In last Wednesday’s comics, the comic strip “Pearls before Swine” focused on Judgement Day. Goat says to Rat, “Do you believe that if you do bad things, you’ll be judged after you die and go to hell? Rat responds, “I do.” Goat says, “But everything you do is bad.” Rat says, “I plan on pleading ‘oopsies.’ “ Goat says, “Not sure that’s a defense.” Rat says, “OK, now I’m worried.”
Today’s scriptures are worrisome. The prophet Zephaniah describes the day of judgment in dreadful terms, a day of wrath, distress and anguish for those who have been complacent, and who say in their hearts that “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” The complacent people who heard Zephaniah’s oracle, and we who give in to the modern day temptation to dismiss any thoughts of God’s judgement and to focus only on God’s goodness and mercy, or believe deep down inside that God is just looking the other way about most things may feel like Rat—“Now I’m worried ” or at least shaken up a bit after hearing from Zehaniah. Or, we can just dismiss the Day of Judgement as the raging of a crazy prophet.
But let’s take these passages to heart. The Nicene Creed, which is an outline of our Christian core beliefs, states that that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” That statement challenges our thoughts like—“Jesus hasn’t come back yet, and it’s been over 2000 years,” or “We believe in Jesus, so we will be judged on faith alone.” God’s assessment of how we try to carry out God’s will on this earth matters now, and will always matter, for God has entrusted us, the followers of Jesus, to carry out the work of Jesus until he returns. And when we decide to follow Jesus, we accept that trust, and take on the challenge.
Today’s scriptures make clear that there is a finish line and a day of reckoning, and then gives us ways to reach the finish line as winners.
Time is of the essence in Psalm 90, attributed to the Prophet Moses. Our time on this earth is brief. Our days pass away quickly and then they are gone. The famous paraphrase of this Psalm, “O God, our help in ages past,” puts it this way, “Time, like an ever rolling stream bears all our years away.” So Moses advises us to number our days, to realize the preciousness of each day we have, and to spend our days applying our hearts to wisdom.
In last week’s gospel, the ten bridesmaids had time to prepare for the coming of the bridegroom. Five were foolish and five were wise. The wise bridesmaids brought extra oil and were ready when the bridegroom showed up after being delayed. The foolish ones, having had the same amount of time to prepare, didn’t bother to do anything extra and just hoped that the small amount of oil that they brought would be enough—oopsies, they ran out of oil and of time, and as a result, they did not get into the wedding banquet because they had to rush off to buy more oil at the last minute.
So—to prepare for Judgement Day, remember, our time is limited on this earth. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Let us not take our time on this earth for granted, assuming that we will have enough time to prepare. Instead let us take the advice of Moses and apply our hearts to wisdom.
Paul also gives us some great advice in his First Letter to the Thessalonians. He reminds the Thessalonians, and us, that the end will come like a thief in the night, snatching us away from life as we know it. This sudden end, though, will not be a worry to us if we are prepared, if we are living in the light, children of the light and of the day, as Paul says. Our job right now is to prepare by putting on our armor—the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation, because we know that God did not create us to subject us to wrath and judgement, but to show us the way to life by following Jesus, the Path of Life.
Then we come to today’s gospel.
Jesus came among us to bring the kingdom of God near, to lead us into wisdom, to show us how to live as if we are already part of God’s kingdom, and to live in hope and to work for God’s kingdom to be completely fulfilled on this earth. Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When we disciples pray that prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” and mean those words, then we cannot be complacent. For when we pray the Lord’s prayer, we ask God to complete in us and in all of creation the work that that Jesus began, but the work that has not yet ended, the realization of God’s justice, mercy and love completely and finally realized on this earth.
For Jesus, the stakes are high. He knows that he will die soon. The disciples are the ones that he expects to continue his work on the earth. Time is short. It’s time to prepare for the work ahead. So he tells them the story of the ten bridesmaids and then the story that we have heard today—the story that we know as the parable of the talents.
A man is going on a journey, so he entrusts his property to his slaves, each according to his ability. And then he goes away.
So the first two slaves go off at once and double their master’s money. But the third slave, who received one talent, went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid the master’s money.
Now think about that for a minute—he dug a hole in the ground and hid the master’s money. He buried what his master had given him, and hid it, not only from others, but from himself as well. Now that the money was buried, he didn’t have to think about what to do with it. Out of sight, out of mind.
When the master comes back and settles accounts, he praises the first two slaves and gives them even more responsibility.
But when the third slave comes with the money he had hidden in the ground, he offers it back with the excuse that he feared the master. Imagine this—this master had entrusted the slave with lots of money. And the slave wasn’t even grateful for the opportunity to use the money for ANYTHING. He blamed his own laziness on the master, accusing the master of being harsh.
So the master takes the money back and gives it to the first slave and sends this lazy slave away empty handed.
And then we get that phrase that Matthew likes to use—this lazy slave ends up in a place where there will be weeping and gnashing his teeth.
As he told this story, Jesus wanted the disciples to know what he expected, that he wanted them to grow his message of justice, mercy, love and forgiveness and non-violence for the good of God’s coming reign on earth. What good would his message be if it were just buried in the ground and then handed back to him later—well, here’s what you taught us and gave us and we DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WITH IT! And you should be happy just to get your message back in perfect condition. What?
Our challenge as a church is to risk everything we have to carry God’s message of justice, mercy, and love out into the world. In taking these risks, we may lose money, and we may even lose some people, BUT God will help us to use the gifts God has given us if we dare to do so.
Now here’s a modern-day story that touches on the meaning of this parable on a personal level.
A music professor who has composed music that transforms people, brings them joy, makes them want to go out and to live differently (for that can be the power of music) teaches her students to compose this transcendent music, the kind of music that gets into the hearts and minds of people, makes them want to hear the music over and over again, puts them into a state of wonder, love and praise, and changes them for the better. This professor’s mission is to get this beautiful, transforming music out into the world, but now it’s time for her to take a sabbatical. Before she leaves, she provides three of her students with blank manuscript paper and nice sharp pencils, a pencil sharpener, and a big eraser. She doesn’t give them any directions to go with the manuscript paper, but these students have studied with her, and they’ve all received the same instructions about how to create this beautiful transformative music that the professor believes can change the world. They already know what she expects.
The professor leaves.
Months later, when the professor returns, she calls the students in. The first two are thrilled to tell her about what they’ve created and to play recordings of their music for her. Not only did they use the paper that she gave them, but they went out and got more paper and doubled the amount of music that she had expected they might compose. People have been truly excited to hear their music! The people have become transformed, and have started listening to and writing music themselves.
And then the third student hands back the untouched paper, the still sharp pencils, the pencil sharpener, and the unused eraser, saying, “You’re so demanding that I just figured you wouldn’t like my work, so I was sacred to try. I just put this stuff away so that I could give it back to you when you returned. I kept it safe for you. Here it is.” This is like Rat in the comic strip saying “Oopsies!”
The professor can’t believe it! She had taught this student the same things that she had taught the others, given the student all the supplies the student would need to go out and write this music, and yet, this student didn’t even try! This person was unwilling to take a chance and to share, even imperfectly, even just one unique composition that only that person could have produced, the composition that might have changed the world.
Shaking her head, the professor sighs and takes the unused supplies back from this poor excuse for a student and gives them to the first student who will clearly put the supplies to good use.
And then she dismisses the students. The first two go out, delighted, ready to do more. The last leaves in tears.
God teaches us, and then gives us, the disciples, what we need to do God’s work in this world. Life is short. Don’t wait around. Start using those gifts now, for Jesus will come again in glory and ask to see our work. Let’s have something to show for the time and the talents we’ve been given for God’s work of healing love on this earth.