Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher of the last century, said this about us: We understand who we are in the truest sense when we see and accept the fact that we are finite, that one day life will end for us.
I know you are probably asking yourself: How is this profound? Is he not merely stating the obvious? But Heidegger goes on to say that most of us understand death through experiencing the death of others. Death is something that always happens to the other guy. Of course, we acknowledge that it will one day happen to us, since “everyone dies.”
But that isn’t enough, according to Heidegger. The problem is that it’s a passive stance. Instead, we must resolutely anticipate the day of our own death. That is to say, we must take an active stance towards it, and face it squarely.
And when we do that, we can then begin asking the question: How can I make the most constructive use of the time I have left? How can I make the days remaining to me count?
Time has been called our most precious commodity. And why is this? Because it is a non-renewable resource. In fact, time is the only non-renewable resource we’ve got. Once it passes, you can never get it back. All the days, months, and years we have spent in idle pursuits is spent that way for good. Money spent can and often does come back to us. But time never will.
The Psalmist was certainly sensitive to this fact, when he prayed: “Teach us to number our days, so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (Psalms 90:12).
God gives us time. We don’t know in advance how much time he will give us. Some live for a very long time; others do not live very long at all.
But God not only gives us time; he also gives us a task to accomplish, a mission to complete. And with this task or mission, he also gives us talents and resources that are uniquely fitted to them.
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summed it up in this way: “There is no life without a task; no person without a talent; no moment without its call.”
Is this not what the parable in our gospel lesson trying to impress on us today?
We have come to know it as the parable of the talents. It makes us think about the relationship between how we use the gifts we have received from God and his return, when he will ask us what use we made of them.
By his return, we mean not only when we meet him at the hour of our death. That in the strict sense is our return to him, not his return to us. But we mean it also in the broader, theological sense, when he returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. Listen to the words of Jesus from Revelation 22:12: “And behold, I am coming soon, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.”
In our epistle lesson for today, the Apostle Paul has this same future event in view: He is encouraging the Thessalonians to live sober lives in faith, hope and love, in expectation of the day of the Lord, about which they know neither the day nor the hour. For the Lord will return like a thief in the night.
But now is not then. The master first has to distribute his talents to his three servants. To the first he gives five: to the second he gives two; and to the last he gives one.
Parenthetically, isn’t it strange that it’s not always clear to the gifted one that he in fact possesses an abundance of gifts? It may be as clear as day to us, but to him it is not. He does not see it in himself.
But in turning to us, God bestows value on us. When he does, it’s as if he is saying: “I value you enough to entrust you with a gift to use for me.”
We have mentioned in this pulpit more than once the very great need of people everywhere for purpose. This is it! Look no further! Our greatest purpose as human beings consists in honoring and glorifying and serving the God who made us and redeemed as his own through Jesus Christ. And he has given us gifts to do it!
When we live on our purpose in these terms, we see ourselves as worthwhile. You know why suicide rates are as high as they are among young men? Because they do not see themselves as worthwhile. But as we see and appreciate our own worth, we recognize and own our gift. The two are mutually reinforcing. The result is that we develop and use those gifts with increasing confidence.
The first and second servants know this confidence. They go out and make effective use of the talents entrusted to them and generate a 100 per cent return. That is, they are profitable servants.
It is God’s will that we should be productive in our service to him. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples: This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:7,8). Jesus does not envy his followers. Indeed, the same gospel, he even tells them explicitly that they will do even greater works than those they saw him doing, because he is going to the Father (John 14:12).
When the master returns, he commends both servants in these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master!”
Note that the words the master says are the same in both cases. The point of the parable is not the total amount earned, in which the case the fellow with the five more should have merited greater praise. Rather, the point is the faithfulness with which both servants handled what their master entrusted to them. Both proved faithful in developing their talents to their fullest potential.
Let us pause here to be sure we don’t misunderstand. We don’t work to earn God’s favor. We work because God already favors us. We have to be sure we have these in the right order.
Let us turn to another place in the New Testament that will help explain what we mean here: In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul writes: “It is by grace that you have saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9). And then the verse that follows: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).
They are there for us to do. The Scriptures teach that what we do in the time we live in this body matters. Listen again to the Apostle Paul:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
The Apostle Paul himself looked forward to that crown of righteousness laid up for him, which the Lord, the righteous judge, would award to him on that day, and not only to him, but also to all those who live their lives as if they are actively waiting for him (2 Tim. 4:8).
This means we work with what we have for as long as we have it, so that we may too hear those same words as those two servants did from their master: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.”
As long as we live in these bodies, we make it the aim of our lives to please our Lord.
But there is one last servant. He is the one who went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his talent. For this reason, he does not receive commendation when the master returns to settle accounts, but rather condemnation.
His two fellow servants led productive lives; they enjoyed a return on their investment; they entered into the joy of their master. Why didn’t he? What exactly is his problem?
His problem is twofold. First, he has a disordered relationship to himself and to his gift. He has only one talent. Perhaps it is not enough. Perhaps he saw it as too insignificant. He saw his two fellow servants with more, which may have provoked him to envy. “Well, they can do more with theirs than I can with mine, so let them.” I will bury mine.”
Second, he has a disordered relationship with his master. He gave him only one talent, while he gave the others more. Why did he give so much to them, and so little to him? It isn’t fair! This is common enough. How many in our world harbor resentment towards God, because they feel God did not give them what they deserved!
It is true. The Lord does not give the same things to everyone in equal measure. He knows us personally and entrusts us with what is right for us.
But in everyone there is something equal: trust. God entrusts to us what he has given us, however big or small. And this is the same for everyone. Let us not turn away in resentment, but let us show ourselves trustworthy. For that is the point.
But the third servant will not come to acknowledge this. To him the master is not generous, but tightfisted. He is not loving and gracious, but hard and demanding.
There is a serious warning for us here. If we see God as hard and demanding, we will not be open to him. We will not make it our aim to please him, but rather to hide from him. We won’t give generously, but hoard mistrustingly. We won’t live adventurously, but exist defensively. But if we live like this, soon we will see God, not as he truly is, but as we assume him to be:
“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” (Matt. 25:24-25).
Listen, how the third servant saw the master determined the tragic outcome of his life, which followed him into eternity! How we see God is more important than anything else about us!
It will affect every part of our lives. Indeed, it will decide whether we have a life of purpose and productivity or one of futility and frustration. The stakes are high. Let us then always seek to determine what it is that God wants us to do with what we’ve got in the time we have left.
Some of you may be asking yourself: “What talent have I got?” All this sounds good and useful for those who have talents, but it hardly applies to me, who do not have talents.”
If you are baptized, if you have confirmed your baptism by believing for yourself the promises signified in baptism, namely, that you are joined to Christ in his death and resurrection, then you receive all the blessings and privileges of one who belongs to him.
You are made a member of his own body—the Body of Christ, the church. And as a member of his own body, you have received a spiritual gift. “God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another” (1 Pet. 4:10).
Your responsibility, then, is to develop and use this gift for the glory and honor of God, for your good, and the good of all his church.
Do you have the gift of encouraging? Then give encouragement. Do you have the gift of administration? Then do it diligently. Do you have the gift of giving? Then give generously. Do you have the gift of showing mercy? Then do it cheerfully. Do you have the gift of the public reading of scripture? Then do it as if you are speaking the very words of God.
God expects you to exercise your gift in the time that you have it, to perfect it, to maximize its impact. You don’t need to be a philosopher the caliber of a Martin Heidegger to know that the day is coming when you can no longer exercise it.
And then you will have to give an account to God. How have you used it? Did you develop it to its full potential, as opportunities allowed? Did you bless the church and the wider world with your gift?
As long as we are breathing, it is never too late to start or to start again, if we have not lived according to the way our parable shows us. Let us therefore live in such a way that we too can hear those words that the master said to those two servants: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Amen.