"Grace: Judgment or Hope?" Bible Studay on Matthew 25:14-30
November 12, 2020, 1:00 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Matthew 25:14-30 (Common English Bible).

14 “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

As the days grow darker in the fall, the Scripture Readings grow darker in the Revised Common Lectionary.  At the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus promises to be with his disciples "to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20 - NRSV).  What will that "end" be like, and what is its meaning?

There's part of me that feels that darkness, that heaviness, as we await a COVID-19 vaccine and the final certification of the presidential election votes.

Many mainline, liberal-leaning followers of the Way of Jesus may be somewhat apt to be discomforted by Matthew's apocalyptic parables at the end of this gospel.  There's no doubt that Matthew, in a way unilke Mark, Luke, or John, asserts that Divine judgment is real and that exclusion from God's Realm is fully possible if disciples refuse to live as Jesus directed.  Not quite the eternity pictured in Rob Bell's Love Wins (for those of us who are Rob Bell fans).  Here's a gospel in which there is weeping and grinding of teeth, exclusion from wedding feasts, the gavel coming down, and the door being locked.  If your stress is upon Jesus as unconditional, all-accepting, utterly gracious love, Matthew's stress on judgment as encouragement for good works in the name of Christ is sure to make you uncomfortable.

The Parable of the Valuable Coins in Matthew 25:14-30 tempts those of us who are uncomfortable with apocalyptic language to focus on the first half of the parable and exclude the second half from this story: The master gives out coins and, since we like to think of ourselves as a talented bunch of people, we're tempted to see those talents as equivalent to the coins in the parable.  After all, didn't God give us talents to use responsibly?

Most of the verses of the parable seem to turn on the master giving the servants some of his great wealth so that they can turn a profit for the master.  The servants are differentiated by how much or how little they are entrusted: the first two receive 5 coins and 2 coins, respectively.  The parable repeats, almost word for word, what the first two servants receive in coins and the response they get from the master.

The third servant receives much more attention in the parable, the one who buried his one coin in the ground.  The investments of the first two servants are covered by Matthew 25:23.  After verse 24, concerns about the one-coin servant takes over the story.  The severe judgment of the third "low risk" servant seems to be the intention of the parable -- all the talk of the servant's uselessness, the casting into outer darkness, the wailing and gnashing of teeth.  There's no doubt that the parable wants to talk about judgment.

It's possible, as some commentators allege, that the first half of the parable is straight from Jesus while the last half is by later moralistic church commentators (redactors or editors).  And who wants to think of God as a harsh CEO of a company whose judgment is reserved for cautious investors?

Although we may be uncomfortable with Matthew's story, the whole story, first and last half taken together, let's pay more attention to Matthew's text than to our own reactions and reservations.

Surely, it's fair to say that Matthew's apocalyptic -- the grand unveiling, the revelation -- is meant to show us something about God and ourselves that has enduring relevance.  Knowing the end, the ultimate judgment, the eventual return of the master, how then should we live?  Is there more grace and hope in this parable than there is judgment?

We find ourselves in the meantime, stuck between Jesus' first advent and the next.  Jesus has come and shown us God's way, but God isn't yet done with us nor is Jesus' mission completely fulfilled.  Matthew's parable of the coins may not be a completely satisfying answer to all our questions -- what metaphor is?  However, we are shown something revealing about God.  In a surprising show of generosity and trust, the master has "entrusted his property to them" (Matthew 25:14, NRSV).  Yet, the master promises eventually to return and settle up with them.

It's important, when working with biblical apocalyptic, to apply a hermeneutical (interpretation) principle: biblical apocalyptic stories are not solely concerned with the future but with the present.  Apocalyptic literautre is meant to give people who are suffering in the present hope in God's judgment and righteousness.  The Parable of the Valuable Coins (or Talents) is being told by Jesus, who is, in his crucifixion and resurrection, both present to them and yet absent from them, both available to them and yet far away from them.  So what's the relevance of this now-not yet quality of Jesus for our present existence?

We don't know when the master will return and settle accounts.  What we do know is that the master one day will return and that the master connects the master's gifts with our faithful actions.  The master's grace is to be responded to with our good deeds.

One interpretation of this parable: God's gifts are God's assignments; grace requires responsibility; God's grace is judgmental; God's judgment is always gracious and hopeful.  In the words of the Serenity Prayer, we can pray for the courage to change the things we can, the courage to act in just ways that invest in the lifting up of the lowly and oppressed.  God grant us the grace to do so.

Thank God that Jesus is our Judge and our Hope!

Grace & Peace,

Pastor Greg Rupright


11-13-2020 at 1:23 PM
Pat May
Well reasoned interpretation and, therefore helpful, in these uncertain times...
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