Originally preached on the occasion of the rite of confirmation for the confirmation class of 2020 at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The year was 1529. Martin Luther (whose birthday we observed on Tuesday) had just finished a tour of church visitations throughout the region of Saxony. The purpose of this tour was to see if congregations in Saxony were adequately teaching the faith to their people now that they had access to German-language Bibles and to make sure that pastors were doing their jobs. To say that he was appalled by what he found is an understatement. This is what he said in his preface to the Small Catechism, published that year:
“The deplorable, wretched deprivation that I recently encountered while I was a visitor has constrained and compelled me to prepare this catechism, or Christian instruction, in such a brief, plain, and simple version. Dear God, what misery I beheld! The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately, many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers. Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments! As a result, they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing their freedom.” (KW, 347-348).
Put simply, the pastors of Saxony had let their congregations down. They didn’t teach their people God’s word. The people in the pews didn’t know God’s good and gracious will for them as outlined in the Ten Commandments. They didn’t know who God is, or what he had done for them. They didn’t teach them why things like baptism and the Lord’s Supper are important. They let their people remain in ignorance while they did whatever they wanted, with no real concern for their people’s souls. It seems that, with the Gospel given back to the people, they and their pastors just figured that nothing really mattered. “Dr. Luther, you say I’m free in the Gospel? Great, I can do whatever I want! I don’t need to know any more or bother with church.”
Or at least that’s how it seemed to Luther. They now could read Scripture and hear the Gospel in a language they could understand–they could now hear and know God’s will for them and know what he had done for them in giving His Son to die for them for the forgiveness of their sins and really know it without needing a priest to act as an intermediary interpreter. But they didn’t do anything with it. They didn’t let it change them. They didn’t live in this new identity. Instead, they continued in ignorance, and Luther, when he came upon them, was horrified.
How could one hear the Gospel and not be changed? How could one not live differently knowing that the Lord had bought one’s life–one’s very soul, no less–from death? Luther was flabbergasted, and so in a fit of writing, he put the Small Catechism to paper in order to teach these unfortunate people the faith they should have known and the Gospel that should have changed their hearts. His reaction was similar to, but not as drastic as, the reaction of the master in Jesus’ parable this morning.
And what happened in that parable? A man gave each of his three slaves a sum of money to invest while he was away. (And yes, they were slaves; our modern Bibles like to soften our view of the ancient world by translating “doulos” as “servant” when in reality it means “slave.”) To be more precise, he gave them each a number of talents. A “talent” is roughly equivalent to 75 pounds of silver, so one talent is worth $28,800 in today’s currency. That means that the master gave one slave the equivalent of $144,000 (five talents), another $57,600 (two talents), and the third $28,000 (one talent). These were not inconsiderable sums of money; indeed, it’s highly unlikely that a slave would ever see this kind of money in his lifetime. But their master had confidence in them–Jesus says that he gave each of them the amount of money that he did according to their “ability.” He knew they could look after it responsibly; he did not overburden them. Then the master went away for a long time, and while he was gone, his slaves took the money and attempted to grow it as he had instructed them. Well, that’s not entirely true. Two of them did. But the third slave took it and hid it away.
And do you remember what happened when the master came back after his long journey? He called his slaves together and asked them how they’d done. The first slave doubled his investment. The $144,000 his master gave him became $288,000. The second slave also doubled his investment. His $57,600 became $115,200. The master was pleased. Upon hearing how they’d done with the sums he gave them, he told them: “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). Notice that the master tells both of these slaves the same thing, regardless of how much they made back on their talents–both of them doubled the value of what they had been given. And so he rewarded them: “You were faithful with little, I will give you responsibility for much. Enter the joy of your master!”
But the third slave did not do what he was told. He did not grow his master’s money, but more importantly, he did not understand what kind of person his master was, nor did he understand the identity and task his master had given him. As a slave, he belonged to his master, and whatever his master said, went. His master had put him in charge over a great sum of money, but he did not see himself as one given authority and charge over his talent. He rejected the vocation his master had given him.
Moreover, he didn’t understand who his master was. He somehow greatly misjudged his master’s character, thinking him to be a hard man and cruel, when his master had actually taken great care to give him what he could handle and had given him responsibility over something so valuable. So it wasn’t that this slave didn’t do enough in his task–his master apparently didn’t care about the amount of return in the case of the other two slaves. Nor was it the case that he wasn’t faithful enough. No, this slave didn’t do anything–he completely neglected the task given him, and was utterly unfaithful to the master who had put him in charge of a few things. And for his neglect of his duty and calling, his master did not invite him into his joy, but instead took away the talent he had given this slave and had him thrown into the outer darkness. As his master said, he was a worthless slave.
So what’s going on with this parable? Jesus, as usual, is talking about what the kingdom of heaven will be like. In the parable, the master is Jesus himself, and the slaves are people he has redeemed. Jesus has purchased their lives from sin, death, and hell through his death and resurrection on the cross. He has purchased them with his blood–they are now “slaves” to him. But to be a slave to Christ is to be given one’s life; it isn’t at all like the dehumanizing chattel slavery we know. To be a slave of Christ is to be humanized, to be made whole again, to be changed from a sinner into a saint, from one who does nothing good into one who does the good works the Holy Spirit sets up before them to do. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. And when you are a slave of Christ, he gives you himself as your identity. So when Jesus, the master in the parable, gives his slaves their talents, he is giving them a different kind of wealth than just plain money. He is giving them their whole lives and identity in him as a gift to live out. When the first two slaves actually live out this life in Christ, they please their master. They take what he gives them–the gift of life and their Christian vocations–and they do something with them. It doesn’t matter what, just so long as they do not neglect their faith and grow in their walk with Christ. They respond in faith to what he has done for them, and when Jesus returns at his second coming, their faith in him is secure and he welcomes them into their reward.
But the third slave is someone who does not do this. Rather than seeing his Lord and master as the gentle and life-giving person he is, he sees him as a hard master, who takes rather than gives. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth! But this slave of Christ who misjudges his Lord thrusts away the gift he has been given, and so he has his life taken from him and he is cast outside the kingdom. This third slave took the gifts of life and faith that Christ had given him and did nothing to feed and strengthen them. And how might he have not done this? He didn’t spend time in Scripture, learning his Lord’s will for him and deepening his understanding of what Jesus had done for him. He neglected the assembly of the believers in his church and his community. He didn’t go to church and did not receive the Lord’s Supper; he neglected confession and absolution. He didn’t pray. He didn’t bother learning who his God was. He did not live out the faith he was grafted into at baptism. All of these things he didn’t take advantage of–which, not coincidentally, align with the things that Luther chose to include in his Small Catechism–all of these things are means by which God tells us about himself and grants us his grace. They feed faith and aid us in our walk with Christ. But the third slave threw them away, and in so doing shipwrecked his faith and his life, losing it in the end. He did not let the Gospel change his life. He did not let God’s will be done rather than his own. And so he paid the price.
So what does this have to do with us? Do we need to do things in order to be saved? No, I’m not saying that at all–we all know that it is God alone who works faith and salvation in us. No work of man can make us more worthy of salvation. But the important lesson of Jesus’ parable for us is that we need to feed our faith through the reception of the gifts God gives us. We should not be ambivalent with regard to our lives as Christians. Though we are passively made righteous by God, we should not take that to mean that we ought to be passive in our entire Christian life (and it’s a real temptation). All of us in this room are people for whom Jesus died, and we have all been baptized into Christ and made his people–his servants, his slaves. He has bought our lives with the price of his own, and he has given them back to us to live them out for him. That’s the talent that he has given us to invest. And as the parable makes plain, it doesn’t matter how much we grow, it only matters that we don’t neglect to feed our faith and grow it. If we don’t take care of the life Christ has given us, we can destroy it through negligence and thus bring it to ruin, squandering the gift of life and letting worldly notions tell us that our Lord is someone he isn’t. We could end up like the people of Luther’s day, utterly ignorant of the God who saved us, our heads filled with all manner of worldly opinions about him that make him into someone he isn’t, and drawing us away from him and closer into the paths that lead to unbelief or outright indifference.
So if you are feeling far from God or as if your faith is weakening, or you feel like your spiritual fire is beginning to go out, do not neglect the church, but come! Join your brothers and sisters here who will help bear you up with their mutual consolation, and receive our Lord’s body and blood for the nourishing of your soul! Read the Scriptures and see that God has given you his Law for your guidance and his Gospel for your strength. Sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs! Serve your neighbor! Pray the prayer your Lord has taught you. Cling to the promises God made to you in your baptism, and seek your pastor if the cares of this world and your own sinful flesh are weighing heavily on your heart. These are all good gifts of God for you, and they all help grow your faith and keep your life in Christ evergreen. Jesus destroyed death for you, and gave you the gift of new life with him forever. Take good care of it!
So I say this to you confirmands today, and to anyone else listening: Confirmation is not the end goal of life for a young person in the church. In reality, it is more of a starting point. Now you know the basics of what God’s will for all people is (the 10 Commandments). You know who God is and what he has done for you (the Apostle’s Creed). You know how to pray, what to pray for, and what you are doing when you pray (the Lord’s Prayer). You know what kinds of gifts God gives you through the sacraments of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and holy absolution. You don’t know everything there is to know yet, because studying God’s word takes more than a lifetime. But you know enough to start. And so I charge you this morning, to not consider Confirmation to be some kind graduation where you don’t have to go to church anymore afterwards. The church needs you, and you need the church! Instead, view Confirmation as an invitation to continue growing and learning about the God who loves you so much that he became a helpless baby, grew up, and died and rose for you so that you might live in blessedness with him forever. That you might grow in faith and be faithful, so that upon his return he will smile and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your master’s joy!” AMEN.