Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30 November 15, 2020 Rev. Marilu Thomas
If it’s November, it must be the Parable of the Talents. It makes us wonder if the lectionary came first and then the Stewardship Campaign, or the other way around. Usually this parable is used to illustrate sound financial planning, which will lead to more money to give the church. Although giving to the church is a worthwhile cause, Jesus’ parables describe the Kingdom of God always in terms of the least, the little and the lost. This, therefore, is not a lesson in financial management but the gospel of Jesus Christ for the weary and grace needy.
Let’s review. A man is going away, for a long time, and entrusts his assets to his three servants until he returns. He gives them a currency called talents—each one of which is equivalent to 20 years of wages. Imagine your boss going to Greenland for years and giving you his checkbook with eight figures. What would you do? The problem with interpreting the parable this way is that it leads us into thinking just about the money– how to make more money according to our ability. Of course, we understand why the third servant takes a shovel and buries it so he won’t get in trouble because we feel doubtful that we could pull off the sleight of hand of the other two servants to double what they have been given. Is this the story of the judgment of two optimists and a pessimist?
Verse 15 is the crux of this matter—where the master gives the servants a certain amount of talents, “each according to his ability,” meaning that the servants had varying abilities. This is where we get the talents of the parable confused with our own talents. We typically hear in this parable an admonition to use your God-given talents well to make God happy. To the best of one’s ability. Now I am not suggesting that Jesus doesn’t think you shouldn’t do something well. I am suggesting that we overrate our abilities and underrate what Jesus has done for us and given us. In theological terms, it means that we have a high anthropology—or the belief that humans can do anything they set their minds to. If we need a little help accomplishing our goals, we can call on God. Otherwise, we can report in with all of our good deeds and accomplishments as evidence of our abilities.
When you translate this into pandemic language, we hear that we need to find a silver lining or stay positive to overcome our feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. Kate Bowler, the Duke professor who wrote, Everything happens for a reason: And other lies I’ve loved, likens this response to the pandemic as Wizard of Oz thinking. She says, “We’re living in the midst of an airborne pandemic which strikes down the righteous and the unrighteous. But instead, you’re going to hear some inspirational figure on Instagram telling you, “Isn’t this just the reset button?” and “Isn’t this an opportunity for you to spend more time with your kids?” And so all of a sudden this global tragedy is now pulled into an overly causal tight framework in which you have to learn the lesson or else you’re not getting it. [We are being told to] find the silver lining and unleash your inner potential to be positive so that we will muscle through faster, better, stronger, rather than our loser neighbor, who succumbed to depression…We somehow got confused with the rosy Instagram filter and that kind of exhausting positivity really confuses positivity for a very deep and intense and richer kind of hope.” The kind of hope that is faithful to seeing a thing for what it is and admitting our powerlessness and vulnerability. It is the gospel of Dread Pirate Robert to the Princess Bride, that “life is pain, Highness, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” The ‘before’ the pandemic is gone. How do we live in the middle—before the after?
Do we have the ability to see what’s really going on in the world today? To see into the far country of post-pandemic and what the ‘after’ will be? How do we continue to live in the present tense of heightened discomfort —including and especially the discomfort of those we love? Or especially those we hate? A low anthropology is the understanding that humans are filled with self-centered fear and therefore in need of a Savior. Martin Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that He loves us when we are at the outer limits of our positive world view, abandoned by our invincibility and ability to see the future.
He loves us when we are out of patience with our kids who are out of patience with us. He loves us when we have had too much of togetherness and just want some time to alone. He loves us when we have given up on prayer because we can’t see the outcome. This is the amount of grace that Jesus is handing out to the undeserving, the scared and the lost.
This parable about the talents is not about the three servants’ ability but rather about the generous man who goes away for a time. Theologian Dirk Lange tells us that an allegorical twist happens when we see the master as Jesus, who is present with the servants, leaves them great wealth and returns again after a long time. “Jesus Christ cannot be interpreted as a hard slave master who demands unjust practices for profit from his servants. We are forced to see the master inviting his servants into a fullness, a superabundance of grace that is continually offered. The master is inviting his servants to share in his joy with his gift of faith to them.” The third servant is buried in the scarcity of fear rather than risk surrender to the abundance of grace. It exposes our human desire to escape pain and protect ourselves, rather than live in our current reality where Christ has promised to be always present. We do not have life in ourselves. Life comes to us as a multi-faceted gift of pain, joy, uncertainty, vulnerability, and love. Jesus did not die so that we would be happy and positive. Jesus died so that we would know that He alone can conquer death and abundantly grace us, even as we stray from him.
We are invited into what we most need, in the middle of what we most don’t want –which is seeing the pattern of life, death and resurrection that does not yield to positivity or invincibility but rather exposes our vulnerability and need for a Savior. Jesus’ rescue mission is for those of us who fear the judgment of the master and yet fearfully spurn his grace. It is no mistake that Jesus calls himself the Resurrection and the Life. He meets us in the little graveyard of our abilities with new life beyond what we can see in the present reality. We don’t have to know what’s going on or how to be in the moment or know the future—but we can trust that Jesus does, is present seen or unseen, and is supplying the grace we need in this and every moment.
In closing, Paul Zach and ___________ sing a beautiful song in this worship zooomcast today Based on a prayer by Archbishop Fredrick Temple
O Lord Jesus Christ Take us to yourself
Draw us with cords To the foot of your cross
For we have no strength to come And we know not the way
You are mighty to save
Mighty to save
And nothing can separate us from your love Amen to that