Giving Thanks and Getting to Work 11/19/17

Giving Thanks and Getting to Work
Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
November 19, 2017

 

Let’s just start here: this parable confuses me, even after all the many times I’ve encountered it and thought about it. I don’t like what it seems to be saying. And I get kind of angry when I read it – which I’m forced to do at least once every three years, when it comes up in the lectionary.

First, there’s this. The first two servants took the master’s money and traded with it to make more money. Now this is appropriate behavior if you are an investment banker or stock broker, I suppose. But these guys were not that. We have no reason to believe they had any expertise in high stakes trading. So how is it that gambling with someone else’s money is worthy of praise?

Second, there’s this. The third servant is cautious with the master’s money. After all, this was a lot of money – a single talent was worth about twenty years’ wages. If he lost it in a risky venture, he would never be able to pay it back. Not having been told what to do with the money, and not wanting to risk losing it all, he buries it and keeps it safe. When he returns, the master receives exactly what he gave to the slave in the first place: a single talent. That seems reasonable to me; it is not, however, acceptable in the sight of the master, who chastises the slave: “as for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!” (v. 30)

Adding further insult to injury, in my mind, is that this third servant did only what was expected of him. Note that the opening of the parable tells us that the landowner gave each slave a sum of money according to his own ability to deal with it (v. 15). Since this third and final slave received the smallest sum of money, one can assume that the master didn’t expect him to do much with it – or he would have given him more. So not only did this slave do something which seems to me to be fairly reasonable, but he even did exactly what the landowner expected him to do – and still he was punished!

As I said: I don’t like this parable.

As we know, much of Jesus’ teaching came in the form of parables – short fictional stories meant to convey some kind of larger, deeper, truer meaning than the story might suggest at first glance.

It’s tempting to turn the parables into a kind of Aesop’s Fable: a straightforward story with a simple moral. If we read this parable that way, then perhaps the moral of the story is, “always make as much money as possible, no matter how you get there.” Or maybe it’s right there for us in those final lines of the parable: “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.” Is that Jesus’ point when he tells this parable?

It can also be tempting to turn the parables into an allegory. In that case, we see each element of the story as symbolizing or representing something in our own lives. So in today’s parable, if we read it as an allegory, the master might represent God and the servants represent us – and we’re meant to be more like the first two servants, who are praised, and less like the third one, who is despised. And yet, the third servant is afraid, and maybe with good reason: according to him, the master is harsh (v. 24). If the master is indeed harsh, isn’t it reasonable to be afraid of him? Is that Jesus’ point?

Further, if we continue in our allegorical reading, we must draw the conclusion that God is one to be feared for God is harsh, judgmental, perhaps expecting too much of us and unforgiving when we fail. And if that is true – if God/the master is truly harsh and punishing – then how are we to be anything but afraid? And if we can’t trust even God, it follows that surely we can’t trust the people and things of this world. Again, if that is indeed Jesus’ point, which it seems to be when we read the parable as a straightforward allegory, then no wonder this parable feels like a hard and unwelcome teaching.

But a parable is neither a fable nor an allegory. Parables “hide the truth so that we need to do more than simply “hear with our ears” or “read with our eyes” on a literal level; “we have to invest ourselves in an imaginative search for meaning – a meaning that will surprise us when we discover (dis-cover or unhide) it for ourselves.” [1]

Maybe this isn’t a warning about how we’re supposed to behave in light of God’s nature, which is to say more like the first two servants and less like the third – the first two servants who do what is right in order to receive God’s praise and not suffer God’s wrath. Perhaps instead this parable is a warning about how we think about God. Scholar David Lose says:

…If we imagine God primarily as stern, even angry, and given to dispensing a terrifying and harsh justice, we will likely come to believe that everything bad in our lives is punishment from God. Similarly, if we see God as arbitrary and capricious, that’s what we experience, a fickle and unsympathetic God who meets our expectations. [2]

The warning of the parable seems to me to be this: the third servant’s error is not that he buries the money and doesn’t do anything with it. His mistake is in his misunderstanding of who God is. He has replaced the God of Grace with a different god: the god of fear.

This past year seems like it has been filled with fear – and we as a nation and maybe as individuals here in this room – keep worshipping at fear’s fiendish altar. I love what the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, has to say about fear. She says:

The way the god of fear works is it looms large in our subconscious. It eats up humanity. It makes us say, “wow, those immigrants are coming for our jobs,” or “God, if we can have a Black man in the White House the world really has gone crazy, what happened to the good old days?,” or “if we let a trans child go to the bathroom to which they feel comfortable then maybe our child will be queer,” or “the North Koreans are coming,” or… [3]

And that fear makes us feel powerless. It makes us unable to trust ourselves or our neighbors. Worse, it makes us unable to trust that God is gracious and loving and good. So we contract in like a turtle pulling her head into her shell. We gather our tribe around us and we shut the doors, defending ourselves against the “other,” whoever that “other” may be.

In our hiding, we withdraw from the world. When we worship the god of fear, we become convinced that we are powerless to change anything. And wow, that locked room of fear sure is a depressing place to live. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself in that prison of my own making plenty of times this past year and it’s hard to live that way.

So how do we stop worshipping at the altar at the false god of fear? I believe that we can begin with gratitude. When we pause long enough to notice the blessings small and big that we received throughout the day our hearts begin to open. We begin to see goodness in our lives and in the world – which helps us turn away from the false god of fear and toward the true God of grace and love – a God of abundant blessings, extravagant love, and endless second chances.

This isn’t to say that gratitude means we have to ignore those things that are hard. Ignoring the problems in our lives and in the world doesn’t make them go away, and our refusal to deal with them is as much a way of hiding in our shells as is a complete withdrawal in fear. So we name them. We look at them. We shine some light on them.

After all, the best disinfectant is sunlight.

Grounded in gratitude, looking at the problems in the world and ourselves and our families doesn’t lead to despair. It doesn’t lead to cynicism. After all, if there is good in the world, if there are ways that some things have changed for the better, then there is hope that these things too may change.

And when we begin to find hope once again, we stop telling ourselves we can’t make a difference. We stop telling ourselves that the problems of our world, of our community, even of our own families are too big for us to make even the smallest change. We start to trust that this God of abundance has already given us all we need to work with God to make God’s kingdom a little more of a reality, right here and now. We start to trust that we are, in fact, enough.

When I feel hopeless and defeated by the ills of the world or the troubles in my own life or the lives of those I love, I find myself coming back time and again to Marianne Williamson’s poem, “Our Greatest Fear.” She writes:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others. [4]

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Rev. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, p. 45.

[2] Dr. David Lose, “Pentecost 24A: What You See Is What You Get,” …in the meantime, 17 Nov. 2017.

[3] Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, “A False God,” That’ll Preach from Middle Collegiate Church, 9 Nov. 2017.

[4] Marianne Williamson, “Our Deepest Fear,” A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles.”

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