To understand the joy into which we are being welcomed by God in Christ, we may need to better understand the nature of God’s judgment.
Judgment. That word “judgment” may, to our modern ears, evoke images of harsh and negative punishment for misdeeds. Judgment from the courts, politicians getting their due, children being reprimanded for straying off course.
Now, when reading and hearing chapters 23-25 of the gospel of Matthew, which taken together are referred to as the Judgment Discourse, we might be tempted to be fearful as we consider the end of days and God’s judgment that will accompany them. Yet such a reaction could cause us to miss Matthew’s invitation to faith-filled and just living by, with, and under the promises of God fulfilled through Christ. This is actually the intent of our dear pastoral Matthew, encourager of Christian communities and writer of one of the four gospels. For, in fact, by Christ’s work we are not doomed to fear, but welcomed into faith and invited to enter Christ’s joy.
Matthew’s intent through the Judgment Discourse, though it may not be easy to see it or hear it with our modern sensibilities, which are understandably jarred by phrases that include throwing people into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth; Matthew’s Judgement Discourse is actually preoccupied not with judgment as a harsh doling out of punishment to those who deserve it, but with the larger narrative of a just God, for whom judgment is a natural portion of God’s orderly grace, in fact necessary to the effecting of grace and mercy.
For how can there be grace and mercy given if there has been nothing judged to be in need of grace and mercy?
We should also remember that pastoral Matthew is striving to build up the Christian community, urging the people of his time and us here in our time with a certain urgency - through these stories - to lives of purpose and meaning through serving and loving God and God alone with all of our hearts and minds and souls and lives.
In addition to getting tripped up by the concept of judgment in today’s gospel lesson, there might also be a temptation to reduce today’s parable to a lesson in investing well what God entrusts to us. Here are some talents for you and for you, invest and use them well and wisely for God. Surely there is truth in that, but we would not want to miss what Matthew’s post-resurrection Christian community and our community knows to be true: that God in Christ has and is making the real investment. Through love and excruciating sacrifice, God has invested in, and made possible our new life reality in Christ.
It is through this lens that we read and hear this and other parables. Now suddenly, in light of the new reality of our new lives in Christ, what might jump out to us from this parable is less harsh judgment or pressure for us to live up to God’s expectations by investing well what has been entrusted to us, and more the extraordinary generosity of the Master in the story, who gives the servants each five and two and one talents. Talents being worth fifteen years wage, there is an incredible generosity being revealed through the character of the Master in this parable. Living in the post-resurrection reality that knows the work of the cross, we as readers and hearers rejoice, for this is the overly generous God we understand God to be.
And knowing the work of the cross, even the seemingly harsh judgment passed by the character of the Master in the parable on the fearful servant who goes and hides the talent is suddenly transformed; knowing the work of the cross we know that we have already been pulled from the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Therefore, this parable must be urging us to bear good witness to the abundant generosity of God through Christ by laboring hard at living lives worthy of God’s praise; worthy of the Savior who will at the end of all time come in love to sort out by love, all matters on earth and heaven. “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation,” as Paul encourages us in his letter to the Thessalonians. God is getting us ready by grace for action and active lives of faith.
It has been said that fear is the great immobilizer.
Fear of failure can stop a person from trying something new and adventurous.
Fear of ridicule can stop a person from trying something that may be perceived by others as strange, different or unusual.
And fear of succeeding and the changes that could bring to life can also stop a person from trying something new; fear of succeeding may in fact be the only fear stronger than the fear of failure.
Yet if fear is the great immobilizer, then certainly faith is the path to freedom and mobilization. And Matthew dearly desires to get Christians mobilized. Faith freely given and granted through the redemptive work of the cross is not lazy faith. The abundance laid in our hands and hearts by grace is not intended to be kept there for us alone, but shared and multiplied to the glory of God. Living with a longing that our lives might reflect God’s purposes so that when our Savior comes again in perfect love, we will indeed hear those beautiful words: “Well done. Enter into My joy.”