Note: The video recording of this sermon can be viewed or downloaded at the bottom of this page.
“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. For decades now, since a car accident, I have to wear a mouth guard at night because with a jaw injury I tend to grind my teeth.
Matthew’s gospel adds this phrase about gnashing of teeth onto several of Jesus’ judgement parables, – I confess the words themselves make my jaw tighten and my teeth ache.
As you know, I think one of our best spiritual practices as Anglicans is living the annual cycle of the church year, as it often pushes us into themes we need to address in our relationship with God. In the last couple of weeks of our liturgical year we move into contemplation of the end of time and the return of Christ, our readings move into the “apocalyptic” genre. Apocalyptic meaning “revealing, uncovering,” so we can see the reality of things and what is really important in life. Calls to be alert, to watch, readiness for the final return of Christ. The end of time.
Today’s parable is disturbing and notoriously difficult to interpret. What was Jesus trying to say to his disciples, to us, about preparing for the Kingdom? Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem, so this is his teaching during the final days of his life. Parables, we know, are Jesus’s favourite way of teaching; they are like Zen stories, meant to tease us, to bug us, to draw out multiple meanings that we have to chew on.
Beware then of any single unchallenged or uncontroversial interpretation. There is always some shock or twist or surprise.
Jesus begins: “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like a man who was about to leave on a trip and called his servants and put them in charge of his property.” Well that seems straightforward: Jesus is about to go away and leave the disciples to build on his kingdom. But I can hear my New Testament professor warning never to make too neat an allegory (e.g. master = God) or assume any obvious correlation – is the master Jesus, or God, or an example of wickedness?
Then there is a shock in the next line: the servants are each given differing amounts, Greek word “talento” - (nothing to do with what we know as talents, although this parable has been interpreted as that for many stewardship sermons, not to waste our talents, our God-given gifts; good sermon, wrong text) A Talento is an enormous amount of money, 15 years wages, so the first servant is given a hundred years wages, staggering figure that would have made Jesus’ hearer’s gasp! Super-abundance beyond imagining!
Notice the immense trust the master has for the servants – even the third servant gets 15 years of wages to care for. Notice at work here is the rule of three in story-telling. Except for the amount given, the dialogue with the first and second servant is exactly the same, setting up the pattern and expectation. The first two servants take a risk, invest the money, and it increases. They return the original and the interest to the master. The master commends them, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in small things, now I will put you in charge of larger things”, and closes with this enticing invitation “ enter into the joy of your master”.
I assume all of us want God to say to us at the end…“well done, good and faithful servant” and invite us to enter the joy of the kingdom….. The third servant, as in any good story, breaks the pattern: he buries the treasure and returns it all. Notice he doesn’t squander it! We’re pretty used to the parable where the son squanders his whole inheritance and is nonetheless completely forgiven and welcomed home with a party - is this a different God?
The third servant too has a speech prepared: “ Lord, I know that you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not plant, and gather crops where you did not scatter. I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. Look, here is what belongs to you.”
The master’s response is very harsh. “You knew, did you, that I reap harvests where I did not plant….well, then you should have deposited my money in the bank so I would have received interest. Take the money away from him and give it to the one who has ten talents. For to every one who has, even more will be given and he will have more than enough; but the one who has nothing, even the little he has will be taken away from him”.
Here are a couple of things I wonder about. I wonder if the first two, who had risked the money, had lost it all, would the master have commended them for their taking risks? I wonder about this third servant: he doesn’t lose the money or use it for his own gain, he returns it to the master. But what I notice is that the only bad things we hear about the master are from this third servant, not a general description of the master but this servant’s impression.
He is motivated by fear. His relationship with the master is filled with fear.
This makes me wonder, in the final judgment or even in our daily prayer relationship with God, what if “the God we face is the God we imagine” ? (I got this idea a long time ago from Mark Douglas p 312 Feasting on the Word).
The servant’s fear of judgment immobilizes him and creates the very relationship with the God that he fears. Leaves us with a question about our own relationship with God, our own image of God.
I think we must live in the tension of a loving, gracious God who nonetheless is far beyond us, transcendent and unimaginable, who expects, or longs for, our lives to be lived in response to God, a participation in and furthering of Jesus’ kingdom now.
Is our relationship with God one of trust, which allows us to enter into joy? Or is it based on fear, that leaves us in a dark space?
I know in my own life I had to grow out of a childhood fear of a God who was displeased with me, an image of God who was like a critical parent or Santa Claus always watching me, who was “making a list and checking it twice”, who knew how naughty I was. I grew up in a church that thought religion was about behavior-control, over concerned with personal sin.
Matthew’s Gospel wants to warn us, to spur us on to our work as disciples of Christ, to call us to be alert, but I confess this fear of judgement doesn’t work to motivate me.
I have discovered in scripture, in community, and in life experience, a God whose main characteristics are faithful covenant love, steadfast love and mercy, compassion and grace. This spurs me to respond to love the world too. I wonder if this parable invites us to examine our image of God and how that affects how we live, with joy or with fear, with freedom to act and take risks or to passively hide, afraid to act?
Discipleship calls us to let go of our fear of scarcity, our hoarding, our living passively. Discipleship calls us to be bold and courageous, to risk love, to care, even though it is heartbreaking to love when there is so much suffering. Discipleship calls us to live out of a sense of the superabundant generosity of God, which frees us to be generous and giving and joyful. We live in fearful times, surrounded by anxiety.
As we look toward the end of time, are we paralyzed and numb, or are we people of hope, living in joy. In todays text to the Thessalonians, Paul writes we are “destined for salvation” because of the faithfulness of Christ. After calling us to be awake and alert, he in fact adds that whether awake or asleep, we are destined for salvation.
We are called to live with this farther horizon in mind, to “lift our eyes to God” as today’s psalm says, to lift our eyes, beyond the present trouble to live with trust in God’s grace.
JRR Tolkein captures this sense of hope, this apocalyptic moment, I think, in Lord of the Rings, in a text I have printed out and posted on my bedroom wall in Winnipeg. When Sam and Frodo are stumbling through the “dark lands” of the Evil Sauron, a shadowed land of sulfuric desert, towards Mount Doom on a seemingly impossible task, there is a moment of hope.
May we live knowing God has and will welcome us into the joy of God’s kin-dom.