Sunday, November 19, 2017

Proper 28

Matthew 25
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

You’re richer than you think.

And if by rich I mean blessed, then you are richer than you think. Surrounded by friends and family, giving ourselves to prayer and praise on a Sunday morning, warm and dry in a place created for us by so many saints, and comforted in the knowledge that we have meaningful work to do in the community.

Somewhere in your mind’s eye you’re still puzzling over ‘you’re richer than you think.’ “Is that one of the blue banks? Or one of the red ones? Not the dark red (don’t ask me, I’m colourblind) but the red red one. And what about that other bank—does it ever have a colour? Green, of course! You’re richer than you think...yup, I’m gonna say red—the one that’s red red.”

There’s a lot of interior monologue, so just to anticipate the obvious place your imagination will go next: yes, each bank has an equally inane slogan. (I should ask, are there any bank-slogan writers in the house?) So, let’s start with the green one, who recently ditched the leather chair (“Banking can be this comfortable”) and opted for “Ready for you.” As bad as this is, it’s still an improvement over two slogans ago: “Open earlier, open later. Even Sunday.” Whatever shame big business felt about opening Sunday is long gone.

Light blue says “Making money make sense,” which once commentator translated to mean ‘you’re not smart enough to handle your own money so leave it to us.’* So that’s a fail. Dark red (what is that, maroon?) promises “Banking that fits your life.” And just as you reflexively are tempted to ask ‘what do you know of my life?’ they delight you with Percy the Penquin. I’m not making this up—his name is Percy. So cute.

Needless to say, I think I prefer my own application of “You richer than you think,” with the added bonus of reminding me of It’s a Wonderful Life. Remember the toast at the end, after Harry Bailey flies through a blizzard to help out? He says, “to my big brother, George. The
richest man in town!” And just as you start sobbing (okay, I start sobbing) George picks up the book and reads the inscription from the angel Clarence: “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

So, having convinced you and your inner monologue that there is a better way to apply “you’re richer than you think,” I’m going to suggest that it’s the bank’s meaning that Jesus would have us apply to the Parable of the Talents, also known as the Parable of the Bags of Gold (NIV) or the Parable of the Valuable Coins (CEB). The name is the give away: this is a story about money.

Now, scholars seem to have a lot of time on their hands (I can only say this while Carmen is away) and calculated that a talent is about 15 years wages for a low-income worker. From the top then, the owner leaves town and entrusts the first servant with a million-and-a-half, the next with six-hundred-grand and the last with three-hundred.

The master returns and wants to know the state of his portfolio, so he summons his servants to give an accounting. Servants one and two have each doubled their money, likely on camel futures or some such, since we get the impression that the master wasn’t gone long. Compound interest is a miracle, but not that much of a miracle. However they did it, they get high praise: ‘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.’

Servant three is a very different case. He’s timid. He’s risk-averse, and he makes his confession: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you didn’t sow, and gathering where you didn’t scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

And just to add to his humiliation, the master gives him some obvious advice: ‘Well, you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.’ And then the conclusion, the part with the tense music and the concerned glances as we wonder who will be off the show: “So take the talent from him,” the master says, “and give it to the one with the ten talents.”

Now, if the next part was your favourite part, I’m going to try to disappoint you. You’ve already been introduced to the idea of ‘scribal exuberance’ and the extent to which someone, at some time, may have tried to underline the point of the parable with a little oomph. Listen again:

29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

We don’t have time for a proper trial, but imagine the first servant—in addition to his fear—has taken the advice of Jesus in Matthew 6: ‘Don’t store up treasures on earth, where moths destroy and thieves will steal, but collect treasures in heaven.’ Or ‘don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear, your Father in heaven will look after these things.’ Instead, “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” It practically sings! This is the Jesus we know and love, not the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ and certainly not the guy who says, ‘from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

On the other hand—and to make this trial fair—Jesus is certainly in a mood in Matthew 25. Last week it’s the wise and foolish virgins, the latter with empty lamps, seeking oil in the night, then knocking in vain as the bridegroom says ‘I don’t even know you.‘ Next week’s passage is the judgement on the nations, where the unrighteous will ask ‘when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison?‘ And the answer—the part we usually don’t read—is ‘as you failed to do this for the least of my brothers and sisters, you didn’t do if for me.‘

I will leave it for you to decide if the timid servant deserves “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” or if Jesus is even capable of such a sentence. This is a parable about risk, and the extent to which we believe that “you’re richer than you think.” Let me explain.

The hole the ground, the one where the last servant hid his lonely talent, is little more than an inverted basket. And we know the parable of the wicker basket:

14 You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your God who is in heaven. (Matthew 5)

The context is the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus is saying that anyone who hungers and thirst after righteousness, anyone who is merciful, anyone who is pure in heart, anyone who tries to be a peacemaker—ought not to hide this from the world. The light of righteousness, mercy, and peace needs to seen in this world—the richness of our work—and we need to encourage each other to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Yet even then, amid the encouragement and the challenge, Jesus has a word for the last servant, seemingly condemned in one place—or at the very least admonished—but still in the realm of his grace: “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says, “for they shall inherit the earth.”

It’s been a tough week here at the church, with terrible violence on our doorstep, and even now more questions than answers about the cause of this crime. There is an obvious temptation to shrink from the streets that surround the church, to bolt the doors and give into the fear of each other that often follows such an event.

Somehow, with the courage that only faith brings, we need to remain people of righteousness, mercy, and peace. We need to remain the pure of heart, with doors open to all the hurt and rage that the world gives. And we need to trust in the Spirit, that even now is calling us to take risks, in Jesus‘ name. Amen.


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