A priest I once knew, who liked to receive the co-operation of his parishioners, used to have a bumper sticker on his car that read, “Volunteers go to Heaven.” On the flip side, we might entitle today’s Gospel, “Slackers go to Hell” (Mt. 25:14-30). This particular Gospel appearing on the Sunday liturgical calendar is quite rare. It happened this year only because Easter was so terribly early, and it slipped in just before the Sundays of the Cross and the changing over to the cycle of Luke. This probably won’t happen again for another 150 years or so; therefore we really must pay attention to the message of this Gospel today!
In the epistle for today (2Cor. 6:1-10), St Paul urges us “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” Now how in the world could we accept God’s grace in vain? Well, the Gospel tells us, for one of the three who received God’s grace ended up being thrown forever into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. We need therefore to learn what to do and what not to do with the grace of God.
This Gospel is another parable of the Kingdom and, as I said two weeks ago, these parables often have to do with the final reckoning and our eternal destiny. It begins with a certain master going on a journey and entrusting his wealth to his servants, to trade with until he returns. Now obviously the Master is Christ, whose journey was his ascent to Heaven after his resurrection, and whose return to settle accounts is his Second Coming. Let’s see what He says He’s going to do.
There are three representative servants. To one the Master gave five talents, to the second He gave two, and to the third He gave one. The “talent” here, at least for English speakers, has a double meaning. Originally the talent was simply a unit of currency weighing a certain amount. But in English the word “talent” also means an ability or endowment by which someone is able to accomplish some task or produce some creative work. It is the latter meaning we ought to employ here, for it isn’t usually money that God gives us to work with, but rather spiritual gifts He expects us to use for his glory and to accomplish his will.
Let us notice that God does not distribute his gifts equally. Five, two, and one were given. Recall the parable of the workers in the vineyard, who received equal pay for unequal times of work. The Master insists that He is free to do with his money what He pleases, and if He wants to be more generous to some than to others, that’s just what He’ll do! So we learn here that the Lord is sovereign and free, that He is not bound by our standards or sensibilities when He carries out his will on the earth. He has said his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts, and his word is true!
But God is not unjust by giving unequal graces to his servants. For as we see in the parable, He did not require the same from each of them. As Jesus said elsewhere, more is required of those to whom more is given. When the second servant brought forth two talents, the Master did not say, “Hey, the other guy brought five; what’s wrong with you?” The Master was satisfied with a smaller return because He had made a smaller investment. So the one who received five and returned an extra five, and the one who received two and returned an extra two, were both warmly welcomed into the joy of their Lord.
The point is first that God has given all of his servants spiritual gifts, in the measure that He alone has chosen. The point is also that God requires all of his servants to exercise these gifts, to bear fruit, and to bring the fruit of their labors to God on the day He comes to settle accounts. It is not enough to return to God what is his, as the lazy and wicked servant did. He received a gift from his Master but hid it in the ground because he somehow resented the fact that his Master profited from his servants’ labor. But the Master shows that He would have been satisfied even with a small return, commensurate to the small gift, but also that He was not satisfied with no return at all. He therefore called his servant “wicked and slothful.”
We see here that laziness is very displeasing to the Lord. In fact, the lazy man was condemned to the “outer darkness,” which is another name for Hell. I never cease to be amazed that there are still people, even Christian people, who somehow think that they will not be held accountable for their deeds, or lack of deeds, when they come before the judgment seat of God. They seem to value their own opinions on the matter more highly than they value the word of God. They content themselves with the fact that God is merciful, yet the distorted way they understand mercy ends up actually rejecting large portions of God’s own revelation. Whenever we hear Jesus speak in the Gospels, we darn well better believe that his word is the truth—and if He says that faithful and industrious servants go to Heaven and that lazy and slothful servants go to Hell, that is exactly what is going to happen! If we don’t believe his words, we have no business calling ourselves Christians. Jesus clearly says in the Gospel of John that the one who loves Him is the one who keeps his commandments. We may think we love Him, and we may say we love Him, but if we don’t actually keep his commandments, it will be proven on judgment day that we were deluding ourselves unto our own ruin.
Let us look again at the wicked servant. He was not actually condemned for positively doing evil deeds. He was condemned simply for not doing good deeds! There’s no evidence that he was a murderer or an adulterer, or some other sort of manifest evildoer. He simply didn’t do what the Master asked him to do. He didn’t use the gift for the honor and good pleasure of his Lord.
Now let’s look at the faithful servants and try to put ourselves in their position, and in their relationship with the Master. The Master gave them talents and a command to work with them until he returned (this command is explicit in the parallel in Luke, but implicit here in Matthew). So far so good. The Master doesn’t start out with threats, because He trusts his servants. He doesn’t say, “work with these talents I’ve given you, or else I’ll tear you to pieces when I return.” What He wants them to do is to multiply their good works simply out of love for Him and the desire to please Him. And He blesses them abundantly for doing just that.
It is only when a servant is found to be habitually lazy and self-centered that he is dealt with sternly. We might imagine that if these were servants of the same master, they knew each other and therefore had some communication with each other. I can imagine the two faithful servants urging the lazy one to do some productive work before the Master’s return. If he really was as wicked and lazy as the Gospel says, I can imagine him responding with irritation and scorn: “Well, you two sycophantic do-gooders can increase the profits of that man who reaps where he doesn’t sow, but I’ve got better things to do!” “OK,” they reply, “but don’t forget that our master is coming back, and he will expect some return on his investment.”
The heedless servant eventually saw the stern side of the master when it was time to settle accounts. He thought he could get away with giving the master his talent back, but the master would have none of it and punished him severely. In St Paul’s words, he had received the grace of his Lord in vain.
It should be with us as with the faithful servants: our first approach to the Lord should be the grateful reception of his gifts, and then our diligent labors to bear fruit, simply because we love the Lord and wish to please Him. We know He’s coming back and we know we are going to be accountable for what He has given us. So we unselfishly work and even sacrifice for Him, so that He will be pleased and will welcome us into his eternal joy. That is, in fact, why we are here in the first place, to serve the Lord faithfully on Earth so as to be welcomed gloriously into Heaven forever. It is only when we are habitually lazy, selfish, or presumptuous, that we have good reason to fear the Master’s wrath. And not taking seriously the word of the Lord puts us squarely in the camp of the wicked and slothful servants.
St Paul gives us a brief description of the ways he multiplied the talents given him; clearly he did not receive the grace of God in vain. It’s interesting that the full verse reads: “Working together with Him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.” This “working together” with the Lord is the way that grace bears fruit in us, the way that our talents increase unto the glory of God. The Apostle multiplied his talents through “great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, vigils, hunger”—and, more positively, he goes on: “by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” We can imagine how warmly this faithful servant was welcomed into his Master’s joy, after a life of such dedicated and selfless labors in the service of Christ.
So let us first realize that God has blessed us abundantly with the “talents” of grace, some more, some less. But regardless of the original gift, we are required to work hard to bear fruit for the Lord, to have something to show when He returns to settle accounts. Hell is for slackers, but Heaven is for the good and faithful servants who love the Lord and serve Him with all their hearts, with all their strength. May we thus enter the eternal joy of our Lord!