“Holy Orders and Positions” – Vocation

I’m going to focus on today’s reading from Matthew 25:14-30 and the topic of vocation, but I’ll get there in a round-about way.

First, though, I want to talk about the Lutheran Catechism, and I promise that it’ll lead us back to the Gospel.

Now, the Bible is our sole source of theology, since it is God’s Word.  Then, as Lutherans we use the Catechism as a guide to expressing this theology in an easy to understand way.  This is because the Catechism isn’t so much a dictionary of theological terms or teachings; instead, it frames a worldview of faith that makes sense of the world and helps us to live within it.

This is why the Catechism begins with the Ten Commandments.  It shows us our need for faith, because we will have a god no matter what.  We treat something as our god when we look to it for all good things and place our trusts and hopes in it.  Our god is therefore what we have faith in.  This could be money, a person, ourselves, or any number of things.  But the Lord in the First Commandment calls us to have Him only as our God.  Everything else follows from this First Commandment.  However, we as sinful and fallen creatures tend to make other things into our gods, and effectively fashion gods for ourselves.  This is a symptom of our broken relationship with the Lord.

The Lord, though, has fixed our relationship with Him so that we may call on Him as our God.  This is why the Catechism has the Apostles’ Creed after the Ten Commandments.  The Commandments show us our need for faith, while the Creed shows us the gift of faith that the Lord has given us.  The Creed recounts the fact that the Lord created us and all things, sent His Son to die and rise for us, and gathers us together as His people through His Holy Spirit.  The Creed therefore recounts the actions of our Triune God for us.  Thus, it frames a worldview whereby we know that we have been created by God, that we were separated from him due to our inherited sin from Adam and Eve, but that God has brought us back to Himself through the work of His Son and His Holy Spirit.  God has done it all.  He has acted for you, for us.

The Catechism then has the Lord’s Prayer after the Creed.  This is our cry of faith.  So, the Commandments show us our need for faith and our inability to make the Lord our God through our own efforts.  The Creed shows us God’s gift of faith to us, whereby He has fixed our relationship with Him so that He may be our God.  Then, the Lord’s Prayer shows us how to cry out to the Lord, for by crying out to Him in prayer we are treating Him as our God, because – again – a god is the thing or person to whom you look for all good things and in whom you trust.  When we pray to the Lord, we treat Him as our God, because we look to Him for all good things and we place our trust in Him.

Then, the Catechism includes sections on Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, because it is through these means that God assures us of His forgiveness and absolves us of all our sins for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ.  In all these sections of the Catechism, we see that the Lord is always the one giving and we are always the ones receiving.  He bestows upon us the gifts of life, sustenance, and salvation.  Everything we have comes from Him.

So, in light of what the Lord has done for us, how are we to respond?  He has created us; redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil; called us as His own people and now sustains us as His people.  He has given us all things freely.  How then are we to respond to His grace?

Well, we respond in two ways.  One way is to pray to Him; this exercises our vertical relationship with Him, treating Him as our God.  So, the Catechism then includes a section on Daily Prayer.  These are suggested prayers that bookend the day with morning and evening prayers, and prayers for each meal.  We remember when we wake up, when we go to sleep, and when we eat that our life and all things we have were given to us by God.  So, we cry out to Him in praise and thanksgiving and ask for His continued blessings.

So, prayer connects us vertically with God.  But, we have another dimension to our lives as humans.  We are connected horizontally with other people, both Christians and non-Christians.  Whereas prayer connects us with God, our lives and work in the world connect us with other people.  So, the Catechism then has a section called the “Table of Duties,” which is sometimes called the “Chart of Christian Callings.”

This Table of Duties in the Catechism is what I want to draw attention to today in the context of the reading from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 25:14-30).  The Table of Duties reminds us of what we are called to do in the horizontal realm of our relationships with other people.  To do this, it contains various passages of Scripture as they pertain to certain callings in life.  Martin Luther introduces the Table of Duties by calling it, “Certain passages of scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.”

Luther then lists various callings such as pastors, citizens, government, husbands, wives, parents, children, employers, and employees.  Notice that he calls all of these “holy orders and positions.”  Sometimes we tend to think of a “holy” calling as pastor or bishop, but in fact all God-pleasing vocations are holy, because God calls us into these vocations and sets us aside to fill them.  So, whether you are a chef, an electrician, a soldier, a policeman, a fireman, a plumber, a truck driver, an engineer, a writer, a student, a teacher, a pilot, a boat captain, a fisherman, or any number of other things, these are holy because in these jobs you are serving other people.  You are living out your life in this horizontal realm in service to your neighbors.  Likewise, when you are a faithful husband, wife, parent, or child, you are living out life in this horizontal realm in the way in which God has called you to live.  Our duty and requirement in this horizontal realm is summarized by “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Herein are comprehended all the commandments.”

So, Jesus too, in his parable in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel today also refers to this dual dimension of our lives as people; that is to say, our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with other people.  Jesus tells of a man who entrusted his property to his servants.  He gave one servant five talents, another two, and another one.  A talent was a unit of weight used for money that was equivalent to about 71 pounds.  So, it was quite a lot of money that the man entrusted to his servants – it was all his property.

So, the first servant used the talents his master had given him to increase it by five additional talents.  The second servant did likewise and increased it by two more talents.  Both of these servants used what was given to them and doubled it.  But, the third servant didn’t make use of the talent that was given to him and instead hoarded it; therefore he did not increase his master’s property.

So, when the master returned, he was happy with the first two servants and told them: “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

But, to the third servant who offered only excuses for his failure to properly steward his master’s property, he said, “You wicked and slothful servant!  You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.”

Then, the master said, “So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.  But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

If we think back to the Table of Duties again and the summary of all these duties, it is to love our neighbor as ourself.  But, by reflecting on the Ten Commandments, we see that this is not possible for us to do this by nature.  We are born in sin and can not love God or our neighbor unless God makes it so.  We see in the Creed, then, that God has fixed our relationship with Him: His Son came to die for our sins and defeated sin, death, and the devil on our behalf in his resurrection.  So, through Christ’s death and resurrection he has brought us back to God; He has fixed our broken vertical relationship with God.

And, now that this vertical relationship is restored, God works through us to fix our horizontal relationships with other people.  Our faith in God, which God gifts to us, enables us to love our neighbor.  Good works flow from faith.  Grace flows down from God to us and then outward to others as we live out our vocations in the world.

Jesus also talked about this in chapter 15 of John’s Gospel.  He told his disciples that he is the vine and you are the branches.  Think of a vine growing upwards, vertically, and then the branches sprouting out to the sides, horizontally.  We have been grafted onto the vine of Christ through faith, and so just as a grape vine naturally produces grapes, you too naturally produce good works as a result of your faith.  And just as the grapes ripen not for the benefit of the vine or the branches, but for the benefit of others, so too do your good works ripen not for the benefit of God or for the benefit of yourselves, but for the benefit of others.

St. James also made this connection between faith and works in his epistle where he wrote: “… faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).  His point was that if we have faith in God, then our works will naturally flow out of this faith.  If we don’t have faith, then we expect to see dead works, just as when a grape vine is unhealthy we do not get good fruit from the vine.

So, this is what Jesus is talking about in his parable.  You are the servants, he is the master.  He has given you his property and entrusted you to care for it – we call this stewardship.  All that we have was given to us by God – everything is His, because He created it.  And yet He entrusts us to care for it and use it properly.  So, when we use it for the benefit of His creation, when we live out our callings or vocations faithfully, serving our neighbor and those entrusted to us, then we please God.  This is not a work whereby we earn God’s favor or forgiveness, though, because we already have this freely through Christ as a gift of God’s grace.  But, this is a work that pleases God because we are living as He means us to live.  We are living out lives of faith, producing fruit that is beneficial to others, good works that are beneficial to our neighbors.

We are multiplying the talents God has entrusted to us.  We take what God has given to us and increase it for the benefit of His creation and to His honor and glory.  Whatever we have been blessed with by the Lord, we increase it through our works of faith.

But, if we do not have faith, then we squander what the Lord has given us.  Like the unfaithful servant, we hoard the Lord’s property and do not increase it, because we do not have faith.  And so “… from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” – the one who has no faith will lose everything, because he will remain separated from the Lord and outside His presence.

But, the one who has faith will naturally produce good works.  And these good works will be done in service to our neighbors – the faithful servant lives out a life in accordance with the Lord’s will in service to others, as, for example, articulated by Luther in the Table of Duties.  The faithful servant brings some of the restoration that Christ has brought and gives it to others.  He shines the light of Christ into a darkened world.

You see, by serving in your vocations, you are the hands of God on this earth.  God works through you to bless others, just as He has worked through His creation to bless us.  Indeed, God comes to us Himself through the Gospel we hear, read, taste, and touch.  And He works through you to bring His love and care to others.

This is why Luther called all vocation “holy orders.”  God has sanctioned work in this world, because He created this world, He created you, and He has called you into your various vocations; that’s actually the meaning and connotation of the word “vocation.”  And by serving in these vocations faithfully, you are doing His work in the world.  You are tending it and exercising stewardship over it.  Every day you carry out the tasks the Lord has given you in your vocations.  So, you are truly engaged in “God’s work” through these “holy orders.”

And the Lord will work in the world in this way, through His creation, through His people, through you, until He returns for you.  And on that day, he will say to you: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master.”  And because He has made you His own by His grace through faith for the sake of Christ, you will dwell with Him forever.  And your work will then be done as God completes the good work He began in you (cf. Philippians 1:6).  Amen.


(Image: Parable of the Talents, Tapestry from c. 15th century, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6831990 )