Audio Transcript at: http://youtu.be/3i6MZ0kFWKU
Matthew 25 14:30
So how do you see God? What is the model in your mind for who God is? We are very limited, in the sense, that we can only conceive of God in human terms, and indeed if we are made in God’s likeness, perhaps we do have some things in common with God. But the truth is, of course that we are also broken and fragile and let me say it again, limited by our experiences, so we cannot possibly conceive of God with a very clear vision. Indeed Paul, quoting Hesiod, says, “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face”. The problem for us is that how we see God controls what we believe and how we act and if the “Father” for the want of a better word, that we have chosen as a model is a harsh man, who reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he does not scatter seed, we might be afraid of God and afraid of what God calls us to do.
The reality of God is very different, however. God is a God of generous love and abundant blessing and Jesus makes this clear in this parable. This parable is a call to enter into God’s joy.
Let me just remind you again of the context of this parable. The wider picture is that this block of instruction comes after the cleansing of the temple so it is in the last few days of Jesus life. Jesus is trying to get the disciples ready for his departure and ready indeed for the end times that will follow Jesus’ death and resurrection. So this is part of the Eschatalogical discourse, a theory of the end times. Jesus keeps on telling them what the Kingdom of heaven is going to look like but he tells them in a series of strange little pictures, not always readily understandable, at least for us. By now, I hope, having heard all the parables expounded, you will have a sense that perhaps you shouldn’t just take them at face value.
The immediate context is that this parable follows a parable illustrating the fact that we will be waiting for the king to come, the story of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish. As David said to us last week, the point is that the bridesmaids should have turned to the bridegroom for help when they needed it- they should have had faith in him and stayed close, and I think that that interpretation really helps us to understand this parable.
In this parable a man, who is going on a journey- of an indefinite length, summons his slaves or servants- and entrusts his property to them. OK, so does this mean he gives them everything? I am not sure, but I do know that it is a seriously large sum of money, in fact he gives the first servant well over $3,000,000 in our money, and the second one about $1,500,000. Even the third servant with the least ability gets $750, 000 to play with. Now there are a couple of questions that this raises immediately for me. The first is- is this parable about money? The second question is why does Jesus use such enormous sums in his story? I think in fact that the incredible OTT nature of the story suggests that this is not about money itself. If Jesus wanted his disciples to take heed of the story in terms of their personal finances he would tell it with the kind of sums that they would be working with. Do you remember the incident, recorded in both Mark and Luke, when Jesus is watching people putting money into the treasury of the temple and he points out to his disciples a poor widow who puts in two small coins and tells them that she has given more than all the wealthy people- that is the kind of way that Jesus relates to the disciples and money.
So if this isn’t about money what is it about? I think it is about incredible riches or wealth that is the abundant blessing of God. When the master is confronted with the two servants that have done well with what was given to them he says to them “enter into my joy”! I don’t think he means welcome to my world of being a fat cat- I think that the joy is a result of the abundant love poured out by this incredible God.
So how does this look when we read it back into the parable? The man goes off giving three servants differing amounts dependent on their ability. The first man takes his enormous sum of money and goes off at once and trades with it. Now it doesn’t say in the text that he goes off with joy, but he certainly doesn’t do too much soul searching about how to do it or about the wisdom of it- he trusts the master and goes and gets on with it. By the time the master returns he has doubled his resources. The same with the second servant. We’ll come back to the third man in a minute. Well, the master finally arrives back and is delighted with the first servant, “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.” The response to the Master’s gracious abundance has been to create even more and so the Master gives him more responsibility and calls him to enter into his joy. The second man gets the same response. It is a response of generosity, which matches the generosity of the initial sum of money.
The third man however has responded quite differently. The problem with the third servant, is that he has a different idea of the master. Instead of using the money to make more he buries it in the ground. Now the traditional reading of this is that he has buried his talent, he has put his light under a bushel, so to speak, and hasn’t been productive and I am quite sure that this is correct. But, following on from what David had to say last week, I think that this is a bit of a red-herring. The problem that Jesus is highlighting, I think, is his wrong perception of the master and his consequent crippling fear. Do you remember at the beginning I talked about the way we form a picture of God for ourselves. This man, for whatever reason, has formed a picture of the master that is quite different from the others. He sees the master as a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he does not scatter seed- in other words a man who does no work but still expects to benefit- a user, in fact. And because of this picture he has formed of the master he is afraid. Now, his response is to be crippled by the fear- he buries the money, and therefore keeps it safe, and in many cultures that is what people do with their valuables when threatened. I believe that Samuel Pepys buried a whole parmesan cheese in his garden during the fire of London! It is a response that allows no progress, no abundant pouring out. It is just the same as the foolish bridesmaids, isn’t it? They acted out of fear of failure, and rather than trusting the bridegroom, ran off to try to rectify the situation themselves- but at least they were able to act, even if it backfired on them, this poor man is rendered incapable by his fear.
When the master speaks to him he calls him “wicked and lazy” which does seem to be a harsh response. The master seems to me to be saying that if he were the things that the man has presumed him to be, his own response or lack of it, has damned him. Then the master takes the talent from him and gives it to the one who has the most saying, “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.” Now this is another one of those saying that seems at first glance to be totally unfair, doesn’t it? We know from Jesus’ life that Jesus doesn’t punish people for being poor. So that cannot be what it means. Perhaps what the man has or has not is trust in God, or perhaps we might say a good picture of God. Those people who see God rightly as being a God of abundant grace will end up with more of God’s grace, but those who have no trust in God’s goodness will end up with even less. And their own lack of faith is what will cause them to make the choice of burying what they are given in the ground.
For we are all given grace by God, we are all recipients of the freedom bought by the price of God’s own sacrifice. Each one of us chooses what we will make of that abundant gift from God. We see that illustrated sometimes in people who in worldly terms are suffering poverty but who respond, both to God and neighbor with generous hearts. God has given each of us a million dollars worth of grace and abundant love. It is up to us whether we take that outpouring of grace and double it by our actions, or whether we hide it away where nobody can see it. If we have trust in a God of love we will use the gifts that we have from God, according to our abilities and in so doing we will enter into his joy.