s066g99 Somerton Park 14/11/99 Sunday 33
"Well done, good and faithful servant! ... Come and share your master's happiness." Matt 25.21
By now most of us are aware that there are three so-called parables of judgment, put side by side, in this the 25th chapter of Matthew. Last Sunday's gospel reading was the parable of the 5 wise and the 5 foolish maidens; today, the parable of the talents given to the servants; and next week, the story of the sheep and the goats.
These three stories are Jesus' final public words of instruction. Chapter 26 begins the story of Jesus final week, what happened to him, his arrest, trial, death and resurrection. The focus during this final week, was not so much on what Jesus said, for much of that was said privately, to his disciples, in the upper room. Rather, the focus turns to the plotting and what was done to Jesus. So these final public words are important. "Last things last".
Again, why should there be three parables of judgment? It is the same question as why there are two accounts of creation - one beginning Genesis 1.1 and the other half way through verse 4 of chapter two. The answer is simple - neither one tells the whole story.
So it is with these three stories of judgment; we could ask, would not just one suffice? Again the answer is no; the gospel is not complete without even one of them - neither one tells the whole story.
The first parable, of the wise and foolish maidens, commends those who are not necessarily charitable (for they refused to share their oil with their foolish sisters) but they are commended because they had taken to heart the good old scout motto "Be Prepared".
The second parable, the parable of the talents, today (which has a distinctly Jewish flavour to it) commends those who use what they are given, rather than hide them away.
The third parable, the parable of the sheep and the goats (which has a distinctly humanistic ethic) commends those who know not the King, but responded to the needs of those around them. "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
It is curious that the parallelism points to a Christian ethic not often recognised: "Be(ing) prepared". The other parable about being prepared is the (so-called) parable of the sower - more accurately it should be called the parable of the prepared and unprepared soil.
If you are getting the picture I am trying to paint, there are three parables of judgment, because one is not sufficient to cover all people. There are three parables of judgment, and this shows us graphically the lengths that God is prepared to go to include ALL into the kingdom, everyone possible.
I believe that it is vital that we get this message first of all. If we don't, we may well slip into the trap set by the words of the wicked servant of today's parable, who (if we really are to believe him) had been deluded into thinking the master was a hard person, and so through fear, hid his talent. The reality is that God is not a hard person, there is no need for us to fear, God goes to great lengths to ensure that everyone possible is included into the kingdom.
It is not possible for me or for anyone to speculate as to the reason for the wrath of the master against this servant, except that humanity has, from the dawn of time found ready excuses for sin. Excuses like: "The woman you put here with me - she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it ..." (Gen 3.12) And again: "I don't know (where Able is) ... am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4.9) I wonder how much incalculable harm has resulted from these excuses: making out women to be the cause of all the evils of the world, and causing just how many good people to try to be their brother's keeper, but really only to be used and abused by others.
So also with this blatant lie; that God is like a hard taskmaster; perhaps God's wrath is because God knows the results of this remark on good people. It seems a fact of life that those who are good will try to take to heart everything, even to their own personal detriment. However those who are not, those for whom laws and guidance are really meant, disregard everything.
So perhaps rather than being offended by God's seemingly harsh treatment of the worthless servant, being thrown "into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth", (tending to believe the man that he was simply afraid), perhaps we might do better to believe God. Clearly God's assessment of the reasons for the banishment may well be quite different from the man's (a fact which should hardly surprise us). God's assessment of him was that he was wicked and lazy. Perhaps he was withholding from God monies actually earned, I don't know.
First and foremost - God acts to bring all people closer, in any way possible. The whole ministry of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was for precisely this purpose. We will not have to make excuses before God, for God knows us better than we do ourselves, and if excuses are in fact genuine, God already knows and has already accepted them all.
The reality of the situation is not that God has three different standards of judgment for people, one for Christians (that they are prepared), one for Jews (that they have used their talents) and one for the ignorant of God's love, their charity to their neighbour. God has got an almost infinity of standards of judgment. Just about the same number as there are people, not to judge, but to bring, if at all possible, into the kingdom.
It was interesting to me that when I was preparing this sermon, I looked up in my concordance to find the text of the phrase in the funeral service: "You know the secrets of our hearts ..." (AAPB p594) and the first texts which sprang out of the concordance were in Matthew chapter 5 where the statement "Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" is repeated three times. Far from being a "Big Brother" looking for failings, God is ever looking to reward us.
We are so used to hearing the bad news on the television at 5, 6, or 7pm, the disasters and the wars; and we are so used to putting ourselves down; that we recoil in horror that God might know some things of our lives. But God is there not looking for the bad, but rejoicing and rewarding the good. Again it seems a fact of life that God forgives and forgets so very easily, whereas we forgive ourselves and forget so very seldom.
Once a far more religious person than myself, who heard me speaking about something, was moved to say that I should be careful not to make God in the image of humanity, rather than the truth, humanity is made in the image of God. It has come to me only recently the real difference here - Humanity looks for faults and failings, whereas God looks to forgive and empower. The last thing I would want is a judge as harsh as I am on myself.
While we are not called to gloat at the banishment of the wicked servant, we may rightly rejoice that God never has been in the past, nor will ever be in the future, hoodwinked by real evil. The judgment God will give is true absolutely; if there is any cause for mitigation, it will have already been taken into account.
Isn't it true that when we evaluate someone else, we generally have but one standard? Some of the classic ones applied by Christians have been that they have had a particular form of conversion experience or not; that they speak in tongues or not, that they tithe, that they approve of the priest wearing vestments or not, that they are AAPB or BCP Anglicans, certainly that they don't challenge our own perception of truth. We have but one standard, and generally it's something that can be seen, so that we can feel justified when we write someone else off. God on the other hand has an infinity of standards, God sees what is written on the heart, because God's primary motivation is to excuse and to include. Are we then not bidden to attempt to imitate this? For others, and what is probably far more difficult, for ourselves?
The words of my text "Well done, good and faithful servant! ... Come and share your master's happiness" are not just the words which are the prelude to the great reward reserved for those who have sought to live and love as God would have us do, they are really the great invitation to us all to cast fear aside, for God is a God of happiness and joy, God at least is not a hard taskmaster, not like we are so often with ourselves and with others.
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