A Good and Faithful Servant

 
A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, August 22, 2010

“His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ (Mat 25:21)

There are several places in scripture where Jesus uses stories to illustrate a central theme of the Word:  All good and truth come to us from Him alone, and when we die and go to the other world, our life will be measured by what we have done with His gifts.

The word “talent” as it occurs in these stories can be misleading because it leads us to think that the story is about each person’s special abilities such as an ability to dance or paint or sing. But the people who hear the Lord speaking in the original language would not have been misled. They would have been thinking of an enormous quantity of money. To translate less literally, but with a better sense of what was being taught, we might say the gave his assistant “five (or two) million dollars” to administer in his absence.

We need to move away from an idea of a talent as a gift or skill because it has within the idea of something that is entirely and uniquely our own. We even identify people by their talents – that person is a painter, another is an athlete, and so forth. But money is common to everyone, and it comes to you from someone else, so it represents the goods and truths that we receive from the Lord.

It is also apparent without too much reflection that not everyone receives the same amount of good and truth from the Lord while they live on earth, and we can affect how much we get by the choices we make.

It’s not too much of a stretch to see that kids who grow up in a home where there is family worship, or who attend a school where the Word is taught as a regular part of the curriculum are going to be richer in goods and truths than a child brought up in a non-reverant home and who are never taught the stories of the Word.

But the parable also give a useful balance to that view:  the servant who received 5 talents was able to turn it into another five, and the servant who received only two was also able to double what he received. Even though he started with less, he was able to achieve the same multiplication of goods, and most important, received exactly the same blessing from the king:  “His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ {Mat. 25:21}

From the point of view of your own personal salvation, it’s not where you start so much as what you do with what you have. From the point of view of what contribution one might make to society, however, the one who has more can do more.
It’s probably safe to assume that if asked to summarize the qualities of the first two servants, most people in this congregation (or even the General Church) would probably emphasize the quality of being good, or perhaps answer in terms of being charitable. But what He actually says is that they are “good and faithful.” He’s not just good – he has faith, he’s “faithful.”
The faith alone issue has put a kind of bad flavour on our concept of faith. The formal doctrine of ‘faith alone” is a fairly recent development. Please note that the phrase “faith alone” does not occur in scripture. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor any of the early Christian leaders ever taught faith alone. What we think of as a defining characteristic of the Christian church is in fact a recent addition. Faith alone as a doctrinal movement did not begin until Martin Luther’s revolution against what he saw as the abuses of the Catholic Church.

Very briefly, Martin Luther was himself a Catholic priest who questioned the practice of granting people forgiveness for sins they were going to commit in the future. These permissions were called “indulgences” and were a good money-maker for the church.

Luther became so angry about the process that he began to question to who idea that anything a person could do, not just giving a gift to the church, could affect their eternal salvation. Of course there were many other issues relating to church politics at the time and the question of whether the Pope really did hold the keys to heaven, and could therefore delegate salvation to his priests were also involved in Luther’s rebellion against the church.

Before Luther’s rebellion there were in the Catholic Church, like any other church before or since, people who were more inclined to be doctrinal, and people who were more inclined to be doers, but they were able to coexist peacefully within the same structure. But Luther polarized the Christian Church, and people have been taking sides ever since – and all of them looking to the scriptures to support their particular stance.

Faith Alone as a spiritual failing, rather than a doctrinal position, has always existed. It is represented in the Old Testament by the Philistines, and in the New Testament by the red dragon of Revelation, it pictures an attitude of mind where a person leads himself to think that if he knows something that is good enough.

Certainly, people of the New Church have been tempted to think that because of the fullness and nature of the doctrines that the New Church is better than other churches, and therefore its members are better than the members of other churches. Yet, that very doctrine of which we are so proud teaches over and over that “the tree is known by its fruit” (MAT 12:33).
So, appropriately fearful of the dangers of faith alone, we have tended to side-step the issue of faith. Being faithful is a good thing, something to be encouraged in every way. To be faithful in one’s duties and responsibilities. To be faithful in one’s marriage. To be faithful to God.

In the gospels, there are twenty nine different places where He speaks about the need for us to have faith in Him. Jesus frequently told people that it was their faith in Him that healed them. He condemned others, such as the Pharisees, for not having any faith. When He saw that people had faith in Him, He forgave their sins. (LUK 5:20)

Why this strong emphasis on faith in Him? The cause is the same as the cause for His coming into the world in the first place – the world of men had lost the truth about God, and where there is no truth to be the foundation of the church, faith is its substitute!

The reason the term “faith” is used by the Lord in the Gospels and Revelation is that the Jews did not believe it to be true that He was the Messiah foretold by the prophets; and where truth is not believed, there “faith” is spoken of. (Faith 7)

But still, faith is a good thing. When the rich young man asked Jesus how he could earn eternal life, Jesus said that there were four steps:  Follow the Ten Commandments. Do not allow material possessions and natural pleasures dominate your life (sell all you have). Take care of the people around you – your family, your community (give to the poor).

Since anyone, good or evil, can do these things, at least outwardly so as to appear moral and be able to live in the world, the Lord added the fourth requirement. Do the first three things for no other reason than I have asked you to do them (take up your cross and follow Me).

The Universal of the Christian Faith on the part of man is that he believe in the Lord, for through believing in Him there is effected conjunction with Him, by which comes salvation. To believe in Him is to have confidence that He will save, and as no one can have this confidence except one who lives aright, therefore this also is meant by believing in Him. (Faith 36)

Charity without faith has as little spiritual value as faith without charity. Follow the commandments, live the life of charity, but not because it gives you an edge, not because it is less troublesome, but do these things because the Lord has asked it of you, for conjunction with Him, and thus salvation, only comes through our belief in our need to be saved and His power to save – our faith. We need to ever be mindful of the balance between heart and lungs, love and wisdom, charity and faith.
‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ (Mat 25:21) Amen.

First Lesson:  Mat 25:14-30

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. {15} “And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. {16} “Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. {17} “And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. {18} “But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. {19} “After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. {20} “So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ {21} “His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ {22} “He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ {23} “His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ {24} “Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. {25} ‘And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’ {26} “But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. {27} ‘So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. {28} ‘Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. {29} ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. {30} ‘And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

2nd Lesson:  FAITH 7- 9

7. The reason the term “faith” is used by the Lord in the Gospels and Revelation is that the Jews did not believe it to be true that He was the Messiah foretold by the prophets; and where truth is not believed, there “faith” is spoken of. But still it is one thing to have faith and believe in the Lord, and another to have faith and believe in someone else.…

8. Faith separated from truth came in and took possession of the church along with the papal dominion, because the chief safeguard of that religion was ignorance of truth. For this reason also they forbade the reading of the Word, for otherwise they could not have been worshipped as deities, nor could their saints have been invoked, nor idolatry instituted to such an extent that dead bodies, bones, and sepulchers were regarded as holy, and made use of for purposes of gain. From this it is evident what enormous falsities a blind faith can bring into being.

9. Blind faith survived later with many of the Reformed, because they had separated faith from charity, for they who separate these two must needs be in ignorance of truth, and they will give the name of faith to the mere thought that the thing is so, quite apart from any internal acknowledgment. With these also, ignorance is the safeguard of dogma, for so long as ignorance bears sway, together with the persuasion that theological matters transcend comprehension, they can speak without being contradicted, and it can be believed that their tenets are true, and that they themselves understand them. Amen.
Here end the lessons. Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it.

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