Saturday, November 11, 2017

Dreadful or Wonderful Piety

The second parable in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Talents, is the gospel lesson appointed for the 24th Sunday of Pentecost.  This Sunday is also called the 3rd Sunday of End Time, Saints Triumphant.  Like the parable that precedes it and the one that follows it, it is clearly a parable about the return of Christ.  Here, however, the relationship that the slaves have with their master is lifted up.  The question for us seems to be, What characterizes our relationship with the Master?  Dread or wonder?

(The following questions try to address some of the central concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more about this unique genre of preaching, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is lifting up faithfulness and condemning unfaithfulness.  Because it is clear that the unfaithful are judged harshly, the Word is functioning as Law, reminding us of the ways that we "bury" God's gifts to us.  The example of the unfaithful slave also lifts up the relationship of dread he has with the Master.  Clearly he lives in fear of what the Master will do to him if he fails.  Somehow, although he lives in the same home as the faithful slaves, he fails to trust or have faith in the Master and so his fear controls him.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  At first glance a Gospel word seems hard to find in this text, but if we take careful note of the faithful servants we catch a hint of Gospel.  Noting the bold, adventurous, fearless actions of the faithful servants we might ask ourselves, how is it that they can act with such abandon?  Answer:  they have an absolute faith and trust in the mercy of the Master.  They do not fear losing the Master's money - they know the Master to be generous and forgiving.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the slaves; which one we shall identify with is up to us.  We might ask ourselves, "Which attitude characterizes my relationship with God?"  Do I dread God's wrath?  Or do I have confidence in God's mercy?  Am I able to do what Luther advised:  "Sin boldly, but believe even more boldly still"?

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  It could be argued that this whole parable is a call to obedience, a call to live faithfully, anticipating the Lord's return.  How we serve, after all, is a response to God's grace, not what we do to gain it.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The contrasting attitudes of the faithful and the unfaithful provide us much fodder for our imagination:  living in dread/living by faith; fearful/trusting; hoarding gifts/living with abandon.

6.  Exegetical work:  A narrative critical analysis of this parable reveals that the place where the most detail is shared is in the section about the unfaithful slave.  Two verses are devoted to the conversation between the faithful slave who received five talents and the master.  Similarly, two verses are devoted to the conversation between the second faithful slave and the master, with that conversation being a repeat of the first.  In contrast, four verses are spent on the conversation between the unfaithful slave and master.  This suggests that the key to the parable is here, which I believe it is.  By the unfaithful slave's description of the master we see why he has acted as he has:  he views his master as cruel, unscrupulous, and worthy of fear.  Thus his decision to bury his master's money.  And so we are warned, as Chrysostom did, that "it is not only the covetous, the active doers of evil things and the adulterer" who are condemned, "but also the one who fails to do good."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. Ib, p. 221)  As Douglas Hare points out, the unfaithful one's sin is not merely that he fails to use his gifts faithfully, but his failure to see the gifts as precious and, most importantly, his failure to know his master.  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 287). 

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was a master of celebration in his sermons.  Perhaps a challenge we could take up here is that of finding a way to celebrate the Master's entrusting us with God's gifts, and celebrating those who throw caution to the wind in investing those gifts for others.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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