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Our Responsibility for Temporal Talents

Juhani Uljas | 2000 The Treasure Hidden In a Field --

Gifts Include Responsibility

Jesus related a parable about a master, some servants, and talents, which the master had entrusted to them (Matt. 25:14-30). The master is God, the servants are people, and the talents are the gifts that God has given them.

The parable teaches us that the gifts have responsibility attached to their use. God did not give them just for our own joy and benefit, but also so that his purposes would be fulfilled in our lives. The master trusted his servants and gave them great freedom in their actions but did not free them from responsibility. Freedom and responsibility are part of a person's life. The greater the freedom, the greater the responsibility. Responsibility separates man from other creatures.

God gave the rest of creation into man's care (Gen. 1:26). In this portion of the creation narrative, man's freedom and responsibility are described perhaps the most broadly. God did not give man the right to spoil and destroy nature or the rest of creation, but he called man to assist Him in cultivating and caring for the earth. What will we answer as members of mankind, when once we will be asked how we have taken care of this duty? Our heads will probably drop down, and we will not be able to defend ourselves with anything. Selfishness, greed, and shortsighted pursuit of one's own benefit have destroyed that which we should have tended.

In the parable, the master gave varying amounts of talents, but all received at least one. The talent, as it is translated in the New [Finnish] Church Bible, was a very large coin. It equaled 6,000 denarii, and one denarius was the regular daily wage for a man. One talent, therefore, equaled approximately what a workman could earn during his lifetime. We could also consider that the talent, which all of the servants received for their use, was their temporal life. Every person is responsible for his life, independent of whether he is conscious of it or not.

God has equipped us for the sake of living. In the Small Catechism, Luther explains the First Article of The Creed, “I believe that God has made me and all other creatures; that he has given and still preserves to me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses.” God does not “clone.” He has not created two identical persons, but rather every person is an individual. God has His purpose and plan for every person. He has given everyone precisely those gifts necessary to realize that purpose.

We often trivialize our own gifts and are jealous of the gifts of others. Sometimes, on the other hand, we overvalue our own abilities and skills. The cause of both behaviors is our own pride. We would want to be better than others. However, God's Word exhorts us to reasonably value ourselves and our gifts (Rom. 12:3). Sometimes we turn down a duty offered us, thinking, “Let others who have better gifts do it.” Are we then like that servant, who received one talent and buried it in the ground?

People Were Created to Be With Each Other

The gifts, which God has given us, also include those close to us. God did not create people to be alone but to be together. God's statement, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18), primarily means a spouse in marriage, but it also covers the family circle, all other people, and interaction with them. Our responsibility for the gifts that God has given us includes our relationship to our neighbors. God's Word guides us to love our neighbors and to act in their best interest. Living together with other people gives purpose and content to our lives, while loneliness and selfishness bring distress and emptiness.

When we work with other people and in their best interest, we can use our God-given gifts as He has intended. However, connection with other people brings not only content and good fortune into our lives, but often problems, as well. When we do not know how we should act, we can remember from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus' advice known as the Golden Rule: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).

We have a tendency to limit the circle to which our neighborly love extends. We are similar to the scribe, who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). The person, who asked the question, probably had his own answer ready: his neighbors were the Jews, and the closest among them were those who followed the Mosaic Law as interpreted by the scribes and the Pharisees. The Gentiles, sinners, and publicans were left outside this man's love toward his neighbor. Jesus answered his question with the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan and concluded His teaching with the words, “Go and do thou likewise.” In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extended the love toward our neighbor to include even our enemies.

In Luther's time, the Catholic Church had developed in such a way that spiritual and temporal life were separate from each other. Luther opposed justification by works, as well as shutting God out of temporal life. To him, the workday life had been intended and given by God. The concept of a continuously active God and a living, ever-present Christ characterized Luther's framework of thought. Luther's concept of Scripture rises from this foundation. To him, Creation and Redemption were not two separate matters, but he looked at Creation in the light of Redemption. Justification by faith is the foundation. When God justifies a person alone by faith, alone by grace, and alone by the merit of Christ, a person is freed to serve his neighbor. Faith is weighed by our everyday life.

Work Is a God-Given Duty

Work is a duty that God has given to man; therein He has hidden His blessing. Work includes responsibility, whether we do the work in someone's employ or as an independent entrepreneur. The greater our freedom, the greater our responsibility. Paul advised the Christians of his time, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Eph. 6:5-7). He continued, “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). These admonitions from God's Word also apply to today's work life.

We do not perform work only for our daily bread, but also because we serve our neighbors and are God's work companions, His subordinates, in governing this temporal world. To Luther, work was part of the calling. Because of the deep significance of work, unemployment is a difficult problem. Unemployment assistance only partially removes the detrimental effects of joblessness. However, there is reason to remember that our worth as a person is not measured by how productive we are or how great an income our work produces. If we think incorrectly in this, we do not remember that, in Jesus' parable, the servants each received a different number of talents. Even when unemployed, we can do beneficial work and work in the calling that God gives.

Education Is a Gift From God

We live in an education-minded society. Earlier, education was the privilege of only a few and the period for education was strictly limited. When one's education ended, the student was ready for his vocation, which he practiced until he retired. It is different now. An education is everyone's right, more time is used in getting it, and it is continuing. Because of the changes in society, and production, new duties and vocations are born, and, at the same time, the old vocations may become obsolete. Retraining is necessary.

It is not self-evident that everyone experiences education as a gift and a privilege. Sometimes, it may feel that it is a waste of time and a hindrance. One may want to get straight to work to earn money to fulfill needs and hopes that seem so important. Such thinking is shortsighted. During our youth, studying is often the work and duty that God has intended for us. Through it, we obtain the knowledge and skills which we will need later. We cannot measure an education's value only by how well-paying a job we can get with it. Even if earnings do not grow, education broadens our intellectual horizons and enriches our lives. When I think of my own life and studies, it is almost humorous to note that the so-called professional subjects have provided me only limited benefit. Instead, the liberal arts courses have been many times more beneficial to me than I thought in my youth. I regret my laziness in studying foreign languages.

Study also brings out the varied gifts of different measure that God has given us. Responsibility increases with one's gifts. If we have received abundantly, we do not have reason to be proud, for the gifts have been given by God. If we feel that we have received fewer gifts, they also can be developed. God has not left anyone without gifts, nor has anyone received too few gifts. It doesn't pay to leave our gifts unused, in other words, it doesn't pay to bury our talent in the ground.

Often, the place where we want to study does not open for us, although we may apply several times. It is difficult to be satisfied with this and to apply elsewhere. It is difficult to give up dreams, especially when they are genuine and well-founded. Even in these situations, it is good to remember that God leads our lives in more detail than we notice. I have experienced this, myself. When I have understood the matter in retrospect, there has been reason to thank God for the doors that He has closed, and for those that He has opened.

When the master arrived, he called the servants to account for themselves. Those, who had taken care of their talents in the manner that the master intended, were called to His joy. On the other hand, that servant, who had hidden his talent in the ground, lost that too. The parable makes us accountable for the use of our own gifts. Responsibility and accountability are matters that can easily oppress us. We feel that we have neglected the care of the talents entrusted to us.

The correct care of the talents is the same as bearing fruit. So that we would understand what is under consideration, we have reason to remember the teaching of Jesus about the vine and its branches, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me” (John 15:4). The question is not that we be skilled and accomplish much, but that we would be partakers of Christ through faith. When we can remain as living branches in Christ, the Vine, God can accomplish His own purpose in our lives. Even for us it becomes true what Paul said of his activities as a worker in God's kingdom and as the apostle to the Gentiles, “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). The reward, which the master gives his servants, is the reward of grace.

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