Teach Us How to Number Our Days
When we are young, we don’t consider that our lives will one day end. The future stretches out before us in a series of unending days. To be sure, we live in expectation of the future. We have hopes and dreams. Yet it never occurs to us when we are young that the days in which to realize them are limited. But after we reach a certain age, it does occur to us, and then we begin to ask the question how we can make the best use of the time we have left. And the older we get, the more urgent this question becomes.
Not too long ago, a British newspaper, The Times, interviewed a prominent member of the Jewish community and a member of the House of Lords on his 92nd birthday. The interviewer said, “Most people, when they reach their 92nd birthday, start thinking about slowing down. You seem to be speeding up. Why is that?” The man’s reply was this: “When you get to 92, you start seeing the door begin to close, and I have so much to do before the door closes that the older I get, the harder I have to work.”
Another prominent member of the Jewish community, the great author and teacher of Torah, the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose death last week so many around the world mourned, said: “There is no life without a task; no person without a talent; no moment without its call.”
What else does our gospel lesson designated for this Sunday teach us but this very truth?
But it couches this truth in a parable. At the outset we should note that the parable is situated in a larger context in which Jesus is teaching his disciples about the end. By the end, we mean the end of history as we know it, when the Lord returns in glory to manifest his universal reign of peace and justice and bring salvation to all who are waiting for him. This is the day of the Lord that the Apostle Paul mentions in our epistle lesson.
Last time we learned that living in expectation of his day involves patient waiting. This is a struggle. The longer we have to wait, the harder it is to stay focused; the harder it is to remain in a state of readiness to welcome the one for whom we have been waiting. We grow weary and doubt whether or not we can stay in the fight. But we have to find the source of our strength in the Spirit of God, who lives within us, and remain vigilant. We have to keep watch, for we know neither the day nor the hour.
Today we learn no less than this, that we have to wait. The master has gone on a long journey, and the issue is this: who among his servants will be ready for the master’s return? Only waiting here is active waiting. At no moment ought we to turn our eyes from the horizon of God’s promise. We have always to keep the promise of the Lord’s return before us. But that does not at all mean that we neglect the tasks that God has assigned to us, that we shirk our responsibilities, that we abandon our projects and plans. The great sixteenth-century Reformer Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he were told that Christ was returning tomorrow. He replied: “I would plant an apple tree.”
The parable has come to be known as the parable of the talents. In New Testament times, a talent referred to a large sum of money worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in our currency. Indeed, one commentator has calculated that the eight talents featured in this parable totaled almost two million dollars. But in our language a “talent” has come to mean a God-given gift or ability that we are responsible to use.
Do you know that if we have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection through baptism and faith, we have been made members of his own body? That is, each one of us is a member of the body of Christ. Now to each member of the body of Christ at least one gift is given for the purpose of serving and building up the body. “Now to each one is the manifestation of the Spirit given for the common good,” in the words of the Apostle Paul (1. Cor. 12:4). You have a gift; I have a gift. Our job is to develop and use these gifts for the good of others. Elsewhere, Paul tells his protégé Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God” that he received (2 Tim. 2:6).
The master entrusts 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. Isn’t it odd that it’s not always self-evident to the gifted that he in fact possesses gifts? We may see giftedness in someone, but she does not see it in herself. But in turning to us, God confers value on us. In doing so, God is saying, in effect: “I value you enough to entrust you with a gift to use for me.” When this happens, we see ourselves as worthwhile, perhaps for the first time. Often, it is only as we see and appreciate our worth that we recognize and own our gifts. And only then do we begin to develop and use those gifts with increasing confidence
The first and second servants immediately go to work. They make effective use of the talents entrusted to them and generate a return. That is, they are profitable servants. It is God’s intention that we be fruitful in our service to him. We have already mentioned that to each of us in the church God gives a gift, which it is our responsibility to develop and use. If we’re not currently using our gifts, we ought to be praying to God for opportunities. That is the kind of prayer we can expect God to answer. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” Jesus tells his disciples. He goes on to explain: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:7,8). So we pray: “Give to me what I am asking you, O God, so that, by bearing much fruit, I may show myself to be Christ’s disciple and thereby bring glory to you.” This is a prayer that Jesus promises will be answered.
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. Come and share your master’s happiness!” Note that the words are identical 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.
We have to stop here to clarify a possible misunderstanding. God’s grace is a free gift. He does not accept us into heaven on the basis of what we do or do not do. He accepts us on the basis of what Christ has done for us in dying and rising for us. For as the Apostle Paul states: “he was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Nevertheless, the Scriptures also teach that what we do while we live in this body matters. The Apostle Paul also says: “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 are 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 from our master, the Lord Jesus Christ: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.” We make it the aim of our lives to please our Lord.
But there is one last servant. He is the one who 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 follow suit? What’s his problem?
His problem is twofold. First, he has a disordered relation to himself and to his gift. Let us note that he has only one talent. We may have a gift, but we see it as too insignificant. We don’t see it as worthwhile. Indeed, we may see others with more of the same gift, and be provoked to envy, because they can do more with theirs than we can with ours.
I mentioned last time that I played baseball when I was young. I was a talented ballplayer and had potential. But the year I graduated from junior varsity to varsity was a difficult one. I reached puberty late and therefore was not as physically developed as many of my teammates. I went to tryouts. It soon became clear, however, that while I would probably make the cut, I would probably not make the starting roster. For this reason, I decided to stop going to tryouts. The prospect of sitting on the bench was unacceptable to me. In retrospect, I see that my pride prevented me from continuing. But if in humility I would have invested my talent, I could have reaped a return in terms of a productive career as a ballplayer.
Do we have a small talent? Do not regard it as insignificant. Let us swallow our pride, put away our fear, and invest it, and see what becomes of it.
The last servant has also a disordered relation to his master. He does not see him as generous, but as tightfisted. If we view God as a hard taskmaster, we will not respond to him in a loving and open way. 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. We have to be careful here, because if we persist in these patterns, soon we will see God, not as he truly is, but as we assume him to be. “To the faithful you show yourself faithful…but to the crooked, you show yourself shrewd” (Ps. 18: 25-26). How we see God is the most important thing about us. It will affect every area 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.
To conclude, let us anticipate a practical question someone may raise at this point: “How do I make the best use of the time I have left with what I got?” I’m glad you asked. Let me share what I do, which I recommend to you.
When I wake up in the morning, I pray the Lord’s Prayer, concentrating especially on the petitions: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Then I call to mind the verse: “Seek first the kingdom of God…, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Then I pray again in these words: “Lord, I prayed for your kingdom to come. I seek first the kingdom today. Show me how to use what I got in the time I have left for the sake of the kingdom.” I am confident that God will answer this prayer. And as long as what God shows you is the is the focus of your activity, then you will make the most of the rest of your days. Amen.