing that treasure? Are we sewing seeds of the kingdom for the end-time harvest? Has “the master” entrusted us with “the incomparable riches of his grace” (Eph 2:7) that we might put it to work in the world, even invest it recklessly in the world, until he returns for an accounting (Rom 4:12)? I think so. Of the hour of his return, no one knows. So be alert. Stay awake. (Matt 24:42-44; 25:13; 26:40-41)

V.                What must we do to perform the works of God?

The first two slaves didn’t earn grace by their performance. That wasn’t the arrangement. The grace was that the owner completely trusted them without reservation up front, and he risked trusting them to do his business for him acting on his behalf in his absence. The word Jesus used was “entrusted.” The openness, the trust, and the invitation to do business were up front and free without stipulation or qualification. He was hands off. He was no anxious micro-manager. He didn’t hang around wringing his hands with worry. He went on vacation and didn’t take the office with him. He gave it no further thought, completely turning it over to his slaves logistically and emotionally. No calls, emails, or faxes to check on how things are going. No instructions to update him regularly. The handoff was clean and without strings. Now that’s trust! He “entrusted.” What a vote of confidence! What a gift of grace! “We may be just his slaves, but he treats us like partners! He believes in us!”

So how did the first two know that the master wanted them to risk the money on something or someone else? Because of the action of the master! He risked the money on them! This is what the third slave did not see. The first two saw a trusting man who could risk believing in them and who could entrust them completely with his talents and who could let it go. This liberated them to act in the same way. They stood on the confidence that the man had in them as financial partners and managers, and they acted likewise. They too boldly risked and let it go.

The third slave saw the opposite and therefore did the opposite. Looking at the same master, the third slave saw him completely differently. Why? I think because he saw him through the lenses of fear. He perceived the “trust” placed in him—if he perceived it at all—as a trick or a test by an untrustworthy slave owner to whom he was merely property to be used for selfish purposes. He experienced the grace of partnership as a frightful affliction and perhaps even as an unfair burden. Thus he experienced the man as an impersonal, hard-fisted, money monger bent on preserving his fortune. Seeing in the man no trust, no partnership, no encouragement, and no inspiration, he acted in fear as the lowly slave he perceived himself to be, and did the least inspired thing that he could do. He rushed out alone and buried it like a corpse. And, sadly, his trustless, unimaginative act expresses exactly how he saw the owner. He really did do what he thought was the right thing to do given the man he was dealing with. Sadly, he read him wrong, he read his relationship with him wrong, and he read what was being asked of him wrong. Rather than seeing a generous, trusting partner, he saw a rapacious, demanding slave driver. He saw him in the light of his own darkness. The spiritually dead do not see the life inherent in risking love and grace. Risking doesn’t occur to them.

While burying hoards of coins was a common practice—many such hoards are found by archaeologists in the Holy Land today—in spiritual matters, hoarding is death. Heart-hoarding is the worst thing you can do. It’s spiritual death. Jesus told Nicodemus to be born of the wind (Spirit) and fly responsive to where the wind blows. Spirituality risks trusting the direction of the wind. It lets go of calculation and control. Conversely, fear risks nothing because it operates by calculation and control.

If the man/owner/master was a fear-driven, calculating, control freak, he would have praised the third slave for taking the most cautious action possible, and he would have tongue-lashed the first two for reckless risk-taking.

Some folks in a crowd once asked Jesus a question pertinent to this discussion.

John 6:28-29  28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"  29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."

When asked for a performance to-do list, Jesus says there is only one work: Believe. Trust. Have confidence in him. Rest in him. The punch line here is that there is only one work of God and it is not a work! Faith is not a work, and efforts to turn faith into a work are faithless.

The reason that the first two slaves were “good and faithful” had nothing to do with how much money they made, but that they “got it.” They perceived that the master risked trusting them so they risked trusting the master. They perceived the master’s risk-taking, gambling heart and it inspired them to take risks in his name. They perceived that the relationship implied in his risk-taking trust of them transcended the normal master/slave relationship. They perceived partnership, so they acted as authorized partners, and more than partners—dare I say it?—friends.

John 15:15-17   15 I do not call you servants (doulos – slaves)  any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.  17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

The entrepreneurship of the kingdom is a trusted partnership and friendship that transcends the master/slave relationship. They are appointed and authorized. And unlike the third slave, who acted alone in fear, the first two acted together in the confidence and trust that they are appointed and authorized. They valued the master because he valued them. They trusted him because he trusted them. And if I am right that these two got exactly the same result (exactly doubling the money) because they worked together, invested together, then they trusted one another together just as the master had trusted them together. They not only perceived partnership and friendship with the master, but they said to one another, “Hey, if the master trusts you the same as me, then maybe I can trust you too. Let’s risk trusting one another.”

If the first two trusted one another and ventured together, then a disturbing implication concerning the third fellow emerges. He not only didn’t perceive the trusting relationship that he had with the master, but he also didn’t perceive the trust possible with his fellow slaves. Working with the other two never seems to have occurred to him. Fear told him he was alone. So he acted alone. His radar didn’t read relationship.

The kingdom is about relationships of grace and love. Faith focuses on this and trusts this. And from relationships of grace and love come riches of more graceful and loving relationships. It’s its own good reward. Riches result from such relationships. The fruit of such relationships is what we call good works. Fear, however, produces Lone Rangers, competitive isolationists bent on their individual scorekeeping performance and their own self-glorifying, individual reward. “I buried your money, Mr. Scorekeeping Slave-Driver, Sir, and I’ve counted every penny ten times. It’s all here. So where’s my reward?”

Such a performance-driven, reward-driven man could not comprehend, much less joyfully attend, the celebration intended by the master: “Enter into the joy of your master.” What a beautiful invitation! What’s the joy about? Their individual performance at making money? The amount of money they were able to make? No. The master’s joy is in the relationship, the partnership, and the friendship of trust and risk that was offered, perceived, received, entered, and engaged. A fearful performer who acts alone wants to be rewarded alone. He wants a coronation, not a congregation (in the best sense of that word). And the irony is this: This delusional dunce thinks he deserves a reward for acting alone and risking nothing. Look, he’s not just reporting the facts, he’s boasting:

Matthew 25:24-25   24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'

He didn’t hide or wait for the master to call for his report. He proudly stepped forward, says Jesus. Then Slave #3 claimed to “know the master.” He presumed to tell the master what kind of man he is. He knows he’s harsh; he knows he’s a loner and a user and a bean counter; and he knows he’s all about profit by any means necessary. There’s not a question in his mind, though he’s horribly wrong. But he’s right about one thing: His actions would have pleased a hard-fisted, fear-driven miser. If his master were the kind of master the third slave perceived him to be, #3 would have won the prize for slave of the year and the other two would have been beaten. Moreover, he might have enjoyed the pleasure of watching them be beaten from the luxury of his seat at the right hand of the master. He envisions “the joy of his master” as his individual enthronement (based on his individual achievement) over the others and their subsequent punishment for their recklessness.

He admitted he was afraid, right? Yes, but slaves are supposed to be afraid of their masters, aren’t they? And harsh masters want their slaves to be afraid of them, too, don’t they? What if the slave is boasting!? I alone was appropriately afraid of you! I alone did the prudent and right thing with the money, especially when compared to the co-scheming and co-recklessness of these other two. He concludes by saying, See, I’m returning to you exactly what you gave me to the perfect penny. See, I win.

I think the third slave sounds proud of his perceptions and his actions. Is it possible that he expects praise, that he expects to be honored above the others, and that he expects the other slaves to be humiliated? I think so. Can anyone be so blind? The answer to that question is Yes, we can.

VI.             Judgment finds the third slave

Fear is its own judgment. John’s First Epistle says that those who fear are hung up on punishment and are not perfected in love, because perfect love casts out fear (4:18). Living fearfully is not living at all. The master didn’t have to pronounce judgment. Slave #3 pronounced his own judgment by fearing. Fear is a Gehenna emotion, and it produces its own hellish punishment. His blindness to the master’s risk-taking heart, his obliviousness to the master’s trust and grace, his hole-digging proclivities, his self-satisfaction at having horded, and his pride at having accounted for every dirty penny are all evidence of self-judgment in a living hell.

The master did not judge him. He merely pronounced him already judged, already lazy, already wicked. Like the five foolish bridesmaids were self-condemned at the start and didn’t perceive it (Matthew 25:1-13), the third slave was self-condemned at the start and didn’t perceive it. Like the goats who were long ago self-condemned for self-callousness but didn’t perceive it (Matthew 25:31-46), slave #3 was self-condemned long before the master’s return. The first thing that the third slave did was to go off alone and dig his own hole. In a way, on that very first day, the third slave buried himself when he buried the money.

Self-salvation is its own judgment. Those who strive to save their lives lose them.

The consequence was that the one talent he buried was given to the one most likely to do something risky with it: slave number one. It is as if the master is saying, So you think I’m greedy and hard-fisted, do you? Fine. You want greedy and hard fisted, so you will get greedy and hard fisted. I accept your decision. Have it your way. There’s your self-condemnation. I’m taking your talent and giving it to the guy who risked the most.

The judgment inherent in God’s amazing grace is that those who perceive it, receive it, enter it, and engage it get more of it, but those who don’t, even what they have is taken away.

Matthew 13:12  “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.”

Jesus was talking about perceiving the meaning of his parables. Those who “get” this kingdom of grace thing will “get it” more and more. Those who don’t “get it,” even what they “get” (like the talent) will be taken away. Those who don’t “get” the grace thing think this is unthinkable. Those who “get it” know that this is how grace works. It abounds for some and evaporates for others. It delights some and infuriates others. It is perceived as a blessing by some and a curse by others.

In this sense, the Parable of the Talents is a parable about perception. Do you really see God? Or do you just think you do? Bottom line, is he a God of greed or grace? Is he about fear or faith? Is he a controller or a risk taker? Is he about calculating or trusting? Is he about results or relationship? Is he a scorekeeping micro-manager or a joyful partner?

VII.          Enter into the joy of your master

“This calls for a celebration.” The presence of the kingdom of grace is joy. But when people perceive it, receive it, enter it, and engage it, his joy is doubled like the talents. Tragically, slave #3 misses out on sharing in his master’s double happiness . . . twice. He didn’t experience the up-front joy inherent in a grace that trusted him with riches. If he didn’t perceive the joy up front, then how can he perceive the joy at the end? If the master’s graceful presence and trust was wasted on him before he departed, then who could expect the slave to experience joy upon his master’s return? The eschatology is obvious. If one does not experience joy at his gracious first coming, then how can one experience the joy of his second coming? If the grace of God is not perceived in Jesus’ earthly ministry, then how can grace be experienced as anything but fearful judgment upon his gracious return?

Hebrews 9:28   28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

He’s not coming back to deal with sin. He already dealt with sin by the grace of the cross. This is the up-front joy. From that joy is born an eagerness for his return, not fearful dread. We need new eyeglasses, and Jesus has just the prescription for us. We can see the grace of the Father clearly only when we look at how Jesus risked loving us and trusting us in joy and hope that we might perceive it, receive it, enter it, and engage it. But he left us with a warning. Look what happens to those who do not perceive God’s grace and bank on it. Look at what happens to those who trust only in themselves and the hole they dig.

John 8:24  24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.”

Who is he? He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In his new covenant, sins are not only forgiven, but they aren’t remembered. They are nailed to the cross, forever forgiven and forgotten.

Hebrews 8:12  12 “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

Colossians 2:13-14   13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God1 made you2 alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,  14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

“God made you alive together with him.” On the cross, God was “erasing the record that stood against us.” Not to believe this is to choose to “die in your sins,” sins that are already forgiven. That’s choosing a graceless reality. That’s choosing the fear-driven existence of trying to repair what you can’t fix, indeed what is already fixed. That’s failing to perceive the wild, risk-taking nature of God. That’s digging a hole and burying your own heart. That’s self-preservation’s funeral march to the hole. That’s self-judgment arising from a failure to perceive, receive, enter, and engage the immeasurable riches of God’ everlasting gamble of grace that is yours now and forever in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This invitation and warning is for the living. The dead are too busy digging their own graves to notice.