Proper 28 (Nov. 13-19)
Texts: Matthew 25:14-30;
Zeph. 1; 1 Thess. 5:1-11
THE ECONOMICS OF FAITH
Looking back on my sermon on these texts three years ago, I noticed references to the death of Cardinal Bernadine, the fine archbishop of Chicago who died three years from cancer. This caught my eye because of a recent comment by my sister. She lives near Chicago and is a big Bears fan. I was offering her condolences over the tragic death of Chicago Bear great Walter Payton, when she commented, “Yes, this will be in the news all week like it was when Cardinal Bernadine died.”
A cardinal in the Catholic church and a great running back of the NFL. What do they have in common? The same thing that they share with countless other people of faith, many that I have known, and I’m sure many that you’ve known. All Saints Day. What they have in common is great faith to withstand the most difficult times in life, especially those times of facing death.
For Cardinal Bernadine, for example, something he said at the time of his dying really stayed with me. He said that his dying of cancer was an opportunity to get to know his God better and to get closer to God. That’s what he said! He was dying of cancer, and he called that an opportunity to get to know his God better! Because, no doubt, he knew his God to be not a God of death, but a God who is victorious even the face of death. Through Jesus Christ–who faced as horrible a death as we can imagine on the cross–Cardinal Bernadine knew that his God would be with him. God was with Jesus in a special way through the suffering of the cross; God would be with him in a special way through the suffering of his cancer. So, yes, this was an opportunity to get to know his God even better. One might even say that this person of great faith received even greater faith. There’s kind of an economics of faith going on here, in which those with more tend to receive even more.
Somewhere else in this land, on the other hand, there was likely another person dying of cancer who was alone and bitter. This person, if he noticed God’s presence at all, probably took note by cursing God for giving him such an affliction. The only God he had ever known in his life had been a god of threats and punishment, a hard God who waited for people to trip up so that he could get them in the end. At a time of crisis, the person of little faith most often loses what he or she had. Once again, there’s a certain economics of faith: those with little end up losing it altogether.
I mention the person of little faith only to suggest that you and I are probably somewhere in between. We would like to believe that we are more like Cardinal Bernadine in trying to live a life of faith, of knowing a gracious and loving God. But when tragedy strikes us, we might wonder a bit. We wonder if our faith can stand up to the test. For there is this other notion of a hard God, a punishing God, a notion of God which has persistently been around for a long time. That notion of a punishing God was around for the prophet Zephaniah–reflected in that first lesson we heard read–and it persists today. So, when faced with suffering in our life, we may wonder which God is truly real. Is it the hard God? Or is it the gracious and loving God? And if it is the gracious and loving God, then “Why,” we ask, “am I suffering?”
This is the choice that Jesus places before us, I think, in today’s Parable of the Talents. You may have been wondering why in the world I’ve started out talking about cancer and suffering and death. This was advertised as Stewardship Sunday, with this parable as the jumping off point for talking about stewardship. We definitely have two different examples of stewardship in this story. Two stewards who multiply their master’s wealth; and one steward who conservatively buries his portion of his master’s wealth, keeping it safe and intact, but also not taking any risks to multiply it. This parable would seem to fit perfectly with the financial stewardship that we each want to prayerfully consider this week at Emmaus. It’s a story literally about high finance; it couldn’t be more perfect for Stewardship Sunday. It certainly doesn’t seem to be about suffering and death–except, of course, for that ending in which the third steward is thrown into the darkness, where he finds his life turn to suffering–a “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is St. Matthew’s favorite way of putting it. He will no doubt spend the end of his days cursing his master whom he had known as a “harsh man.”
But, you see, that’s precisely the point of this parable: the kind of God that one knows–in other word’s, one’s faith–makes all the difference in the world–especially when the stakes are highest. And the stakes are high in this parable. A talent was a lot of money. The smallest estimates I’ve seen as to how much a talent is in our terms has been $15,000. More common has been the estimate that one talent would be more than $100,000 in today’s economy; so five talents would be more than a half million dollars. Moreover, the parable begins by telling us that this master “entrusted his property” to these servants; he left his very livelihood with them. So the stakes were high. In a sense, they were life and death. If these three servants squandered his money, this master would have had nothing to come back to. And, fortunately, none of them did. Not even the third servant lost anything.
But the fact that none of them lost any of his money is obviously not the point of the story. If it were, the third servant wouldn’t have come to such a nasty fate, because he was the one who acted most prudently in making sure not a cent was lost. No, what is crucial in this parable is how their relationship with the master caused these servants to act when the stakes were high. In other words, most crucial is their faith in their master. This is most explicit for the third servant who says that he acted as he did out of fear. His relationship with his master was one of fear, he says; he knew his master to be a harsh man. Do we assume, then, that the other two servants knew a different kind of master? I think we do. And I suggest that this is precisely the point of the story: that these other two servants knew a gracious master and so were bold to act accordingly. This master had, after all, graciously entrusted them with everything. They, in turn, acted in faith that their master would deal graciously with them upon his return.
What about the ending, you say? How could a gracious master throw the other servant out into the darkness? But I’d like to suggest to you that what happens to this third servant is simply governed by the relationship he himself perceives with his master. He is afraid of a harsh man, so that’s exactly what he gets! In other words, the problem of the servant, who received one talent and went and buried it, is not its lack of yield, but how he imagined that his master would treat him: ‘Lord, I knew that you were a harsh man…, and I was afraid.’ In Luke’s gospel the master’s response to this servant’s fear is even more explicit than Matthew’s. In Luke the master says: ‘Out of your own mouth will I judge you…’ And that is exactly what happens. It is this third servant’s fear of his master, his unfaith, that has determined both his behavior and his fate. The other two servants, on the other hand, who imagine their master as free, audacious, generous, and so on, take risks and thus enter into a fruitfulness that is ever richer and more creative.
Do you see why we opened with someone like Cardinal Bernadine? Someone like him who already knows and imagines his God to be gracious receives even more of that grace in a time of high stakes, in a life and death struggle with cancer. While someone who imagines a different sort of God, or who isn’t sure, will come through a time of high stakes no further ahead. If they have known and imagined a God who is harsh, that is what they will end up knowing, the bitter reality of a harsh God. It’s that economics of faith we talked about earlier. It’s faith that Jesus is talking about at the end when he says, “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.” At a time when the stakes are high, such as when you are dying with cancer, a person of abundant faith has the habit of gaining even more, while the person of little faith often ends up losing it altogether.
What Jesus came to do, then, folks, was to invite us to have faith in God. What he invites us to see in this parable is to know a different sort of master, one who graciously loves us and blesses us–especially when the stakes are highest! And the really Good News is that he came not just to show us in a parable but to show us with his very self: to show us with his life of graciously serving, and with his death of lovingly forgiving, and with his resurrection of spectacularly gaining victory for us in the highest stakes game of all, that of life and death. He came to show us how to be good stewards who trust in God’s grace. He came and risked everything for you and for me, so that we could have the same kind of faith that he did.
I’m tempted to end now with questions like: “So how does having that same kind of faith cause us to act more boldly? Has it made a difference in the stewards we have become? God graciously entrusts God’s property to us; God gives us the creation to care for. What are the talents which God has given you? What are the resources? And how do your actions in using those talents and resources show forth your faith?” It’s not that these are bad questions. They are quite appropriate questions, in fact, for this week that each of us will prayerfully reflect on our stewardship commitments. But to end with these questions would be to end with the focus on us and on our actions. And that’s not what this message of grace is about. It doesn’t simply throw things into each of our laps now and say, “How are you going to act?” That may not have been the case in this parable either. We are not told if the master prepared his servants in any way before he left them with everything. He may have done so. But, in any case, we do know in Jesus Christ that our master hasn’t simply left us to our own devices. No, God has sent Jesus to us to show us the way of faith. And through the Holy Spirit God continues to send Jesus to us that might have faith. Through Word and Sacrament, these means of grace, God continues to send Jesus to us, to feed us, that we might have faith. These are the same means of grace which Cardinal Bernadine enjoyed throughout his life, so that he might receive even more at the end of his life at a time of need. These are the same means of grace that you and I enjoy each week, so that we might have faith, and so that we might have even more faith at those times we need it the most. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 13, 1999