Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, Washington on November 16th, 2014.
The twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, Year A.
I mean, Really? Is Jesus saying that the Kingdom of God is like a greedy slave master; that God is like the ruthless business man in this parable? “Watch out! If you don’t put the gifts God gives you to good use, you will be condemned for all eternity.” Really? Is God so capricious?
The common interpretation of this parable softens it, pointing out how generous the landowner is. These are massive sums of money he is entrusting to his slaves. And the two who risk it – and are lucky enough to win – are generously rewarded. But the one who plays it safe ends up in the outer darkness.
But is that the only way to understand this message?
That rate of return on an investment requires a high level of risk. And it may involve trampling on other people. What if one of the slaves had risked the money and lost it all?
What if Jesus is describing the world, rather than the Kingdom of God? Look at what happens to the poor slave who speaks Truth to Power, telling his master that he is a harsh man who reaps what he did not sow – as is often the case for Truth-tellers, he is cast out. And is is often the case, those who have much get more, and those who have little, lose even that. Maybe Jesus is pointing out what happens when people gain wealth and power over others. Remember, each slave is given an amount of money according to his ability. So the landowner knows that the one who buried it is not as able to manage the money.
What if Jesus is warning against ascribing worldly/ business attributes to God?
What if the master is Life and the talents are God? How does God’s presence allow us to take risks in life? Do we hide God?
So, let’s look a little deeper.
There are a couple of contexts to consider here. First, for Jesus and the disciples, this is happening during Holy Week. They have entered Jerusalem with a lot of fanfare. In just two days’ time, they will celebrate the Passover, and Jesus will be betrayed. Since his arrival in the city, Jesus has been teaching in the Temple and in the street, challenging the money changers, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and now he’s speaking privately with his disciples. He’s talking about the End Times and Judgment Day. He keeps driving home the point that no one knows when it will come, but there will be signs. He tells parable after parable about the coming Judgment.
Now, the other context to consider is that of Matthew’s audience. They have already seen the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem. Many of the signs Jesus spoke of have occurred. They expected that Jesus would be returning soon, but it’s been decades. And many of their number are dying. When will Jesus come?
Matthew offers some comfort, reminding them that Jesus said he didn’t even know; that no one knows except the Father. So live as if it would happen tomorrow.
Matthew recounts Jesus’ parables about the end time and about judgment. If we were to look closely, we would see the stakes escalating. He starts with a seemingly random, one is taken and one is left. Then he tells of the ten wedding attendants and apparently each is on their own to save themselves, but they have the ability to do so.
Today, we have the slaves who must risk and earn a ridiculous return on ridiculous sums of money. A talent is 15 years of wages for a laborer. Even the one who received one talent was entrusted with a very large amount of money!
Next week we’ll hear about the sheep and the goats. And we’ll realize that every single one of us is a sheep. And every single one of us is a goat.
Well, if that’s how it is, I might as well pack it in and go home. There’s no point in even trying. And maybe that is the point.
Now one of the characteristics of Matthew’s writing is his use of hyperbole to make a point. What if the point is to let go of fear; to stop trying to win God’s favor. You already have it. Yes, we will be held to account for our lives. Mabye Jesus is saying to engage it. Now. To fully live, to risk, even.
I read a story this week about a woman sitting for a portrait. The artist engaged her in conversation to get to know her a little. He asked her, “What is your greatest fear?” She gave an “obvious” response. But he challenged her, “That’s not it. Something more personal.”
After some thought, it dawned. “What I fear most is getting to the end of my life and realizing that I had been too fearful – too careful – that I never really used my talents.” “That’s it,” he said.
Yes. That’s it. I can relate. What if Jesus is offering salvation from that fear?
The Thessalonians are worried too. When will Jesus come again? Now, Paul is writing much earlier than Matthew. This letter is written around the year 50, approximately 20 years before the fall of Jerusalem. They had expected Jesus to return by now, certainly! The church is suffering persecution and they, too, are worried about what will happen to their loved ones who have already died.
Paul offers comfort. He reminds them, ‘you are children of light, of the daytime; destined for salvation. Even though the world seems dark, encourage one another, build up each other. Live without fear, but in Hope.
When we dig down into these readings, we find a fullness of Hope. Hope that can dispel the darkness of the world.
One of my favorite Ted Talks is steeped in Hope. It’s called “If I Should Have a Daughter…” by Sarah Kay.
She is a spoken word poet and she begins her talk with this poem. It starts out,
If I should have a daughter, instead of “Mom,” she’s gonna call me “Point B,” because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me.”
The poem goes on to talk about life – the joy and wonder and awe; the pain and heartache and heartbreak. How her hands are too small to catch all the pain she wants to fix. That when life knocks the wind out of you, your lungs are reminded how much they love the sweet taste of air. And that
“there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.”
She says she wants to tell her “that this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily, but don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.”
And at the end of the poem she says, “And when they finally hand you heartache, when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street-corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.”
In her poem, I hear the voice of God.
“If I should have a daughter,… she’s gonna call me “Point B” because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me” [and I’ll send Jesus to be her GPS]
“this world is made out of sugar… don’t be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it.”
“when they slip war and hatred under your door and offer you handouts on street-corners of cynicism and defeat, you tell them that they really ought to meet your mother.”
You tell them, that they really ought to meet your family; they really ought to meet your brother, Jesus Christ.