Sunday 11 March 2012

The weight of glory (Matthew 25:14-30)

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!'
Matthew 25:21

This story is commonly known as the parable of the talents. In fact, that is the heading we see in our NIV bibles, printed in bold and introducing the words of Jesus Christ, who describes for us what it is like to wait for his return. Jesus says that it is like a man who goes on a journey but leaves his money to be managed by his servants (verse 14). It is a story of a master, his slaves and his talents.

However, when we hear that word “talent”, I suspect that most of us will be thinking of the ability to play the piano; we might think of a skillful artist or a singer auditioning for X-Factor. These are individuals with gifts and talents; with a skill or an ability to do something impressive and well. But look at the way the word “talent” is used here in the bible in verse 15.

To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went of his journey.
Matthew 25:15

Here, the word “talent” is used as a weight measure, like kilogram or tonnes. It comes from the Greek word, talenton, a unit of weight, commonly used to measure an amount of silver, and possibly, gold. Now, one talent was equivalent to 34 kilograms of silver, which was 6,000 times the daily wage of a labourer, or 20 years’ pay. So when you see the word talent in this story, I want you to imagine a big suitcase stuffed of fifty pounds notes, amounting to six hundred thousand pounds in total. That is the kind of money we are talking about. Meaning, when we read that the first servant was given five suitcases, he was being entrusted with no less than three million pounds!

Another important thing to note is this: the word used here in Jesus story is not servant, but slave. In verse 14, the man calls his slaves (or doulous in the Greek) and gives them several million pounds. These are not investment bankers. They weren’t his buddies who played golf with him every weekend. This was his cook, his maid and the bloke who fixes his toilet. These lowly slaves were entrusted by their master with his own fortune.

And look at how each decides to use the money.

The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
Matthew 25:26-18

There were no stock markets in the ancient world. The first guy did not use his three million pounds to buy shares in Facebook. Rather, when it says in verse 16 that he “went at once and put his money to work”, what it means is, he built a business: he invested in stock, he managed the company and he worked hard in this company such that its profits reached a staggering one hundred per cent. With five suitcases of cash, he “gained five more”. The second guy with his two suitcases of cash did the same and “gained two more”.

But the third slave took his one suitcase of money and buried it in his back garden. Now, it is worth noticing that he did not take the money and run. He did not even spend it on himself - by buying a nice apartment in London or sailing around the world and living the good life. He certainly could have, with more than half-a-mill in cash. He didn’t do any of that. What he did was put the money away. Out of sight. And out of mind.

After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’
Matthew 25:19-20

I want you to notice how eager the first man is. “Look, master. Look and what I brought you!” He presents his master with five additional suitcases of cash. “You gave me five. I have gained five more.”

For the first time in the story, the man who goes on this long extended journey is clearly identified as the master. Literally, he is “lord (kurios) of those servants” (verse 19). The millions of pounds belong to the master; we already know that. But what this reinforces is the fact that these slaves belong to the master as well. They are not their own. Like the money under their care, they have the one and same owner. It is the master. He is their lord.

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!’
Matthew 25:21

The master says three things. Firstly, he praises the slave for his trustworthiness: “Well done, good and faithful (or trustworthy) slave!” Secondly, the master places even more responsibility on this slave: “You have been faithful with a few things,” and by this he is referring to the three million pounds given already given him - just a small potatoes in this master’s eyes; “I will put you in charge of many things.” What could that possibly mean? More money? More wealth? Whatever it means, this slave will receive something so infinitely luxurious that the six million pounds he has now will pale in comparison - just “a few things,” says his master.

Thirdly, the master invites this faithful slave to share in his happiness. The English Standard Version (ESV) has “Enter into the joy of your master,” a way of saying, “I am proud of you.” The greatest treasure the master can share with his slave is not his wealth but his joy.

Well, that’s the first servant. What of the second?

The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ 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.’
Matthew 25: 22-23

This is word-for-word, an identical response from the master. The slave entrusted with two suitcases of cash doubles his investment. He receives the same commendation, “Good and faithful slave!”

Meaning: it really isn’t about the amount entrusted to each slave. The first had five talents, the second, two, but both were commended by the master because both had been faithful with the master’s money. Notice that back in verse 15, each was given “according to his ability”. The first guy could handle more responsibility - the other guy had less. But both were trustworthy. And more importantly, both were commended in exactly the same way.

But not the third.

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

The third guy shows up with his master’s money and say, “Here you go. Please take it back.” Now notice this, it is not the case that he received the least amount of money and that he is now complaining that his master did not give him enough. It is not even the case that this slave thinks that his master does not trust him enough - “Why didn’t you give me 3 million like the first guy? Don’t you think I can handle it? Do you have such a low impression of my abilities?”

Rather, with just one talent of silver - which is considerable, nonetheless; about 20 years’ pay - this slave is saying even that was too much for him to handle. He was fearful: “I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.” It was too big a risk - angering his master should he lose any of it. It was too big a responsibility - being entrusted with so much money. So again, it is not the case that this guy got the least. Rather, he thought it was too much to handle; too much to deal with.

Moreover, his words reveal what this slave really thought of his master. “I knew you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” What was his excuse? The master was being unfair. After all, why was the slave expected to do all the work while the master was on holiday?

Listen to the master’s response.

His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.’
Matthew 25:26-27

The master repeats the slave’s accusation and uses his own reasoning against him. “So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” Well, the logical thing would have been to put it in the bank, not dig a hole and bury the money like some pirate treasure. Notice again, why did the slave do this? Was it because it did not occur to him to deposit the money? Well, we already saw that it was partly because of fear. “You are a hard man,” the slave says, possibly fearing the consequences of losing the money. But more likely, his words reveal a deep disdain and hatred towards his master. “You don’t deserve this money, but since it’s yours, have it back.” The reason why the slave did not put the money with the bankers was simply because he had no desire to seek the master’s good. To him, his master was a hard man, and unforgiving man, a man undeserving of his immense wealth. And this slave was not about to do him any favours.

You can imagine the slave cowering in fear as he sheepishly presents the money, freshly dug up from his garden, still covered in dirt, nudging the suitcase before his master. Yet for all his timidness, his words reveal boldness and brazenness. His words reveal an attitude of self-righteousness and ungratefulness. As far as he was concerned, he did his duty. The money is all there. Not a penny is missing. If the master expected anything more of this slave, well, the master was frankly being unfair. “You are a hard man,” he says.

That was not how the master saw things. “You wicked, lazy servant!” was the master’s response. But that was not all the master said.

‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Matthew 25:28-30

It is a picture of final, eternal judgement. The blessings of the master are removed from the slave and he is thrown out of the master’s presence, “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. It is picture language, of course, in the same way that Jesus is telling us a parable; a story. Nonetheless, it is a picture and a parable of extreme sadness (weeping) and at the same time, anger (the gnashing of teeth) for those who reject Jesus as Lord.

What does this mean for us?

This month we are considering what the bible has to say to us about work. And last week we looked at Genesis Chapter 2 to see how God is the working God who involves men and women in his work of blessing his creation. That is what we saw in the garden of Eden. God planted the trees in the garden. God put the man, Adam, in the garden to work it and to care for it. This was Adam’s act of worship towards God: It was his work in obedience under God.

The second thing we saw was God’s rest. For six days, God created the world and on the seventh, he rested. The rest of the bible is the story of God bringing man into his rest. That is the fulfilment of work; that is the goal of all work - it is rest. And God’s work of creation and salvation finds its fulfilment in the rest that comes through the cross. Jesus finished God’s work of salvation on the cross when he took our sin upon himself, when he took God’s punishment for sin upon himself, and opened the way for sinners like you and me to enter into God’s presence; into God’s eternal rest. Those were the two things we saw last week: work and rest.
Now hopefully, we see these two themes of work and rest running through Jesus’ parable about the talents. Firstly, we see work. The master entrusts the slaves with work, each according to their ability. Their work is to expand the master’s wealth. At the end of the day, they give account to him as judge over their work.

But did you notice how the master rewards the two slaves who were trustworthy in their work? He gave them even more responsibility. “You have been faithful with few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” Now I wonder what you think heaven is going to be like? A never-ending concert? Well, we get partly from Revelation 5 where multitudes from every nation worship Jesus as the lamb upon the throne. Or will heaven be like a big buffet with unlimited tim sum and millions of flavours of ice-cream? Well, Jesus does talk about a wedding banquet a few pages earlier in Matthew 22.

Yet, friends, this is a picture of heaven - this parable of work - and it comes from Jesus himself. If we are trustworthy with the few things given us in this life, we will have more to do - not less -  in the life to come. In that sense, heaven will be a never-ending worship session, if you understand even our work to be an expression of worship towards Jesus. I say this because often we are left with the wrong impression of heaven as boring place with nothing to do. We will walk around in our pajamas, carrying golden harps, nibbling cream cheese all day. The bible looks forward to a huge mega-city. Cities are are centres of culture; of industry; of achievement; of knowledge; of activity. Think London. Think Hong Kong. Think Singapore. And multiply that a million-fold. We see this in Revelation Chapter 21, where the heavenly city of Jerusalem comes down to this earth. Now, that’s pretty important. We don’t go up to heaven; heaven comes down to earth. This is picture language of course, but it making a very important point because later on in that same chapter we encounter a remarkable verse that reads as follows:

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.
Revelation 21:24

The kings of the earth bring their glory into the heavenly city. It is talking about continuity. The best of God’s creation will be the basis of the new creation. The best of humanity will be brought into the new heavenly community.

What will we be doing in the new heavens and the new earth? We will work. What kind of work will we do? No idea. No idea. But I know this. It will be shaped by the work Jesus gives us in this life. For as much as he entrusts us with and as much as we are faithful with in this life - Jesus will entrust his faithful slaves with more.

But some of you will say to me, “Isn’t heaven supposed to be about rest?” Yes, it most certainly is. But rest isn’t simply the cessation of work. Rest is the fulfilment of work and the enjoyment of that completed work. In six days, God completed his work of creation. On the seventh, he rested. At the end of his work, God stepped back, looked at what his hands had made, and said, “That is so awesome!” (I’m paraphrasing, of course). “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God was enjoying his creation.

To enter God’s rest is therefore better defined as entering into God’s favour; to enter into his joy. Isn’t that what Jesus says? “Enter into the joy of your master” (verses 21 and 23). The greatest praise Jesus can give us on that last day, when we see him face to face is, “Well done, good and faithful slave!” CS Lewis referred to this in his sermon entitled “The weight of glory” where he talked what often gets mistaken for humility or parodied into human ambition or so quickly turned into the pleasure of seeking praise from others. It is the desire to hear these words spoken from Jesus lips of you and of me, “Well done, good and faithful slave.”

I know many of you will have problems hearing me say that word: slaves. It’s the reason many translations have opted not to go with the word. But that is what it means and that is who we are in Jesus Christ. As a Christian, you might be CEO of a multinational company, successful, accomplished, respected. Remind yourself, “I am a slave of Christ. He is my master.” As a Christian, you might be in a humble job with little respect from your boss and from friends. Remind yourself, “I am a slave of Christ. He is the one I serve. His approval is the one I seek.”

Aren’t we sons of the living God? Yes. Doesn’t the bible say we are no longer slaves? Yes, in Galatians 4, verse 7, where we are also called heirs. But Galatians is talking about our freedom from sin. We are no longer serving sin as our master, but Jesus. And to him, we are slaves, bought with the price of his own blood. And through him we are sons, receiving the blessings and inheritance due to him through his sacrifice on the cross.

If you are a Christian, your work matters a great deal to Jesus. If you are a Christian, God will use your life to bless others. God will use your life to bring glory to his Son. He will. What he calls us to do is to be faithful with this one life. Notice how that theme of trustworthiness comes up again and again in the parable: “Master, you entrusted (given over to) me with five talents.” “Master, you entrusted (given over to) me with two talents.” “Well done, good and trustworthy slave! You have been trustworthy with a few things..” Whether it is five talents, two talents or one talent - every single one us has, in Christ, been entrusted with the master’s wealth. It is immense. It is not our own, but for his glory.

For some of us, that’s our money. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). Where you invest your money and where you spend your money, that’s where your priorities are, and that is what you worship.

For some of us, that’s our sexuality. You were bought with a price, therefore honour God with your body (1 Corinthians 6:20).

For some of us, it is our responsibilities in relationship: as husbands over wives, fathers and mothers over children, as leaders over God’s household, the church. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Leaders, keep watch over the souls of those under your charge - that means your bible study, your Sunday School, your student fellowship - and give account to the Shepherd of our Souls (Hebrews 13:17,20).

For some of us it is the gospel. Yet when I preach I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16).

What has Jesus entrusted you with? What treasure has he placed under your care and accountability?

And what will you do with that treasure? Will you use it for your own gain or hide in the ground because it is too much for you to deal with right now? Or will you work to increase the master’s wealth, seeking Jesus’ glory and longing for God’s approval?

For all of us, this parable serves as a reminder that the master will one day return. Jesus will call us to account. And the greatest words one can ever long to hear are these:

“Well done, good and faithful slave. Enter into your master’s joy.”

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