Kurt Jacobson
6 min readNov 19, 2023

--

“In the River of Grace”

November 19, 2023 Matthew 25:14–30

‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return, I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

“Well done, good and faithful servant.” Where have you heard those words? Many times over my years officiating at funerals this verse from Matthew 25 was read. They are words faithful people hope to hear when approaching the proverbial “pearly gates.”

Two times in Matthew Jesus says, “Well done good and trustworthy slave” (or in more modern English: “faithful servant”) which means it has some clout. But it has some potentially confusing dimensions.

In my faith tradition of Lutheranism, we affirm that we are saved by grace alone — not by works of any kind. Thus, “Well done good and faithful servant” needs to be heard as an affirmation, not a reward.

I know people who live with the nagging feeling they are not “good enough” for God. No amount of charity or loving God and neighbor are sufficient to feeling assured that someday “when the roll is called up yonder” they will hear God whisper, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

The Parable of the Talents has reassuring news for people who don’t believe they are good enough, as well as an answer to the question to the place of good works in Christian life.

Eugene Peterson was a prolific author who wrote “The Message” — a paraphrasing commentary and rendering of the Bible. He provides an answer to the question of where good works fit in Christian living.

Peterson explains what he calls the “verb voices.” He says that in most languages there are two verb voices: the Active and the Passive. In the Active Voice, I (the subject) am the actor. I initiate the action. “The girl walks the dog.” “I told him to take out the garbage.” In the Passive Voice, I (the subject) am being acted upon. I receive the action. “The girl was pulled by the dog.” “I was told to take out the garbage.” This linguistic way of talking affects our thinking in other areas: we assume that all of life comes down to a choice between our initiating activity or activity being enacted upon us. Either I do it or someone else does it but there is not much in between.

In ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, there’s a third way of speaking — the Middle Voice. Here I take advice. In the Middle Voice the subject enters into an action that was started by someone else and that will ultimately be finished by someone else.[i]

The Middle Voice is like jumping with an inner tube into an already-flowing river. You didn’t create the river nor cause the current to flow. What’s more, the river will keep flowing to its destination even if you hop out at some point. But in the meantime, you can jump in, float happily on the current, and also do things to steer yourself.

The Christian life, Peterson suggests, is like that. We are saved by God’s grace alone but then are also given the opportunity to jump into that already flowing river of grace. The river and everything we get to do while floating in it are ultimately all the work of God. Our actions in the river would not be possible were it not for God. But what a joy and privilege it is to be in that river at all!

Of course, if like the third servant you are convinced that there is no joy to be had — that the Master is a “hard man” who is more to be feared than loved — then even grace cannot make a dent. But if you catch all the joy of the grace that kicks this off in the first place, it makes all the difference in the world in what you do in response.

Despite the third servant missing it, the very giving of the talents was itself a divinely initiated act of grace. Everything else that happened after that was a direct result of grace upon grace.

What the master entrusted to the servants at the outset of this story was a whopping sum of money. One talent would have been the equivalent of a lifetime worth of wages. Giving away such a sum of money shows the master’s confidence in his servants and a shorthand way of showing us that this parable begins with grace. For each servant the question of what he does with what he has been given is secondary. It comes after the realization of the grace which initiates the action.

What we do with the grace given us is important and followers of Jesus who know and experience something of his holy joy must want to get in on “the master’s happiness” with every fiber of their being.

Indeed, we demonstrate understanding this joy when we wholeheartedly throw ourselves into such Christian living. The motivation for getting busy with our talents is not out of fear of losing out on reward, but the very joy with which those talents were handed out in the first place!

Using what has been entrusted to us by the Divine is not a matter of what we do versus what God does, but it is a matter of our cooperating with God in the great mission of sharing the kingdom of God to all.

[i] hatrackley.com/2023/07/30/praying-like-monks-the-middle-voice/

Images:

1 A Lesson in Diligence — The Talents Jesus — The Way, the Truth, the Life wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1102014713
2 Cornerstone Art

--

--

Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.