It wasn’t so long ago that food was scarce, and we had to be satisfied with eating what was set in front of us. These days the sheer number of choices available in the local supermarket is mind-boggling. One doesn’t just select peas; there are multiple varieties of peas, each available frozen, canned, or fresh. There is every sort of beverage in several different formats. One can buy beef, pork, chicken, or lamb, not just in every cut but even packaged separately based on how the beast lived: grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free, etc.
Accustomed to this, we are quick to complain if the exact product is not available in precisely the format we want. Our “problem” is clearly a first-world one. Sadly, there are still places in the world where there is not only a limited variety of food but a limited quantity.
Variety is a good thing in itself, displaying the genius of marketing and the efficiency and effectiveness of our economic system. The danger lies in our becoming a little too picky, or even worse, ungrateful. We become like Goldilocks; everything must be “just right.”
Every morsel of food we receive is a precious gift from God. We do well to curb our resentment and annoyance when everything isn’t “just right” and recall how grateful we should be for even the humblest of food.
Enjoy this humorous commercial, which skewers our tendency to be “fussbudgets.”
The past few Sundays have featured the November theme of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. In today’s Gospel we are reminded that we will one day have to account for our use of the gifts and resources that God has given us.
But today’s readings do more than that; they also set forth a virtue that helps us to use God’s gifts well. That virtue is the fear of the Lord. It is a foundational disposition of the wise, but not the foolish. Scripture says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10).
In today’s first reading contains this nugget:Charm is deceitful, beauty is fleeting, but the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (Prov 31:30). Today’s Psalm says, Blessed are you who fear the Lord (Psalm 128:1).
“Fear” of the Lord can be understood in two ways: perfect fear and imperfect fear. Both are important. Imperfect fear (which most of us begin with and still need from time to time) is the fear of punishment and the loss of Heaven. Jesus often appeals to this sort of fear in His preaching; He vividly warns of the punishments that come to impenitent sinners, both here in this world and ultimately in Hell. While imperfect, this kind of fear is necessary—especially for the spiritually immature (and all of us have our areas of immaturity). It is somewhat like a young child who needs punishment and/or the threat thereof in order to learn discipline and the consequences of bad behavior. As the child matures, we can begin to appeal to his reason and his love for others in order to encourage good behavior. Good preaching and teaching should not wholly neglect the appeal to imperfect fear because congregations have people at many different stages. Jesus did not neglect this kind of appeal and neither should we.
However, just as we hope to be able to appeal to higher motives as our children mature, so as we grow in the spiritual life do we hope to move toward a more perfect “fear” of the Lord. This more mature fear is not a cringing, servile one. Rather, fearing the Lord is holding Him in awe, revering Him, having a deep love and appreciation for Him as the source of all that we are and all that we have. Because we love God and He is Abba to us, we fear offending Him by sin, or severing our relationship with Him by refusing His grace. Out of love, reverence, and a sense of awe, we fear giving any offense to Him, who is Holy, God, and deserving of all our love.
With this background, we can look to a deeper teaching in today’s Gospel. On one level, the teaching is clear: We will all have to account for our use of the talents and resources God has given us. On a deeper level, we are taught of the importance of attaining to a mature fear of the Lord as the essential way of bearing the fruit that will be sought. There is a danger in remaining only in imperfect fear (which has its place and time in our life) because we risk developing resentment and avoidance if we refuse to grow toward a more perfect fear.
Let’s look at it with this perspective in mind and discover the differences of each kind of fear.
A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
Three men are given resources to use. Two succeed; one fails. Why? Ultimately it is the difference between holy fear, love, and confidence on the one hand, and unholy fear and resentment on the other.
Consider the plan of the first two men (the ones who succeed):
Receive Riches– One gets five talents; the other, two—each according to his ability. While the “inequity” may offend modern sensibilities, note the explanation in the passage itself: the men had different abilities. Before getting outraged, consider this: what business owner would not give more resources to an outstanding employee than to a mediocre one? The fact is, God blesses some more abundantly than others due to their good use of gifts. Later in the Gospel, we receive this fundamental rule: We must prove faithful in a few things to be ruler over many (Matt 25:23).
Risk Reinvestment– Something in these two men makes them feel free enough to risk reinvesting the money: It is likely their relationship with the master. They view him as a reasonable man, one who would applaud their industriousness. Though they are taking a risk, they believe that even if there were to be losses, they will not be dealt with unmercifully. They seem to experience the freedom and courage to step out and make use of the talents entrusted to them. Notice that the text says they “immediately” went out and traded. They are eager to work for their master and take the risks on his behalf in order to please him.
Render a Report – Upon the master’s return the men seem somewhat joyful as they report, “Master, you gave me five (two) talents. See, I have made five (two) more.” There is an enthusiasm for the opportunity they were given and a joy for the harvest.
Rise in the Ranks– The men’s presumptions of the master’s fairness and reasonability are affirmed in his response: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” We see that the master is joyful and wants to share his joy with his servants. Further, he is willing to give them greater access to share in his blessings and joy based on their openness to trusting him and their showing themselves to be trustworthy.
The two successful servants see the owner of the riches as a man with whom they can deal. They have a healthy respect for him but not an immature fear. They receive the funds gladly and with gratitude go to work, motivated and enthusiastic about the opportunity they have been given.
Allow the posture of these two servants to be a portrait of a holy and more perfect fear of the Lord. With this sort of holy fear, we love God and are enthusiastic to work for Him, realizing that He shares His blessings and is both reasonable and generous. Confident of His mercy (though not presuming it), we go to work in His vineyard. Although there are risks and temptations in the vineyard, if we do fail or fall, we do not make light of our sin but rather repent of it and are confident of God’s mercy. A mature fear of the Lord does not box us in or paralyze us. It does remind of our boundaries and keeps us away from truly dangerous things that erode our talents, but because we love God we respect His boundaries joyfully, knowing that He protects us from “unsafe investments.” Within the designated boundaries, there is both room to maneuver and safety from the thickets of sin. Mature fear of the Lord is joyful and encouraging, not cringing or hiding from Him. Choose the fear of the Lord.
The servant who fails follows a different plan, one by which he
is Fruitless– for he buries the treasure
is Furious – for he says, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. He considers the owner a hard man. He also sees him as unjust because he has others do his planting, etc. The man sees his work as slavery, unlike the other servants who see it as an opportunity. Notice, too, this subtlety: The man refers to the talent he was given as “your talent.” In contrast, the other men say, “You gave me five (two) talents.” These men see themselves as stewards whereas the third man sees himself as a slave.
is Fearful – for he says that he buried it out of fear. In this case, we see a cringing and servile fear, and immature and imperfect fear of the Lord. This is distinct from the more mature fear of the Lord, toward which we must move to bear fruit. Note that it is his image of the master that drives his fear.
Forfeits – It is clear that he wants nothing to do with his master. In effect, the master says this to him: “Fine, if you don’t want to deal with me you don’t have to. I will take your talent and given it to the one with ten. If you do not wish to be in my presence or deal with me then consider yourself dismissed.”
The failed servant gives way to anger and resentment; he indulges his immature fears that the owner is out to get him, that the deck is stacked against him. He is not grateful for the opportunity he was given. Notice that these thoughts lead to his actions; but are his thoughts true and unassailable? It is clear that the other two men do not see the master in this way. We see through the reaction of the master to the behavior of the first two servants that he is in fact reasonable, decent, just, and joyful. The failed servant’s thoughts were not accurate. Rather than believing everything he thinks, the failed servant should test those thoughts against reality.
To fear the Lord more perfectly is to hold him awe, to rejoice in His power and wisdom, to accept His authority as saving and helpful. In this way we yield an abundant harvest with His gifts.
Now look, if imperfect fear is all you have, go with it! Sadly, many people today in this secular culture conduct their lives as though they will never have to account for it; they go on sinning, scoffing at the idea that they should have any fear of a judgment day. They are going to be surprised and unprepared for what they will face.
So, even if you have an imperfect fear of the Lord, rooted in punishment, don’t cast it away! To grow, though, seek a more perfect fear, rooted in love and awe of God’s majesty and goodness. If we remain in an imperfect fear that does not seek to grow in love, we risk falling into resentment and aversion and will not bear the fruits that the Lord seeks for us. This call for growth is what the Lord means here:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love (1 Jn 4:18).
The fear counseled against here is not the perfect and mature fear of the Lord referred to elsewhere in Scripture. Rather it is the immature fear, rooted merely in the fear of punishment. We are counseled to grow out of this imperfect fear through deepening love of God.
The deeper teaching here is this: grow in love; mature in your fear of the Lord and reap the abundant riches of a faithful servant and child of God.
The Lord Jesus give a penetrating analysis of the state of the sinner and some very sobering advice to we would-be saints in today’s Gospel. Let’s look at the Gospel in two stages: The Analysis of the Sinner and the Advice to the Saints.
I. ANALYSIS OF THE SINNER – The Lord Jesus describes a sinful steward in the opening lines of this gospel. Let’s look at the description:
A. DEFINITION (of the sinner)-Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward – Notice he is called a steward not an owner. God is the owner of everything, we are but stewards. A steward must deal with the goods of another according to the will of the owner. This is our state. We may have private ownership in relation to one another. But before God we own nothing, absolutely nothing. Part of the essence of sin is to behave as though we were the owner. We develop an arrogant attitude that what I have is really mine to do with as I please. We think, “It’s mine, I can do what I want with it…..I call the shots…..I can do as I please with my own body….” and so forth. But the fact is everything belongs to God. Scripture affirms, The earth is the LORD’S, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Ps. 24:1). Even of our bodies which we like to think of as ours, Scripture says: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). And old song says, “God and God alone created all these things we call our own. From the mighty to the small, the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone….” So the Lord defines the sinner as a steward, though the steward acts as if he were an owner.
B. DISSIPATION (of the sinner) – who was reported to him for squandering his property. The Lord here describes the essence of many of our sins: that we dissipate, we squander the gifts of God. We waste the gifts we have received and using them for sinful ends. For example in greed we hoard the gifts he given us to help others. Instead of helping, we store them up only for ourselves. Yet all the goods of the world belong to all the people of the world and they ought to shared to the extent that we have excess. Other examples of squandering the things of God are in gossip, lying and cursing wherein we misuse the gift of speech; in laziness wherein we misuse the gift of time; in all sin wherein we abuse and squander our freedom. This is dissipation, this is the squandering of God’s goods. God has given us many good things, and instead of using them to build the Kingdom, we squander them and dissipate the kingdom.
C. DEATH (of the sinner) – He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ – Here the Lord teaches and reminds us that someday we will all be called to account and our stewardship will end. Elsewhere scripture reminds us So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. (2 Cor 5:9 ) . We have an appointed time to exercise our stewardship but our stewardship will end and the books will be opened. Here too Scripture reminds: And books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. (Rev 20:11) While it is true that many pay little heed to the fact of judgement Scripture warns Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bids his time. Of forgiveness be not over-confident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy, my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger are alike with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed(Sirach 5:4). Every steward (us) will die, our stewardship will end, and we will be called to render an account. It thus follows that we ought to listen to the advice which the Lord next gives.
II. ADVICE TO THE SAINTS– After analyzing the sinner the Lord has some advice for those of us sinners who want to be saints. He gives Four principles we ought to follow:
A. Principle of INTENSITY– The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting shrewdly. For the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. – The Lord is telling us here many of the worldly are more crafty in what matters to them than the Spiritually minded in what (supposedly) matters to them. The fact is many of us are very intense and organized when it comes to wordly matters. We spend years of preparation in college training for careers. We work hard and are dedicated to climbing the company ladder. In worldly expertise many are dedicated to developing skills, and becoming incredibly knowledgeable. In earning money and holding a job many display great discipline, getting up early to go to work, working late and hard to please the boss. But when it comes to faith many of the same people display a third grade knowledge of things spiritual and show little interest in advancing in the faith or of praying. They will please the boss, please man, but not God. Parents will fight for scholarships for their children to get into the best schools. Students will compete for scholarships. But when it comes to saving truth, the pews are empty, Sunday School is badly attended.
To all this, the Lord says to us here that the spiritually minded ought to show the same intensity, organization, dedication and craftiness that the worldly show in their pursuits. We ought to be zealous for the truth, for prayer, for opportunities to sharpen our spiritual skills and increase our holiness. We ought to be as zealous to be rich in grace as we are to be rich in money. So the first principle the Lord gives us is intensity.
B. Principle of INVESTMENT – I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. – The Lord told of how the dishonest steward made use of the money at his disposal to make friends who would help him in the next stage of his life. How about us? Are we willing to use our money and resources to bless others, especially the poor, who can bless us in the next stage of our life? On the day of your judgment will the poor and needy be able to speak up on your behalf? Will they be among the angels and saints who welcome you to eternal dwellings? I don’t know about you, but I am going to want the poor to pray and speak to God on my behalf the Day I am judged. Scripture says that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and needy.
In this Gospel the Lord Jesus tells us to wise in our use of worldly wealth (which the Jewish idiom calls “dishonest wealth” indicating the intrinsic injustice of this world). Now the world tells us to take our wealth and invest it wisely so that it will reap future rewards. Well the Lord says the same thing. He says, “Use your money wisely. Invest it well.” How? By storing it up it up in up in heaven. How do we do that? By giving it away. Then it will really be yours. You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead. Scripture elaborates this elsewhere: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17) Notice how the passage says that through their generosity here the rich lay up treasure in heaven. This is the scriptural principle and the great paradox in the Kingdom of God: that we keep something eternally by giving it away. We save our find our life by losing it, we keep out treasure and store it in heaven by giving it away. So invest my friends, invest wisely! Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:20)
C. Principle of INCREASE – The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? What is the small matter of which the Lord talks and in which we can prove trustworthy? The small matter is money. We make money the most important thing in life. But Spiritual matters are more important. Scripture attests to this clearly: The Book of 1st Peter says our faith is ore precious than fire-tried gold. The Book of Psalms (19:10) says The words of the Lord are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. So God says let’s see how you are in the small but significant matter of money, then I’ll see if you are able to able to handle bigger blessings. Do you think you can handle heaven and the spiritual blessings of holiness? Well let’s see, If you are trustworthy with worldly wealth, God will give you true wealth. If you’re trustworthy is what belongs to God, he’ll give one day what is yours. You want more even here? Use well what you’ve already received. Then God will know he can trust you with more. You want increase? A gospel song says: You must faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life.
D. Principle of INDIVISIBILITY – No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon. Pay attention. To serve, means to obey. Most people obey money, affluence and worship the American standard of living before they obey God. They meet their world obligations first and then give God what is left over. But we are called to obey God alone, to have an undivided heart. The wording here is strong You CANNOT obey the world (money) and think you’re also going to obey God. You have to choose what will be more important. Now don’t tell me you don’t need a lot of grace and mercy here! Money and the lure of the world is very powerful. It’s to get on our knees and pray for a miracle to prefer God to the world.
This song says, You must faithful in a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life…. The sung builds to wonderful refrain: Well done good and faithful servant, Well done!