Sunday, November 14, 2004

Sermon: Second Last Sunday of the Church Year

14 November 2004, Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 19:11-27 (Isaiah 52:1-6; 1 Cor 15:54-58) (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our Lord speaks to us today in a parable.

And this parable forms a bridge between two well-known events as told by St. Luke – all of which are in Luke 19. Today’s text comes right after the delightful story of Zacchaeus, the little tax collector who shimmies up a tree to see Jesus. Upon seeing him, our Lord calls him down and demands to stay at his house. Zaccheaus repents of his sins and promises to restore anyone whom he has cheated four-fold. Jesus declares that salvation has come to his house, and that the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. And immediately after our text, our Lord rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey amid the royal cheers of the people: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” Of course, this royal greeting would ultimately see our Lord crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross.

So why does our Lord tell this story known as the Parable of the Minas? Why does St. Luke – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – place it between these two other well-known readings? What is our Lord telling us?

Parables can be interpreted in many ways. Our Lord elsewhere explains this dilemma by quoting the prophet’s great vision of God’s throne-room from Isaiah chapter six. After we hear the angels and archangels singing “holy, holy holy!,” God explains that Isaiah is to preach, even though there will be people who hear, and yet won’t really hear; they will see, and yet won’t really see. They have closed up their eyes and ears to the truth. Yet those who understand are able to “turn,” they are able to repent, and thus be able to be healed by Jesus. Jesus also quotes Psalm 78: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.”

In other words, our Lord preaches in parables precisely because they can be interpreted differently! Those, who like the prophet Isaiah, acknowledge their sin, those whose lips have been purified by the coals of the Lord’s forgiveness, not only hear the Word, but also understand it. The Word is preached by God’s appointed prophets, and is in turn received joyfully by those who hear and understand. And yet, this is the same Word that is rejected by those who hear, and yet do not understand, those whose hearts are hard and unrepentant, those who would rather warp our Lord’s words than surrender to them. And the Lord’s words – even those cloaked in parables – reveal secrets hidden until our Lord choses to make them known. Dear friends, there is saving truth in our Lord’s parables – if we listen and do not rebel. As our Lord often finishes his parables: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

Let us hear our Lord and hear him correctly, that we might understand, that we might turn and repent, in order that our Lord may heal us.

Again, Jesus has just forgiven Zacchaeus, the well-known sinner, and has done so publicly. He went in to his home, and ate with him. In response to our Lord’s reverse-hospitality, Zacchaeus repents of his sins. He does so publicly. His claim of faith is backed up by his deeds. He is not merely a hearer of the Word, but a doer also. Similarly, our Lord is a doer, and not merely a hearer. For he tells this tale of the servants and their minas as he is headed to Jerusalem, obediently fulfilling his task to die for us. In being a doer, and not merely a hearer, our Lord wins the forgiveness of sinners like Zacchaeus, like all of us. Our Lord goes forth to claim his kingdom, even though he, like the king in our parable, would be rejected by citizens who hate him, who say “we will not have this man reign over us.” Jesus promises that these enemies will eventually be slain before his eyes, that there will be a judgment when he returns: when the time for “doing business” is over. St. Luke links the forgiveness of sins, repentance, and good works directly to Jesus’ passion, cross, second coming, and the end of the world.

This parable involves the king’s servants who are entrusted with a considerable sum of money. Each received a mina – an amount equal to about three months’ salary. They are commanded by the king to “do business.” Upon his return from establishing his kingdom, the king calls in each servant so that he might give an account of the king’s money. Those whose investments were successful receive a promotion – going from slavery to authority, from being a steward to being a ruler. One servant was not faithful, however. He insults the king, calling him “austere” and accuses him of treating people harshly and unfairly, collecting what he did not deposit, reaping what he did not sow. The unfaithful servant acted in a passive-aggressive manner, clinging to the coin and refusing to even try to do as the king ordered. It is as though he says: “I will not have this man reign over me!” This servant chose to show the king who he thought was boss by rebelling and then making himself appear faithful. The unwise servant makes a mockery of the king whom he, like the disloyal citizens, has rejected. As the king points out, if the servant were merely lazy or not a wise investor, he could have at least put the coin in the bank and drew interest. But instead, the wicked slave shows contempt for the king, and even says so to his face – all in a way that seems very clever. The king is not fooled. The mina entrusted to the unfaithful servant was taken from him and given to the others. The king then orders all of his unfaithful subjects, those who reject his kingdom, to be arrested and executed.

Like any parable, this one is easily twisted and distorted. It is often quoted by TV evangelists who make promises of worldly riches and success based on a proper investment of money – an investment that involves sending the money to them to be invested in fancy homes and cars, TV studios and mansions. But is our Lord talking about money at all? Is this what the Kingdom of God boils down to: a Rolex and a home in the Hamptons? Is this the revelation of a secret that has been kept “from the foundation of the world”? When our Lord speaks of his servants “doing business,” could he mean something other than convincing TV-worshipers to write checks?

Another misunderstanding of the parable involves a misplaced emphasis. Some would argue that Jesus is telling us our salvation is based on what we do. That he gives us a little “prevenient grace,” an investment, if you will, and then we are to build on this capital by a form of “spiritual capitalism.” In other words, we’re like the contestants on the TV show “The Apprentice.” We’re given a little bit of money and a task to do. At the end of the day, the money is counted. The ones who turn the biggest profit (and that’s “profit” with an “f”) and seem to be the best salesmen and managers are rewarded, while the loser faces judgment in the Board Room in the form of Donald Trump’s humiliating judgment: “You’re fired!” To understand the parable in this way is to turn the notion of grace upside down, to make salvation something we earn. It encourages us to live life based on the fear of the Board Room, the terror of “The Jesus” berating us and telling us to pack our bags and leave the game, to go away to a waiting taxicab where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Of course, in the world of business, the winners are not necessarily the compassionate. The losers can even be the most honest and loyal. And in reality, to try to buy our way into heaven by our own savvy as “spiritual investors” and our own goodness as managers of what God has given us is a lost cause. As “spiritual investors,” we’re all like the sad person behind the curtain at a video poker machine hopelessly tossing all of our minas away in a vain hope of striking it rich.

So what is the lesson here? How can we hear and understand our Lord? How do we see and perceive? What is the secret revealed here that has been hidden until now, and even remains hidden to the hard of heart, to the unrepentant, to those who reject our Lord’s kingship?

We need to keep firmly in mind a couple things. First, the stewards in the parable are slaves. They are not their own. They belong to the king. They are not even playing with their own money. Everything they have is by the grace of the king – including the minas they have been entrusted with. The minas are both a gift, and a command. They are given freely, and yet are not to be dormant. They are grace, and yet packaged with the grace is the expectation of good works that flow from the relationship of trust between master and slave. Knowing the master is just and demanding, the faithful servants act as they have been told, never exerting their own will out of resentment or rebellion. In the same way, God gives us the Gospel as a gift, and at the same time, he commands his servants (especially his ministers, his stewards) to make the Gospel work like an investment, to grow the kingdom of God like a 401k plan. And if the investor himself is no apprentice of Donald Trump (most of us are not that great at financial planning after all), our Lord mercifully accepts this, and is satisfied with even our placing of our mina in the hands of the bank, where the return isn’t so great.

What our Lord condemns in this parable is the willful rebellion against his wishes, the lack of trust and faith – which is rooted in resentment of God being God and of our being mere servants. Such a servant acts out of a fear that is really more like hatred of the master. We’ll show God what we think of his grace. We’ll wrap it in a nose-rag and give it right back to him when he comes back. We won’t do any work on behalf of the kingdom itself, nor will we even support the work of those who do the work of the kingdom. We’ll wait for the hard-nosed king to come back, and we’ll show him what we think of his so-called grace and his so-called right to give us commands!

And so this is another way for people to misread this parable: to interpret it as “works righteousness.” In other words, our salvation is up to us to earn: we rack up a balance in our account by doing good works – and when we get to a certain level of wealth, we are allowed into the country club.

Of course, this is not what the parable is all about. And yet at the same time, the parable warns us that good works are not worthless. We Lutherans sometimes fall prey to the wrong conclusion that since we have God’s grace, we can wrap that grace in a hanky and present it like an admission fee to heaven. We use the grace of God as an excuse to be lazy, or even deliberately sinful – since what good is a “get out of hell free card” if you can’t enjoy a little sinful pleasure with it? However, our Lord’s parable tells us that good works follow grace as naturally as interest racks up in a savings account. In the words of the beloved Lutheran hymn: “faith alone doth justify,” and yet “works serve thy neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.” To put it another way, we confess with St. Paul that we are saved by faith alone, and yet, we also confess with St. James that faith is never alone – faith without works is dead, it is a counterfeit faith. James also exhorts us to be “doers of the word, not hearers only” which James says is to deceive ourselves. We need to avoid the error of both extremes. We do need to understanding God’s grace as pure Gospel, and yet we dare not take that grace for granted by spiting the Lord in refusing to carry out his command to “do business” until he returns.

Dear friends, our Lord is not austere with those who confess their sins. Our Lord is merciful. And our Lord does not collect where he did not deposit, nor reap where he did not sow – as he is the creator of the world. It is all his! He has sown the entire universe into existence, and has deposited to us the faith that redeems us! He has created everything for us, and withheld nothing from us, his most bumbling and foolish servants – not even his own Son. Whether we are good or bad with money, or whether or not we are “effective” in the Church’s mission to spread the Gospel doesn’t take away from the grace he gives us. For we’re all born with nothing, and we all die with nothing – except one thing: we die with our baptism. And this deposit, this sowing, is given to us freely by our Lord, like a check drawn on the bank of the Blood of the Lamb. And when the day of reckoning comes, when the accounts are settled, we will collect the interest, and we will reap the bounty.

For as Isaiah points out in our Old Testament lesson, we sinners “have sold” ourselves “for nothing.” And yet we “shall be redeemed without money.” As our catechism confesses, we are indeed redeemed, we lost and condemned persons, “purchased and won… from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver,” – not with minas – “but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.” We can proclaim boldly with St. Paul in our epistle lesson that death has lost its sting. We know that God himself has given us “the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is a gift, not something to be earned through shrewd investment. And yet, we are reminded that we are to be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that [our] labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

For we will indeed reap where our Lord has sown, and we will collect where our Lord has deposited. And when we hear the words: “Well done, good servant,” we know that it is really our Lord Jesus Christ who was, who is, and who ever shall be the only truly Good Servant. In gratitude for his mercy may we praise his holy name now and forevermore! Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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