Today’s Gospel reading should have been, Matthew 5:21-37. However, God saw fit to have me write it incorrectly on my calendar and bring a different word from out of the Scripture.
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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 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? 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. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
Last week we discussed giving up something meaningful for Lent. Today we will talk about the ultimate good we can do with Lent. The good that, if we let it, will transform us to do good every day. This good, is stewarding our gifts. Gifts are not always things you want or can use. When someone decides to give you a gift, they may not even mean to give you it as such. Sometimes happenstance gives us amazing gifts, sometimes the accidents and mistakes we make in life lead to untold blessings that could only truly come from God. The gifts we receive can take many forms, but too often we cast them in terms of what we value and what can produce value for us.
If someone gives us a piece of furniture we can sit in it. If we receive a picture we can hang it on the wall and enjoy it. If we get a new appliance it ought to make our lives a little easier. All these things are clear instances of us getting something and then making use of it. The form of the thing is irrelevant because at the end of the day it has a function that we can take advantage of, a thing that we can do with it.
When we are given gifts from God, we cannot be so closed off in our definitions. When we see something appear in our life that we are unsure about, or that causes us an enormous amount of stress, we often see it as bad. The emergence of conflict, internal or otherwise, is too often the death knell of our good feelings about a situation and those things attached to it. The sudden assignment from our supervisor that pushes us to work overtime, the unexpected leak in the basement, the family member who said something that we cannot help but be hurt by. These things come and go and oftentimes the lasting effect on our hearts is one of bitterness, of feeling imposed upon, or worst of all getting something other than what we feel entitled to.
There are things in life that are just bad, beyond redemption in terms of the thing itself. The death of a loved one may send them off to Christ’s kingdom, but we would more often than not give anything to have them next to us. The loss of income will almost always push us to an edge of despair that is hard to handle. The sickness of a dear friend. Trauma that rushes from any description. All these things cannot be written off easily as having any value to us.
No, the extremes of life will leave us with more mixed feelings than we handle on our own. It is not in extreme moments that a person defines what sort of person they are though. It is in the thousand little moments that populate our every day. When we get the extra work we did not want, when we are asked to help the person we do not like when we are inconvenienced or hurt or tired or any number of other wretchedly mundane things.
In these moments God gives us a singular gift that is hard to handle. Not the difficulty in itself, but the responsibility we have to see it handled well and with the love of the other party in mind. The opportunity to do good, this is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. We often talk about God blessing us with money or health, friends or family, blessings upon blessings. Can we see a gift in the harder things of life? In the opportunity to serve God in itself, not only in its antecedents and its consequences?
The reality is that we can only reflect on things in life. In the moment we do not know what we are doing more often than not, except that we are trying to do what is best. The consequences are often unknowable, the things that led to that moment and our ability to respond to it only make sense when all is said and done. The call of Jesus not to plan too far ahead and not to get too caught up in our past is lived out anytime we interact with another human being, but especially in moments where we are called to work and especially in moments where our work does not sound like it will be anything we want it to be. We are to be children of the present moment, in control of this instance of time and responding to it in a Godly way. We are given the great gift of our own responsibilities.
The scripture today tells criteria of the Christian life – that we aspire to good stewardship and that we work to do good on the behalf of those around us. We are to use all that God gives us and in so doing produce abundantly more than we have had. The parable of the talents imagines a master giving his slaves sixteen years worth of wages to invest as a minimum amount, and that the master anticipates them to work with all of it and make back a great deal with it. The servant who buries the money is called lazy, thrown out because he could not even be responsible enough to give his money to someone who was willing to work with it.
The second parable tells us that we are to help those in need. That Christ will make the separation between his siblings and his enemies not based on the holiness of their prayers or the cleanness of their fingernails, but by the mercy, they show to those in need. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, even visiting prisoners, both guilty and innocent, in jail. Those who see in the wretched people of the world, the poor and displaced and ugly and vilified and hated and maligned and no good and difficult and unloved – those people will enter God’s kingdom.
The two parables close out a discourse of Jesus’ in which he describes one last time before his crucifixion what the Kingdom of God is like, and what the Final Judgment will be like. Jesus tells this to his disciples who will soon abandon him to die on the cross. Those who when faced with the most obvious manifestation of Christ in need choose their own safety over his. These people are whom Jesus in this moment entrusts to know what will pass for holy and profane, good and evil, life and death in the world to come.
Jesus does this so that we who read this today can also learn from our running away from Christ. That we who daily fail to respond to those in need, or who use the difficulties of life to cover up our unwillingness to be kind or helpful to others can become willing. That we who love to say how responsible we are with God’s gifts to us, but shirk the ultimate gift of responsibility in favor of the lesser gifts of monetary comfort, of cheap grace, and of shallow Christianity can come to seize God’s promises for us.
The talents that we receive today, the fortunes constantly thrust upon us, are those responsibilities we have to the people around us. The opportunity to submit our lives to Christ and acknowledge that Christ appears to us in the people we meet every day, especially those who are in need. When we respond to the call Christ has to take care of the needs of others, we will live into our stewardship of that great gift, and it will increase in ways we never could understand.
The people in our lives are given to us, friends and enemies, so that we can be Christ to them and they can be Christ to us. Lest we stay to abstract with what that looks like, I have some stories to share that I know about, all true and all vague to avoid incrimination:
The first goes like this:
Once while working at a church we were rushing to meet someone at the hospital. They were stable but hurting, and they were alone at the hospital while their wife worked. So the ministry team went to pay a visit. While we were hurrying into the hospital one of us noticed another couple from the church and they had the good sense to stop and talk to them. Turns out she was going in for cancer tests and he was struggling to get her out of the car. So between those of us there we were able to help her into a wheelchair, park the car for the husband, and pray with them all while still seeing our intended audience. Those two felt strong and loved and that carried them through the next month until she passed, and the next six months until he moved away. That one moment, small as it was, confirmed their church and God loved them.
The second goes like this:
A person who had good reason to oppose the church was talking to some faithful people. They were working on a work schedule and someone offered to take her shifts for her because of her workload and some personal problems going on in her life. She smiled and thanked them but somehow the conversation came to the good the Christian was doing and she said, “You believe in heaven, of course, so you never really do anything selflessly do you?” The Christian took a moment and said, “Well, if God gives me the good work to do, then do I need another reward?” That sort of conversation happened a few times, and they grew to be great friends and love and respect one another even in the midst of differences. God’s love was strong enough to bind them as friends.
Finally, one last story goes like this:
A conversation was held between two people. One was rushing off and realized they could not do both thing A and thing B and they were distraught. Their friend offered to do thing A for them and this busy person said, “No, that’s alright, I can’t make it up to you and it wouldn’t be fair.” The friend responded, “Friends help friends, that’s what they do. I’ve got this.” A year later the person who was helped that day told their friend, “You were the first person to ever put friendship in those terms. I had never heard love described that way before.” One moment, stuck with that person for months and maybe even to this day.
The simple fact about what we do in life is that it has consequences. The simple fact about everything we are given by God is that it is an opportunity to be responsible. The greatest gift of God to us, outside of Godself, if one another. The responsibility we have to each other to be good, to steward one another’s well being, and to above all else love one another as God has loved us. We can give up a lot of things in the name of serving God, we can do a number of things in terms of serving God. However, the thing that bind all our actions is love, and the only expression of it that matters is between us and our neighbor, us and our enemy, us and the least of these. – Amen