The readings for Proper 28 can be found here
Last week, a congregant pointed out the tension between the words we traditionally end the proclamation of the Gospel with “Praise to you Lord Christ” and the truth that sometimes, the last thing we want to do is give thanks for the words we have heard.
And, this week, like last, I could almost hear the hesitation in the response of praise. As, once again, we hear a parable where an allegorical interpretation would seem to run counter to what we know and understand of a God of mercy and abundance. In fact, if we take this parable allegorically, it runs counter to what Jesus himself has shared with us in the Gospel of Matthew about the nature of God and our calling to serve.
So, today I offer, from the Gospel of Matthew
“Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the reviled” (Mt 5:1-11)
“As you go, proclaim the good news, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10:78)
“Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” Matthew chapter 9
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt10:39)
“whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me...whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Mt 10:40,42)
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt11:29-30)
So what happens between chapter 5 and chapter 25? What was the Gospel writer’s community experiencing that so transformed these words of grace to words of judgment?
Biblical scholar and theologian, John Dominic Crossan in The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus, writes that the escalation of violence in Matthew stems from the conflict in Judaism between Christian-Jewish scribes and Pharaisaic Jewish Scribes. Crossan holds that it is Matthew who is speaking in what Crossan calls “attack parables” and that the authentic voice of Christ (an authenticity he validates by cross referencing the material in the Gospel which appears in Mark) is made manifest early in the Gospel, before Matthew’s voice begins to overwhelm the voice of the messiah. (193-194)
But, on a Sunday when I hold aloft the Gospel book and read this particular parable in this particular context, I have to wonder how we might extract the grace of God from the violence of this text. If this is the scripture given to us to encounter today, where might we meet the God of abundance in the words that have been proclaimed?
This is not a new dilemma we are facing today, when we read the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew a few weeks ago, we explored how that passage is changed if we read it and discern that the guest who is cast out of the banquet is in fact, Christ. Rather, than reread that sermon (which, is tempting) I wish to share with you a contemporary parable
“one day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man were handed over to them at dawn. The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.”
Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him, and asked, “What have you done?” He said: “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said: “But don’t you know that have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: “If instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.” (WH 25-26)
Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer
There is an old spiritual that asks “were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and in these passages the answer becomes “yes, we were there”.
What if we read the parable of the Talents in such a way that we see the servant cast into the outer darkness as the Christ? What if what we take to be a “given” is in fact the very thing which confounds us in this parable. What if, our understanding of the master as God is based on our own projections of how the world works--rather than Christ’s reflection upon the nature of violence.
And, in the Gospel passage today, I want to draw your attention to the one cast out. What can we learn from the least of these, my children, in this passage? What is Jesus offering us in this parable? Where is the grace? What hope can we draw from this, yet another part of Matthew’s little apocalypse?
This servant, the least of these, deserving of compassion and honest in his fear. What if the other servants had shared the bounty? What if this servant had been raised in the midst of generous abundance? What if this servant had been taught that the master is one of abundance and love and care? Would the talent have been hidden away? Or proclaimed as the abundance it was?
So, it is with compassion that we are called to hear of this, the third servant. And, when I read with compassion, I can recognize the fear which filled this servant.
“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”
How might we, in the here and the now, be transformed by moving beyond fear and scarcity and into abundance? How will we create a world in which the grace of God transcends fear and abundant love becomes the default response to brokenness.
This parable calls us to use our talents/gifts/resources to expand God’s grace, to defeat the fear that breaks us and the anxiety that keeps us from acting with love. This parable invites us to consider our own encounter with God--and with that consideration, we are asked to take a different approach.
An approach summed up by Saint Julian of Norwich in her exhortation
"Live without fear. Your creator loves you, made you holy, and has always protected you. Follow the good road in peace, and may God's blessing remain with you always."
And, it is this exhortation that I will leave with you in today’s blessing.