This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am, and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 10.30am (lay-reading).
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
He who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’
Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the Gospel of Luke, there is a wonderful passage where we read about where Jesus went to the house of a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders at that time. And while Jesus was there, we read: A woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining in the Pharisees’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment. Can you picture this event? Here Jesus is having dinner with these “respectable” people, and in comes this woman, and she is crying, she washes Jesus feet with the tears that are streaming from her eyes, and pours ointment, perfume, over his feet. And it’s strange—we are not told much about this lady. We are not told her name, we don’t know where she was born. The only thing we are told about her is that she was a sinner. And we might have all kinds of different ideas about what kind of a sinner she was. And yet, even though she carries so much shame and self-loathing, all of this sadness is poured out over the one person that can actually save her and help her. Here she comes and pours out her tears on Jesus’ feet. And not just her tears, but she mixes her tears with perfume—she pours out everything that comes from her heart, but then she also pours out this expensive ointment, a wonderful gift for her Saviour.
Of course, all the people who are there think this is all a bit strange, not just because of what the woman did, but because they knew that she was a sinner, as the passage says. Jesus says to them: Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.
Do you see how this works? These Pharisees, these religious leaders, didn’t understand that were sinners, and then, of course, they didn’t appreciate what a wonderful privilege it is to be in the presence of Jesus and to eat a meal with him and talk with him. And at the same time, this woman, whom we know nothing about except that she was a sinner—she knew what a privilege it was, she knew just what a joy it is was to be with Jesus.
And it’s strange: Jesus almost talks as if there is a scale: the more we are forgiven, the more we love. Jesus says: Her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. And so all of this woman’s sins are completely washed away. And yet, Jesus converts all of her sins into love. It’s as if the more a person is a sinner, the greater capacity they have for love.
It’s as if Jesus is running a recycling depot (in South Australia or Northern Territory, though!). People bring their bottles and cans to the recycling depot, and then they are given some money in return. The more bottles, the more money. It’s as if the more sins we bring to Jesus, the greater capacity we have for love. Now it’s no use turning up to the recycling depot with jewellery and expensive things. You can’t go up to the recycling depot and say: “I’d like to cash in my Rolls Royce. How much do you think it can be recycled for?” No—they will only accept cans and bottles.
So—it’s not as if we go and cash in wish Jesus all the things we think are good about us and valuable, but we go to Jesus and cash in all the things we hate about ourselves, which have made us worthless.
There’s a wonderful passage in Matthew where Jesus says to the Pharisees, the same religious leaders: Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. Now Jesus is not talking about all tax-collectors and prostitutes here. And Jesus mentions tax collectors here not because it’s a sin to work for the tax office, but because in those days these tax collectors were Jewish people who were working for the Romans, and collecting tax for the Romans. The Jewish people saw them as traitors. And much of the time they were traitors, because they lined their own pockets with the people’s money. And we know that in our times, prostitutes are always trying to tell people to avoid even calling them “prostitutes”, but to call them other, more dignified names, to cover up the shame. This isn’t what Jesus is talking about either. What he is saying is that there are going to be people that we despise—tax collectors and prostitutes—all throughout history who are going to go to Jesus and to cash in their sins for God’s free forgiveness. And there are going to be many people who are respectable, who are never going to bother, because they think they’re so good.
Martin Luther once wrote a letter to someone about this, where he said: learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, "Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not." Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners.
So what does this have to do with our gospel reading today? Today in our reading we read: [The kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To the one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.
When it says the man gave his servants “talents”, he’s not talking about “talents” like being able to catch a fish, or play the piano, or being able to balance a spoon on the end of your nose. It’s not talking about when we say a person is “talented”. A talent was an amount of money, 20 year’s wages for a labourer. It’s a lot of money. When Jesus says to the people “a talent”, I would think that today we might think “a million dollars.”
And here we see that Jesus is like a man going on a journey. He has died and risen from the dead, and now he has ascended into heaven. He is hidden from our eyes and we can’t see him anymore, but he still promises to be with us. He’s absent from us, as if he’s left the church on its own. But he says: Surely, I am with you always to the end of the age. And he says: Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
So the parable says that to us it seems as though Jesus has gone on a journey. But he will also come back from the journey. At the end of the world, Jesus will appear again and judge the world. We say in the Apostles’ Creed: He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
But in the meantime, it says that the man called his servants and entrusted to them his property. And when Jesus gives us his property, the most precious gift is the gift of himself. And each is given according to his ability. The ability here is the knowledge of sin. Remember the woman in Luke—she pours out so much love, her ability to love is so much, not because she was perfect, but because she was a sinner. She had sinned much, Jesus says, and then she loved much. Because she knew her sin so deeply, she had so much ability to be entrusted with Jesus’ property, to be entrusted with the forgiveness of each and every single one of her sins.
And so he we read: Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.
Now later we read how the first two were rewarded, but the last one was punished. We read: He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master said to him, “You wicket and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Now if we want to understand this parable, we want to know what does it mean to bury the money in the ground, and what does it mean to double our money? The first two servants doubled their money, but the third servant buried his money.
Well, you see, the forgiveness of sins is such a wonderful thing. The greater we understand this, the more we will understand the Christian faith in all its joy. This of course, seems a bit strange to us: how can we receive so much joy from acknowledging all our failures? Well, it’s just like a plant or a tree—you heap manure on it and it grows. So also, our faith always grows out of manure, because it is always a faith in the forgiveness of sins.
Now, when we were baptised, Jesus gave this forgiveness of sins to us completely freely, and in the Lord’s Supper, he continually strengthens us in it.
And from this forgiveness of sins comes everything. From the forgiveness of sins comes life in all its forms, and salvation in all its richness. Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
And so, if we want to trade with our talents, what is Jesus asking us to do? He’s asking us to keep reading and meditating on and hearing the word of God. Because the word of God will continually reveal to us more sin, but then God’s word will continually apply to us more and more forgiveness. And this richness of the forgiveness of sins will eventually burst forth, like water being poured into jars, and it will overflow into other jars. When people realise just how rich this forgiveness of sins is, it will be impossible for them to keep it to themselves—other people will be encouraged by it and grow in their faith too. Think of this woman who was a sinner—think how much encouragement we receive from her, how when she trades with Jesus, and cashes in her sins, she rewards her: He says: Well done, good and faithful servant! Your faith has saved you. She loved much because she is forgiven much.
If we want to bury our talent in the ground, then we should stop listening to the word of God. Many people bury the word of God in the ground and don’t want to listen to it. But we might think, hang on, isn’t the talent the gift that Jesus gave to this servant? Yes, the word of God is Jesus’ property which he gives to the servant. The word of God speaks the forgiveness of sins to each and every single fault and failure that this man has. And yet, he buries it—even though he has received so much from it, he thinks it has no power. He thinks the Holy Spirit is found somewhere else that isn’t so boring and uninteresting.
And there’s a real temptation for us in this—we start to think that the word of God has no power. We stop valuing the word of God. We think we’ve heard the Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins so many times before. We might think that most important thing about a church is how many people go to it, or how entertained people are there, rather than whether you can hear the word of God there. All this is burying the talent in the ground.
Jesus has given us so much. If all he had given us was the forgiveness of sins, then we should be happy. Because if we have the forgiveness of sins, we have everything we need—we can pray, we can go to heaven, we can be saved. But not only that, but through the word of God, and through the gospel, through the forgiveness of sins, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, a good conscience, a clean slate, and all kinds of gifts. St Paul says: To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. And the gifts just keep increasing.
Sometimes we see the forgiveness of sins and such a little thing. But it is everything. And Jesus says: You have been faithful over little. You have been coming regularly and diligently to my recycling plant and cashing each little sin, failure, and sadness. You have brought these things to me, and I have paid you back with my suffering, death and my blood. You have been faithful over little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.
Do you see? Our sin cost Jesus his life, but then he gives us eternal life completely and totally for free. Enter into the joy of your master.
Dear Lord Jesus, strengthen us with your holy and precious word. Send us your Holy Spirit to reveal to us our sin, but also strengthen us in your word that may not despair of your love but be constantly filled with your forgiveness, your grace, and your mercy. Teach us to be faithful to you, Jesus, and keep us safe in your hands. Amen.