The scripture appointed for today can be found here
There are occasions upon which I find myself praying about how to preach on the texts appointed. Then there are occasions in which I find myself praying that the texts appointed don't harm those who hear them proclaimed.
Today, I found myself praying the latter. As we hear a parable in which our allegorical interpretation seems 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
From chapter 5 of 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”
Then there is this, from chapter 9, “Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”
And, in chapter 10, “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”
Finally, words of comfort in chapter 11, “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”
Ummm, set against this backdrop, the Gospel we hear today seems incongruous. So, what happens? Why was this particular parable important to the community out of which it emerged? Where did they, and where might we find grace in the midst of a passage that concludes with the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?
To begin to unpack this parable we need to take a look at the context in which it was written. 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)
Okay, so that’s one way to approach it—to see the parable as the product of conflict and not of Christ. But, I remain unsatisfied. Because, when we proclaim this Gospel, we proclaim it as good news…so within the Gospel we heard today, where is the good news?
In seminary, I took a class in which we were encouraged to read the Bible from the margins. To read the Bible from the perspective of the people in our world who are marginalized and disadvantaged within our own cultural context. And, when I explore this passage in this fashion, I find myself wondering if in fact this passage is not about how God works, but about how this world works. This world, where the laws and their enforcement all too often favor those who have much while casting out those who have little. With tax codes which advantage the extremely wealthy, with systems and institutions that perpetuate poverty from generation to generation…this world has its harsh masters—and those harsh masters are not God.
And, so when the slave-owner is described as a harsh master who reaps where he does not sow and takes the harvest from others, I do not and cannot hear that as a description of God. Because, the God that I have encountered throughout scripture is a God of creation, a God who scatters seeds freely, who declares us good, and who leads us again and again from bondage into freedom. The parable is not a description of God or God’s kingdom—it is an indictment of our own kingdom, our own harshness and greed, our own willingness to cast out and destroy. God liberates those we would bind—and, I believe that scripture is clear on this point.
So, where does that leave us with this passage—where is God in it? Where are we in it? Where is Christ in us, and our time?
Henri Nouwen, author of “The Wounded Healer”, offers us a modern day parable—and I offer it today, so let anyone with ears listen…
“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)
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”.
Juxtaposed with this contemporary take, I find Christ in the Gospel we heard today in the person of the servant. The servant, honest in his fear, who is punished by a system and a ruler who would destroy rather than create. He is Christ. And, when Jesus’ offers this parable he does so within a wider context of his own words, “whatever you do to the least of these, my children, you do to me”.
So, 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?
What if? What if?
How does this narrative change, how does our narrative change, if we see this parable as a call to serve rather than a call to cast out?
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.
Love, not hate. Service, not scorn. Compassion, not punishment.
This is the good news. And, we are here to hear it.
“Praise to you, Lord Christ”