Sermon for Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, November 19 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
I hope, by now, I have made it clear that Matthew’s parables are quite complicated to read, and are too often, and misleadingly, read as allegories, in which one character stands for God, one character stands for us, and everything ends up with eternal punishment for everyone. Today’s parable is another one which can be easily misread, in fact is usually misread, beginning with the identification of God with the travelling master.
Now, not only does the master in this parable behave in a cruel manner, and not only is he described as cruel by others, he himself actually freely admits that he is basically a terrible human being and entirely unfair. So if we persist in reading this parable as a point-for-point allegory in which the master is God, we are going to end up with a very unhealthy theology—God as absentee landlord, who abandons us in the world without useful guidance, then comes back to punish us for not following rules which he never explained, shrugging his divine shoulders and says, “Well, I guess that’s just the way I am.” This is not the God of Jesus, not the God whom we meet in Jesus, and really not a God worth worshipping; so we need to read this story in another way.
I think there may be some reason for seeing the whole of chapter 25 in Matthew as a single unit, and that changes the framing of this story. Last week, of course, we had the parable of the bridesmaids, the story of how we are to behave when crisis arrives, and a warning that such crisis is coming. We move from that story into this parable with the most ambiguous introduction yet — “it is as if.” Not “the kingdom is” or even “the kingdom may be compared to,” but a vague, “it’s like this,” with the “it” left unclear. And immediately following this parable, we have the prophecy of the sheep and the goats, which presents some problems of its own, but which very clearly states that, in our moment of decision, ultimate value, indeed the very being of God, is found with those who have nothing, the very ones apparently excluded and punished at the end of this story.
So it may be that the way we are meant to read this particular parable, in its context, is not as a story about how God is, or about how things should be, but a harsh reflection on how things simply are, right now, in our present world of powers and dominions, in the crisis of decision which our present world sets before us. Because it is clearly true that, here and now, those who have much get more, and those who have little lose even what they have. Our economic system is essentially built on this principle. If we read the story this way, as a story not about how things should be, but about how things are right now, we have an integrated movement between the three passages, from last Sunday, this Sunday, and the next, which actually makes theological sense. A moment of crisis, a moment of moral decision, is immediately in front of us—as this week’s epistle stresses, too. The nature of that crisis is that we live in a world in which the cruel and the wealthy play unfair games with the needy, in which the rich acquire more and more, and the poor have less and less. And our behaviour in this crisis will be judged according to how far we have loved and served and identified with those who have nothing.
The master we see in this story is not God, not even close, but all the masters of the world. Those who have privilege and use it to acquire more privilege, those who manipulate the less powerful into accumulating assets for them—for none of the slaves really ends up any better off, all they get is a pat on the back from a dangerous tyrant, and the chance to continue serving that tyrant until the day he chooses to turn on them too. Even more, the master is not any individual but the complex of social and economic systems which controls us, to which we are all servants, trying to keep up, trying to generate enough wealth that we are not thrown out into the darkness. And in at least a small way, the third slave is the one who resists, who at least is willing to say to the master that this isn’t good, who doesn’t allow himself to be played. And he suffers; because that is what happens to all those who, whether as an act of resistance or a simple accident, do not play money’s cruel games.
This is, of course, quite a long way from the traditional application of this parable, which reads it as an exhortation to use whatever gifts we are given to the glory of God. This reading is partly created by the similarity of the Roman unit of currency, the “talent”, and the word “talent” as we use it, referring to particular gifts or capacities. That overlap of meaning exists comes into English from medieval Latin, but it does not have anything to do with the original text. In Jesus’ time, the meaning of the word was clear and single; the story is straightforwardly about hard currency and market investment.
But the advice most commonly drawn from this story is not bad advice; that’s one reason this reading is so established. We should, by all means, use the givens of our lives and selves to honour God and God’s creation. Do what we can and what we may, joyfully and freely. Sing, write, nurse, cook, love to the glory of God and for the good of the whole body of Christ. And one of the greatest things keeping us from living out our gifts and callings is, precisely, that fear which the third servant call out.
Fear of what power and oppressive systems might do to us. Fear that if we make the “wrong” choices within the economic system; if we make choices about how we use our money based on ethics and morality; if we protest, object, try to call out the injustice of the system; if we choose generosity over greed, if we give away to those who cannot give back rather than invest in the voracious market—then we will lose even what little we have. And fear, too, that if we reveal truths about ourselves, about what we love or who we love, what we dream or desire, we will be cast out. And these are not unrealistic fears, they are quite real and quite serious. One of the ways in which our unjust system maintains itself is by making sure that we are very realistically afraid to risk, to resist, to diverge, to choose otherwise.
And, of course, the fear which comes precisely from the traditional reading of this parable. The fear that comes from imagining God as a tyrant king, setting us tests which we will inevitably fail, and punishing us, severely, irrationally, eternally, for that failure. Far too many of us, somewhere in our psyche, still hold onto that picture of God, hold onto that fear. The fear that the heart of the cosmos is not love but cruelty, punishment, exclusion. This fear can turn us into miniature versions of the imagined God, petty tyrants, grabbing for money or power or recognition at the expense of the weak; or, perhaps more often, shape us into bent little knots of anxiety and pain, into people who dare not give or rejoice or even really be, buried in the dirt of our fear as the coin is buried in the ground.
But if there is one thing we are told more often than anything else in our scriptures, it is this: do not be afraid. Not of the powers of this world, not of the tyrant God of our imaginings. This doesn’t mean that we should be unrealistic—the masters of this world do have the power to do harm, and will do harm, to all those who refuse to play their games; and I do not and cannot ask anyone to put themselves at greater risk than they can bear. But we must risk, nonetheless. We cannot bury ourselves in the dirt of indifference and hope for the best. We must choose to be different, to live differently, to give to those who cannot give back, to choose love over power.
And we must free ourselves from the fear of the God the Master, that shape of human wrongness projected onto the divine, and know that God does not hand out coins and play cruel games, God does not set pass-fail exams and wait for us to slip up, and we do not have to distort our lives and our selves to please that idol. We are not destined for wrath. The God we see in Jesus is a God who comes in self-offering love, and exposes the emptiness of all the powers of the world. The God who sets us free for freedom, and who loves us, loves us always, whose love works within us when we love each other, whose life is our life. The God whose love, whose incarnation and death and resurrection are our escape from the world depicted in this parable. In the safety of this love, we can and must take risks, use our gifts and our dreams and our full true selves, can and must choose to be whole and different, for in this love we are finally, ultimately safe, and always home.