Rev. John M. Hayes
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30.
Jesus’ parables are not heart-warming tales with a good morale. If we stay on the surface of this one, we are given a picture of a vengeful petty God intent on making things even harder for poor people: “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.” Sounds pretty much like the Republican tax plan.
What kind of “master” gives out his favors so unevenly and when he returns deals so severely and punitively with the servant who was – after all – given just one talent?
What is more perplexing is that in the very next passage of this chapter, Jesus tells us that loving other humans in need is loving God and that we will be judged on just how much we have loved others in concrete ways: “ I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.”
How do we make sense of this? What is Jesus up to saying seemingly opposite things in the same breath?
Think what money is and what it symbolizes. A coin, or dollar bill, or a talent for that matter, have no value in itself. Just paper or a bit of metal. Money is given as payment for work and can be exchanged for goods and services that we need. Money symbolizes energy, life-force, libido. We are called to live as God made us to live, with passion and daring, fearlessly trusting that God is with us and for us. What is given to us is meant to be lived into life generously and with gratitude. We are not meant to be fearfully turned back on ourselves.
God knows who we are and what we are capable of.
O Lord you have searched me and you known me; you know when I sit down and when I rise up, you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word I son my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limit of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say “Surely the darkness shall cover me and the light around me become as night, even the darkness is not dark to you and the night is as bright as the day fro darkness is as light to you.
This gives us the key to understanding the meaning of this parable.
Just as God knows us inside and out, God looks into the human heart of each and takes our measure. God knows us far better than we can ever, will ever, know ourselves. God’s penetrating gaze melts all pretense, posturing, self-aggrandizing illusion.
God does not love us generically or deal with each of us as if we were identical parts on an assembly line. Because only God knows each of us precisely as we really are, only God truly loves us all the way down.
Like the master in Jesus’s parable, God knows just what we servants imagine God to be. The way we imagine God determines how we approach life, how we live our lives and how we treat our brothers and sisters.
God knows the degree to which we know God as God reveals Godself in the infinite myriad ways God comes to us. Are we seeing? Are we listening? Are we opening to the movements of God’s spirit within us constantly awakening us to the reality of God’s constant presence and perpetual self-emptying extravagant love for us?
Indeed do we let our consciousness of God, and our image of God, be informed by regular reading of scripture and prayer. Or do we live with a puny image of God likely based on memory of the darker sides of our all too human parents?
Do we rather construct a God in our own projected self-image: small, miserly, grasping, ruled by fear, tortured by doubt, punitive and vindictive. This was the essence of the wicked, lazy servant’s failure: he created God in his own image and therefore experienced neither the freedom nor the reality of God’s love. It was a failure of relationship. Invited to the banquet he turns away.
Two servants knew their master as a good and generous lord, who genuinely loved them, and who encourages them to go have a go of life, to take hold of their given talents and see what they can make of them. They knew something of their master’s true nature and they trusted what they saw and heard. They knew and trusted the master’s mercy and love.
The master gave to each servant a task and an amount “according to his ability”. The word in Greek is dynamis – ability, capacity, the power to do something. Each of us has unique power and abilities. God’s trust in each of us – and the personal call and particular task each is given – is a partaking in God’s life and mission to humanity.
The wicked lazy servant damns himself by hanging back. He withdraws from reality and lives in the world of his limited imagining and he is fearfully seeking security that is no security, safety that is no safety. He does not live in God’s world, the only real world there can be, but in a private paranoid hell of his own imagining.
God knows what each of us is made of, where we came from, and what we are capable of. God knows our limitations. God knows our wounds. God knows our history, personal and collective. What is expected of us is totally proportionate to who we are.
Notice that when God comes to settle accounts there is no expectation that they all will have yielded the same. Yet both faithful servants enter into the same joy of their master, they come into the kingdom, the wedding feast. Oh happy day of God’s coming! Each of us comes to this table and receives the same bread of heaven and cup of salvation, a taste of what God has in store for us and that joy is without end and without limit.
Each of us has been given different talents and has been thrown into a life we did not select and did not choose. The mystery of life that we will never understand: we are all given to, but not equally, and we are to trust that our future is God’s future and that ultimately God’s justice will rule. Our ideas of what is fair seldom match God’s hidden vision and wisdom. We all have different paths to walk in this life and some are much harder and steeper than others, but we are walking in the same direction. We are meant to walk each other home.
Five years ago we returned home and were looking for a church community. Martha McGill pointed us in this direction: “I don’t think God is done with St. Luke’s yet.” It seemed then that we were going to do great things together. And there were many disappointments and setbacks. A series of promising partners in mission to help refit the clergy house went away one by one, until one fatal February the polar vortex finished off the heating and plumbing. Despite those disappointments, we had the fantasy that here at least we had this rare thing, a church where black and white folks, well-off and much less well-off, made a community of caring devoted to the mission of making St. Luke’s a place of hospitality and support in this community. To lose this fantasy also is beyond sad, but a necessary loss. God calls us to live in reality as it is, and not in our fantasy of reality. I want to hope that God is not done with St. Luke’s, and that the hard work of reconciliation might begin again. I believe that is what God expects of us and that God wants nothing less for us.