In Wisconsin, we know all about the calm before the storm, don’t we? During the summer months the calm consists of a strange stillness in the air, a strange tint in the sky, and dark clouds billowing on the horizon. It’s the calm before a thunderstorm. And it’s a time for action: put the deck furniture away, gather the outdoor toys, close the windows and keep an eye on weather alerts. In winter, it’s the ominous, hazy, cloudy, eerie, stillness before a snowstorm. And we know what to do: skip out of work early if you can, check for cancelations, stop by the grocery store for the essentials (like beer and wine), then get home, hunker down and stay warm. The calm before the storm is a time for activity, for preparation. In these last three weeks of the church year, our focus turns to the end of time, to the storm of judgment that is coming for the world. And in the text before us, Jesus urges us to be busy, to be active putting his money to work during this calm before judgment.
When the Holy Spirit records why Jesus tells a parable, that means it’s important and we should pay attention. Luke reports that he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. Many Israelites thought that when Jesus entered Jerusalem he was going to immediately establish his earthly kingdom, by expelling the Romans, restoring an independent Israel and creating a prosperous economy. (Not so different from those today who understand the coming of the kingdom to be visible prosperity, social justice or an end to poverty and war.) Certainly Jesus was going to Jerusalem to win his kingdom by his suffering and death, however, not in the sense they were thinking; it wasn’t going to be an earthly, visible kingdom – not yet. The great theme of this section is that Jesus’ kingdom won’t come until he has left and later returned. But this delay, this pause, this calm is not a time for laziness but for activity.
The first thing the nobleman does is call ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’ The nobleman is clearly Jesus. His “going to a distant country” is prophetic of his Ascension where he would receive all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). But prior to his departure he leaves his servants, the Church, his treasure. What is this treasure? I’ve heard and you’ve heard that the mina represents the time, talents, and treasures the Lord has given us. Thus the sermon should be about proper stewardship of these gifts. Well, this is a stewardship text, but not about your time, talent or treasure. How can we be sure? Because unlike the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, all the servants receive the exact same amount. What does Jesus give to everyone in the church in the precise same amount? Not talents, not money, not possessions, not spiritual gifts. Right here in this room is a dizzying array of these gifts. What Jesus has left every one of his servants, every one of us, in equal amounts is nothing more and nothing less than the means of grace: the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.
This is the great treasure Jesus has given us to put to work. The waters of baptism that wash away sin and provide rebirth into God’s family. The Gospel that proclaims absolution, forgiveness for every last sin. Bread and wine that is his body and blood to nourish our faith. He wants us to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19) and to daily remember our Baptism (Romans 6); to hear and preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2); to forgive and be forgiven (Matthew 6:12); to eat and drink his body and blood often (1 Corinthians 11:25). This is the business of our Lord. This – so aptly illustrated here by font, altar and pulpit – is what his servants are to be busy doing.
But this treasure is nothing in the eyes of the unbelieving world. That’s what’s being illustrated by the mina. A mina was worth 100 days wages. At $15 an hour that would be roughly $12,000 today. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also not much for the King of kings to leave his servants. And the world is unimpressed. The world is impressed by the power of the almighty dollar, not by the cleansing power of water; by words that criticize and cut down not words that forgive sins; by a King who sheds the blood of his enemies, not a King who sheds his own blood to save his enemies (Romans 5:10).
And so, even as the Church is diligently putting these treasures to work, Christ’s enemies work against him. Jesus puts it this way: his subjects hated him. “Hate” is a strong word, but when Jesus tells parables he exposes what’s really in people’s hearts rather than what they show to others. Even though one day every knee shall bow before their King (Philippians 2:10), during the calm many reject his rule. There is no such thing as neutrality towards Jesus. How could there be? Jesus makes exclusive and eternal claims on people’s lives. He demands absolute fear, love and trust. For the most part in our culture, unbelievers usually put on a show of being polite towards Christ, but the awful truth is that anyone who rejects Jesus as King are also rejecting him as their Savior.
It’s fascinating how they do this: [they] sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’ What are they doing? They are appealing to what they believe is a higher authority; an authority, a god, above and beyond Jesus. The Jews did this very thing when they claimed to have no king but Caesar (John 19:15). The Bible says that, no one is above Jesus, that is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16). But unbelievers believe that there is a god over Jesus. He’s the god on our money, the god who supposedly has a special place in his heart for America. He’s the god that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists can all pray to together in times of tragedy. He’s the “higher power” that virtually everyone acknowledges – but this god has no name, no identity, no moral standards, no revelation of himself, no power to condemn – and, most importantly, no power to save. This is the god of those who insist on calling the pine tree in the capitol rotunda a “holiday” tree and not a “Christmas” tree – because this is a god whom all religions, and no religion, are welcome to celebrate.
The obvious question is: why such hatred for Jesus? Because Jesus’ enemies believe that his rule is harsh and tyrannical. He is unloving because he doesn’t allow women to kill their babies or boys to mutilate their bodies to become girls. He is intolerant because he forbids individuals of the same sex to get married and adopt children. He is mean because he forbids rebellion against his representatives but instructs his representatives to discipline wrongdoers. He is unreasonable because he insists that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). All of this is unacceptable to Jesus’ enemies and so during this calm before Judgment Day they rage against his rule.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised when they do just that. Jesus tells us this parable so that we won’t be surprised when his enemies rage against his reign – or against his Church. But perhaps the most surprising thing he is telling us is that some of those who call themselves Christian, who are in the visible church, are really his enemies. This is the third servant. Actually, Jesus doesn’t actually call him the “third servant.” He calls him, literally, “the other one.” The Greek word is ἕτερος from which we get the word heterodox. You’re orthodox if you rightly teach and practice God’s Word. You’re heterodox if you don’t.
This heterodoxy can either corporate or private. Corporately, churches or even entire church bodies bury the means of grace under man-made laws and wisdom and rituals. Baptism is replaced by an altar call. The Word of God is replaced with the wisdom of a man (or woman). They deny that Jesus gave his servants the authority to forgive sins on earth (John 20:22-23). Holy Communion is nothing more than bread and wine. They have the treasure Jesus left them, but by false teaching and practice they effectively keep it wrapped up and hidden away. Individually, this is the person who belongs to a church, but who either has a distorted view of the means of grace – that they something we do for God, rather than his gift to us – or neglect the means of grace completely. Both fall under the category of the other, heterodox servant because they do not use Jesus treasure as he has commanded.
And just like Jesus enemies’, these heterodox people blame Jesus for their own failure. Just as the third servant in the parable justifies his laziness out of fear, so the heterodox claim that the reason they don’t use the means of grace is because they are afraid of Jesus. Is that true? I had some scary football coaches, but that fear didn’t lead me to disobey but rather to do what they said. The reality is that people who won’t use Baptism, Absolution, or Communion are so unafraid of Jesus, and his impending judgment, that they feel free to ignore his specific commands to do these things (Hebrews 10:24-25). In the end, the heterodox, hypocritical, lazy church or church member is no different from Jesus’ declared enemies. They think he’s a hard, harsh ruler. They hate him and rage against his rule – the only difference is that they do this secretly, claiming the title of Christian while inwardly hating their King.
Why the rage? Because when you think that the means of grace are something you “have to” do to earn God’s favor, they stop being Gospel and become Law. Instead of being God’s work for us, they become our work for God. This misunderstanding of the means of grace is the most common reason people don’t come to church regularly. They don’t see an opportunity to receive forgiveness and mercy, they see nothing but burdens and laws and rules. They don’t see a Lord who says come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28), but a harsh taskmaster who expects them to “pay their dues.” There is hardly a greater blasphemy than believing that Jesus invites us to worship to earn his favor rather than to give us his grace and forgiveness.
The good news is that this calm will eventually come to an end. Eventually, according to this parable, Judgment Day will come and everything will be made right. People who have been pretending to be servants of Jesus but who really have buried or neglected the means of grace will be exposed as the hypocrites they are. Even what [they] have will be taken from them. And on Judgment Day, Jesus enemies, even the really nice ones who think that all religions lead to heaven will be slaughtered right in front of him. The punishment is so harsh because their sin is so terrible. Regarding the God who loved the world so much that he suffered, bled, and died to redeem it as a wicked ruler deserves instant judgment.
But here’s the really good news – when Judgment Day arrives not only will hypocrites be exposed and Christ’s enemies slaughtered, but his means of grace will be proven to be as powerful as Jesus said they are and their faithful use will be rewarded beyond anything you can imagine. Notice how when the two faithful servants speak they both say your mina has earned and not “I have earned.” All the glory goes to God’s mina. It’s Baptism that saves us. It’s Absolution that forgives us. It’s Communion that feeds our faith. We don’t give them power or meaning, they give us God’s powerful grace.
But while we receive none of the credit, we will receive the reward. I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given. This is the real reason to put Jesus’ treasure to work, to eagerly and faithfully receive his grace in Word and Sacrament. In the parable, faithful use of one mina leads to a 1000% and 500% return, respectively. When Jesus returns, he is promising to reward faithful use of his gifts of grace with even more grace. Grace upon grace (John 1:16 EHV). I don’t know what could be better than full and free forgiveness of sins and the sure hope of eternal life – but it’s got to be good. Well worth eagerly and actively waiting for.
We are living in the calm before Judgment. It’s a time to be busy carrying out the work Jesus has given us. Jesus didn’t tell this parable so that we would shudder in fear of Judgment, but to make faithful use of his Gospel and Sacraments during this life – not because we have to to earn his favor, but because he promises more where that came from when he returns. Therefore our prayer today and every day is: Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20) Amen.