The Parable of the Pounds

While there are differences between the way Luke tells the story of the ten minas and Matthew the story of the talents, there are many similarities. So, this morning I want to use Matthew’s account because I think he takes more time to create the context behind the parable – two whole chapters. In Luke’s account it says, “While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” So, instead of that brief introduction to the parable in Luke, let’s look at the context of the parable in Matthew 24 and 25.

The disciples are asking him about the signs of the end of the age. “Tell us, they said, “when will this happen and what will be the sign of your coming at the end of the age?”  All of us likely have an interest in that same question. For some it is mild curiosity and for others it occupies their minds almost completely. I remember the complex end time charts that hung on the wall of my Sunday School classroom when I was young. It was also during the same time that we were required to crawl under our desks at school to protect ourselves from the coming Russian atomic attack. I had friends whose parents had built shelters and bunkers where they could survive until the radiation cleared – in two hundred years. Millions of people were obsessed with fear and thinking about the time when the Russians would launch the fatal attack while we would retaliate and the whole world would be cinders in a matter of minutes. Of course, none of us realized how senseless all of this was. Sirens, wooden desks and shelters were never going to save us. But one thing it did do was create a whole generation of people who grew up wondering when the attack or the end of the age was going to come. It took years to relax and look forward to the future. 

But, it is probably normal to worry and live expecting the worst even though Jesus says time and again, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed.” How can you live in the constant dread of the end of the world? Maybe if we knew exactly when it would come we could prepare better for it?  Even then, Jesus says, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In spite of that there is no telling how many books, sermons, teachings, and movies have been dedicated to discerning the signs of the end of the age. Even though no one knows and we are told to live without alarm we are surrounded by those who are convinced they are living in the last days because of the way they have interpreted the signs.  I don’t believe that is how we are to live.  

How then are we to live?

Jesus uses a number of illustrations in Matthew to answer that question.

First, the days of Noah. There were no signs. “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” We are not to live as if this is the only world we have and with absolutely no interest in the coming of the Kingdom. Even though some people go too far with the coming kingdom, that does not mean that we become so absorbed in the everyday that we assume everything will go on forever as normal. We are not to live in fear but to be aware that there will be a time when the change will come and we are not to be ignorant of that. Don’t let this life be the focus of all our attention. The word “stupid” means senseless and we are not to be stupid concerning these things.

Second, we are not only to be aware of His coming but we are to pay attention and keep watch. That means one eye on the work and one eye on His coming. Too much attention to the present is not good.  Too much attention to the day of His coming is not either.  We are not to be like those in the days of Noah who were ignorant and stupid. It is a delicate balance of paying attention to both. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

Third, we are not to let ourselves become like the wicked servant and stop doing what is right because the master is away and takes advantage of that to do what he pleases. The film director John Hughes made a career out of movies that had a similar theme – the parents were gone and the kids took advantage of the opportunity. Tom Cruise starred in “Risky Business”. Matt Broderick in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and Kevin McCallister in “Home Alone”. All of them end with the mess getting cleaned up just before the parents walk through the door and, of course, we are cheering for the kids. That is not the way the story ends here. The wicked servant is surprised and has no chance to clean up the mess. It does not end well for him. It is not just keeping watch and paying attention to his sudden return but doing what is right. The wicked forget God and believe He has forgotten them as well.

Psalm 94:

How long, Lord, how long will the wicked be jubilant?

They pour out arrogant words;

    all the evildoers are full of boasting.

They crush your people, Lord;

    they oppress your inheritance.

They slay the widow and the foreigner;

    they murder the fatherless.

They say, “The Lord does not see;

    the God of Jacob takes no notice.”

But He does remember:

Take notice, you senseless ones among the people;

    you fools, when will you become wise?

Does he who fashioned the ear not hear?

    Does he who formed the eye not see?

Does he who disciplines nations not punish?

    Does he who teaches mankind lack knowledge?

The Lord knows all human plans;

    he knows that they are futile.

Fourth, we are to be prepared for a long wait and not make the opposite assumption that the master will return soon. Five of the virgins took extra oil with them and five took only what was in their lamps. While they all fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom the wise young women were prepared. The five foolish women lost their opportunity because they were not prepared for a long wait. 

So, this is when we come to the parable of the pounds. It is more than not being ignorant like the days of Noah. It is more than keeping watch. It is more than not taking advantage of the master’s absence and more than being prepared for a long wait. It is our having received gifts with the expectation of our being productive while he is away on his journey. 

I like the master’s parting words in Luke’s account. “Put this money to work until I come back.” The King James Version reads, “Occupy till I come.”  That same word means “be engaged in business and practical matters” for when I return I expect you to have done something. It’s not a matter of just watching or not doing bad things or even being prepared for a wait but it is using what we have been given to make even more. It’s not a matter of following a long list of what we don’t do in order to please him but being creative with what we have been given. We don’t live in fear of mistakes but we live looking for opportunities to put our assets to work. God does not give us gifts that are intended to lie idle. What God has invested in us is designed to grow with use.  How does Paul put it in Ephesians 2:10? “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are designed for good works. It’s part of our DNA. We are designed to fully occupy until he comes.

In Matthew, the reward is financial but in Luke the reward is more responsibility.  When I read the parable of the minas in Luke I understand that the faithful servant received not only more wealth but even more responsibility. It was not “Well done and now you are rich enough to retire” but “Well done and now I have more responsibility for you.” In other words, the reward is responsibility. The more you accomplish the more responsibility you will have. I am not making you a king. I am making you a manager of even more. I am not making you a benefactor but a servant.

What Viktor Frankl learned in the Nazi death camps has turned around many minds – mine included: “We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

The meaningful life is to be found in accepting the responsibility of what is expected of us and not so much what we desire life to be. “Life ultimately means taking responsibility.”

I think about these things more now. I want to have less responsibility as a reward for productive service – not more. I want less stress and more privileges. I would rather have fewer cities than more. I would much prefer the returning master say, “Well done, I am going to give you less to be responsible for.” That’s not how God prepares us for eternity, is it? He never stops rewarding us with more. He never stops preparing us for what is next. As much as we might like it, there is nothing in Scripture about His giving us responsibility for 60 or 70 years and then rest. The nature of the responsibility changes, but it never goes away.

In all of these parables Jesus is describing what is expected of us while living in the interim between now and his coming with the kingdom. The interim is full of uncertainty and that makes us uncomfortable. We want to know. The interim is often learning how to wait and how to live with silence. The interim is a time of perseverance in spite of setbacks, hardships and disappointments. The interim is a sometimes difficult balance between desiring the Lord to come and make everything new and bearing the responsibility of occupying until he comes.  To be prepared and still to enjoy the present. To live in expectation but not to live in fear. To not be stupid but not to be overly anxious.

Some of you this morning are in similar circumstances and need to think about what life is still expecting of you. What has God prepared you for now? Where has God placed you and what responsibilities has He given you at this stage of your life?

We may not be like Caleb and as strong as we were 45 years ago, but we have assets, skills and experiences that are even more valuable for the benefit of the place in which we have been planted. How do we use them? How do we continue to serve and move toward wisdom?  How do we fulfill the role we have been given by God to “work the plot of ground” we’ve been assigned?

None of us want to wake up one day and discover that we have stopped growing and stretching and that life has become more of a routine than an adventure. Occupy does not mean sit and wait. It means take what has been given to you and continue to make it useful and productive.

The sixth and final illustration of how we are to live our lives in the interim is back in Matthew 25 and the Lord is on his throne in heavenly glory.

  “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The righteous will not have made a show of their good works. In fact, it will have been such a part of their lives that they will not even have been aware of doing it. This will be one of the great and good surprises for the righteous. They will see that in the course of their lives without any special recognition or acclaim they made the most of their life in the interim and the interim will then become eternity with an inheritance and kingdom that has been prepared for them since the creation of the world.  

So might we live.

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