Sunday, November 19, 2017
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 28)
Investing What Is Offered
God of the covenant, even when we fall into sin, your Spirit invites us to remember that chose us to be your servant people. Awaken us to the power and gifts you pour into us for the good of creation, and grant that we may be trustworthy in all things, producing abundantly as we work to build your realm. Amen.
All Readings for this Sunday:
Judges 4:1-7 with Psalms 123 or
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 with Psalms 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
[And Jesus said:] "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
"After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
"Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
1. What do you think the foolish bridesmaid (from last week's reading) would say to the "worthless" servant?
2. How does our image of God affect the way we live?
3. What would it look like to "become totally fire"?
4. Do you think of risk-taking as a virtue?
5. How could you be part of letting the gospel loose in the world?
by Kate Matthews
Jesus' parables are often challenging. Invariably, one scholar insists that we need to avoid a given interpretation of the parable, while another presents that "incorrect" interpretation in a persuasive and helpful way. So I remind myself that parables are stories with layers, or perhaps many facets of meaning, stories that can be heard in different settings in different ways, stories that come with a warning that I once heard years ago: if you believe that you know "the" meaning of a parable, you can be assured that you're mistaken.
This week's parable, the second of three in a row in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, is no exception: it's as challenging as last week's story about the foolish virgins who weren't prepared for the bridegroom's delayed arrival. To those of us who breathe the very air of capitalism, this week's story about servants giving an accounting to their master could sound like a warning from Jesus to invest our money well, or at the very least to deposit it in the bank for interest!
A story about "something more"
However, the story isn't about money, of course: money is the illustration Jesus uses, but as always the meaning is surely much deeper than mere cash or bank balances. Consider the parable's setting in Matthew's Gospel: as Jesus nears his death, would he really be exhorting his disciples to invest their money well? We suspect he would not, so the story must be about "something more." Like the other parables we have been studying, this is about how to live "in the meantime," until the Reign of God, or, as Marcus Borg always loved to say, the Dream of God, comes in its fullness.
We often interpret this story to be about "talents" in the sense of personal gifts and abilities that God expects us to use well--for the sake of the Reign of God, of course. (Several scholars point out that the word "talent," which was a unit of money in the ancient world, came into the English language from this very parable, because of this interpretation.) Use our talents well and good things happen, including amazing growth: in us, as well as in the Reign of God. Bury them, leave them unexercised, and we end up out in the cold. The parable would be about things like responsibility and accountability, then: putting our resources and our talents to good use.
Certainly, that reading does not exhaust the story's meaning
It helps to read this parable with the other two, and to read all three in light of where Jesus is on his journey. He's preparing to leave his disciples, knowing that there will be a long "meantime" until he returns, a meantime in which they will have to live. In the Gospels, there are passages where Jesus speaks with great love and reassurance when he's leaving the disciples. We are often comforted by the words, "Do not fear," in the Bible. But then there are these parables that discomfort and even, at times, warn us.
In last week's reflection, Fred Craddock suggested that parables can "present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other." All three of our parables in this chapter seem to be about justice and consequences, including this story about talents, enterprising or lazy servants, and an anticipated reckoning when the One we await returns.
How much will it take?
As Jesus leaves his parting instructions, Charles Cousar says, he uses these stories to address the things that are uppermost on his mind: "faithfulness, preparedness, and risk." Oil is the image in last week's passage, and money is used this week. If hyperbole is exaggeration for effect, Jesus' story certainly makes his point by using sums of money that would have been fantastic to his hearers. How much, we wonder, would it take to impress us today, when even "a trillion dollars" has lost its impact? Many years, many generations could have lived off the talents in this story; L. Susan Bond notes, "The word used for 'possessions' (hyparxonta) includes not only material goods but one's entire substance and life."
Can you imagine how it would feel to bequeath your "entire substance and life" to another? Bond describes this as "a sacrificial gift of epic proportions," and when we remember the setting of our text, on the way to Jesus' death, it takes on even more power. And "the man" gives them not equally to the three servants but to each "according to his ability." The word translated as "ability" is dynamis, or "power." We're intrigued to think about the power within each servant, within each of us, and how we use it, or how we bury it. Not just talent, but power. (I admit that I stumble on this phrase, because it almost feels like the third servant was set up to fail. Were his cowardice and lack of creativity predictable?)
Characters in conversation
Andrew Warner, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, has written a thoughtful reflection on this text, beginning with a question that's perhaps a bit whimsical: "Did the 'worthless slave' know the story of the foolish bridesmaids?" It's an imaginative approach, because characters in parables are, of course, not historical figures; in fact, Warner calls the servant a "caricature, a foil for you and for me, someone who shows our own potential for folly."
But wouldn't it be interesting if a foolish bridesmaid and the unwise servant could have a conversation? Warner observes that it's understandable that the servant would "focus on preserving his money." However, "[i]t turns out that preservation is not the same as preparation, and endurance is not simply ending up where you started." L. Susan Bond observes that the master, upon his return, "begins his critique not against the empire, and not against unbelievers, but against his own too-timid slave." She also suggests that the unfortunate slaves is not sentenced to punishment in the afterlife but in life here and now, when "our sense of safety and security" is taken from us. How often have we tried to cling to that safety and security in making decisions, instead of being willing to take risks for the sake of the gospel?
Sharing "the wealth" of our gifts: a question of circulation
One layer of meaning in the story addresses what's going on inside the third servant, and his commitment, courage and worldview. Is he lazy, or stupid, or immobilized by fear? (Some might say yes to all three.) The lesson we can learn from the story about money and loans is to put our gifts into circulation. This parable, Richard Bauckham writes, "compares the use of all God has given one...in God's service, with the use of a financial loan in order to make a profit for the investor." If we hoard and hide money, it doesn't do what it's supposed to do; in the same way, Bauckham says, "what God has given us--our selves, our lives, our faith, our abilities, our gifts, our possessions--is given in order to be spent and put into circulation," in order to be "the source of further blessings for others and for ourselves."
It's no wonder, then, that this is often read as a stewardship text. But how often do we hear a preacher, for example, bring "courage" into a sermon on giving and generosity? The third servant's fear prevented him from taking the risks of a life fully lived, which followers of Jesus understand as a faithful life that follows Jesus no matter what may lie ahead, remembering that what lay ahead for Jesus was suffering and death, and resurrection as well. Bauckham writes that God's gifts are similarly given to us "to be risked in new ventures in God's service. Every new step in living for God is a risk." (I've heard of "risky living"; might we engage in "risky giving"?)
The tension: preservation, or preparation?
In keeping with the theme of the stewardship of money, then, Warner creatively uses the example of church endowments, and the tension between preservation (of the money) and preparation (for the master's return). He sees the money entrusted to the servants as "amazing--a reckless, unearned, unheard-of trust." The first two "responded with daring, courageously doubling both the principal of the bequest and the principle behind it. The worthless slave did not understand what he'd been given."
Warner's challenge might unnerve many a church leader and longtime member: "When we are called to account, the question will not be how it is that we preserved the balance sheet or the bricks and mortar, but whether we emulated others' daring and doubled it, taking audacious action to preserve principle over principal."
How do we see God?
Thomas Long dependably provides a slightly different angle of approach, focusing on the way the third servant sees others, in this case, his master. We might say his worldview produces exactly the results he expects, that is, "he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see." Like Cousar, Long speaks of consequences, in this case, the consequences of one's faith.
His reflection is as chilling as the final verse of the parable: "[T]o be a child of the generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, nonetheless, to insist up on viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear provoking is to live a life that is tragically impoverished," while those who trust in God's generosity "find more and more of that generosity; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed along, quivering in endless fear" (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Stewarding the gospel
As valuable as all of these insights are, I think we could also read in this parable a very important lesson about how to live "in the meantime," before Jesus returns. Yes, courage and generosity and good stewardship of our resources are all part of the picture, but the big picture is one of a transformed life, as individuals and as a church. When Matthew wrote his Gospel, Cousar reminds us, he wasn't necessarily talking about the risk of losing money or being hurt in a relationship, but the risk of preaching the gospel, openly sharing the good news in a world often hostile to its message, "rejecting the lure of security, with its logic of fear and intimidation, and taking the risk of discipleship, with its dangers and perils." This is stewardship beyond money: a stewardship of the gospel itself.
It's perhaps important to note that many people think of "stewardship" as a kind of holding/keeping/care that might slip into hoarding. (I find myself using the term "practicing good stewardship" when I use every last bit of the candles that I can manage to light.) I wonder, though, if we might imagine good and wise and generous spending of resources as "good stewardship." We might even dare to understand taking risks as good stewardship, if it's done with faith and hope and imagination and creativity. Risk and spending can require courage just as much as keeping and guarding what is valuable and therefore, powerful. In any case, I struggle with what this parable is teaching me.
Keeping faith, or burying it?
How often we choose to bury our faith, our relationship with God, the gospel itself, or at least tuck it away in some hidden place, and just take it out on Sundays and emergency situations! How much better if our whole life were affected, changed, transformed by living out our baptism, by responding every day to the call of the Stillspeaking God.
A story always says this sort of thing better, and I remember reading the story long ago about one of the Desert Fathers from early, early Christianity, when people were driven by faith into the wilderness to live with very little material comfort but with tremendous spiritual riches. One day a young monk came to Abba Joseph and asked him what more he could do, since he was already doing some fasting, and some praying, and some work, mostly weaving baskets. The holy man responded, the story goes, by raising his hands, and fire shot out from his fingers as he responded to the young man with this great challenge: "Why not become totally fire?"
The story may stir our spirits, but how well does it describe the faith of our congregations and the whole church? Are we going along, doing some fasting and praying and basket-weaving, but not "becoming totally fire"? Is our faith life more about safety and reassurance and security, or is it about risk-taking and openness and courage, and the unimaginable abundance to which these virtues lead? Have we even thought of such things as virtues? Are we willing to let the gospel loose in the world? Are we willing to be a blessing to the world?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
John Lubbock, 19th century
"If we are ever in doubt about what to do, it is a good rule to ask ourselves what we shall wish on the morrow that we had done."
Michael W. Smith, 21st century
"I think if the church did what they were supposed to do we wouldn't have anyone sleeping on the streets."
AnaÔs Nin, 20th century
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."
Robert Frost, 20th century
"Freedom lies in being bold."
Eudora Welty, 20th century
"All serious daring starts from within."
Erma Bombeck, 20th century
"When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me."
William Faulkner, 20th century
"You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore."
John A. Shedd, 20th century
"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for."
Michaelangelo, 16th century
"The greatest risk to man is not that he aims too high and misses, but that he aims too low and hits."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 19th century
"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do."
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