Today is one of those times I’m grateful for our assigned calendar of Gospel readings. As most of you know, in our tradition we don’t choose our Scripture readings week-by-week, we follow a calendar - a fixed calendar called a lectionary. It reflects a long tradition and pattern of Christian worship, and to put it most simply, the lectionary organizes our lives around the major events of Jesus’ life. So each year we live the story of Jesus. Our new year begins in just two weeks with Advent, but today we’re at the tail end of the season after Pentecost, what we call “Ordinary Time”.
Here’s why I’m grateful. Today, at the end of Ordinary Time, Jesus tells a story about how a few slaves use with their master’s money (or don’t). If we didn’t have a fixed calendar of readings you might wonder whether your priest was stacking the deck. After all, last week and this week we’re taking a little time at church to talk about money. We’re talking about Christian stewardship and our budget. If I wasn’t following the lectionary you might wonder if I was slipping in a reading like this on purpose. So thanks be to God (!), today the lectionary is my get out of jail free card. I didn’t plan it this way, I didn’t even try to time our conversation about money so it lined up with this reading. It just happened. And if you believe in God’s providence as I do, well, I’ll just let you draw your own conclusions...
Let me be clear right up front. Today’s Gospel lesson isn’t about giving your money to church. Today’s Gospel lesson is a strong reminder that all of our stuff - all that we have and all that we are - already belongs to God. And if that’s true, then you’d think we wouldn’t need a reminder. Well, yeah, but kind of like the way St. Paul tells it to the Thessalonians today. He says, “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night…” (1Thess. 5.1f) - but then he goes on to give them a pretty detailed description about everything they supposedly already know. Get it? He’s not trying to offend them, but obviously he thinks they could use a reminder.
Jesus is giving a similar kind of reminder - all those things we’re supposed to already know - and it’s a story with a pretty sharp edge. It’s harsh. If you’re looking for a softer version of the same message, well we have that too (thanks to the lectionary). Just look back at the Psalm: “To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens. As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters… So our eyes look to the Lord our God” (Psa. 1231-3). It’s a softer way of saying the same thing, saying that we have nothing without God. Everything is gift. In the Psalm it’s still a very clear message (all that language about masters and servants) but it feels more pastoral.
Jesus, today, is not pastoral. He’s feisty. He’s all fire and brimstone. In fact in the chapter before this he’s literally fire & brimstone, talking with his followers about the sun being darkened and stars falling from heaven (Matt. 24.29). It’s a genuine apocalyptic rant. It’s a Jesus rant. And today’s story about slaves and their harsh master is part of that same long rant. But why, Jesus? It’s because Jesus is having a conversation with his followers about what happens next. What happens when this world no longer looks like this; when other kingdoms fall and God’s Kingdom fully arrives. It’s that conversation.
And let’s be honest, sometimes when we’re reading this stuff, the church gets stuck on a conversation about how judgmental we believe God is, or not. The current fashion in mainline American churches happens to be the opinion that God is not very judgmental. And that works pretty well because we’re not very judgmental either.
So if we hear hear a genuine Jesus rant with real “fire & brimstone” like today we kind of like to sweep it under the rug. It’s awkward because the conversation that comes to mind is usually an embarrassing conversation about God’s judgment. You know, God the big bully just waiting to drop a hammer on anyone who doesn’t use their “talents” wisely. And when we get stuck on that conversation, it’s just not very interesting. More importantly it’s not helpful - unless all we’re trying to do is fill a church with people who are scared of God.
Yes, there is judgement in this story, but Jesus’ story is not a conversation about God’s judgment. It’s a conversation about what God is looking for, hoping for, dare we even say, what God is praying for - about us. About what God has made us to do. And what Jesus seems to be saying is that God is less concerned about giving out punishment & reward, and more concerned about inviting us into His creative purpose for the world. He’s saying this whole show (life) is less about coming up with a formula to maximize pleasure or minimize pain, and more about joining God’s vision for a world filled with justice and beauty, diversity and unity, labor and leisure, passion and discipline. The real question isn’t whether God’s got a big hammer, mighty Thor about to inflict his wrath. It’s whether we believe God really has a purpose for creation, and whether He wants us - needs us - to join in.
“The kingdom of heaven will be as when a man, going on a journey, called his slaves and entrusted his property to them… Then he went away” (Matt. 25.14f). You’ll notice there’s no big discussion about what the slaves are supposed to do. He didn’t leave them a rulebook. They’re just supposed to know. They’re supposed to use the money to make a profit. Like the rest of God’s creation, it’s supposed to be fruitful (keep in mind this was long before stock markets and index funds). He gave the first servant enough money to live on for 15 years. And this wild sum of money wasn’t meant for their own pleasure, some big party while their Master was traveling. It also wasn’t meant to be squirreled away in the ground for their own sense of pride or well-being. It’s meant to be used and to do something fruitful in the world.
Ironically, one point of this story seems to be that if we’re worrying about how harsh the Master really is, wondering what He’s going to do, then we’re asking the wrong question. The only person who’s called “wicked and lazy” is the one who makes his entire decision based on fear about what the Master might do - instead of actually doing something (anything!) fruitful himself.
He made a decision based on fear, but that’s probably not our temptation. Our temptation is probably making a decision based on indifference. We’re not really sure what the Master is going to do - or whether he was ever here to begin with - but mostly we’re sure that He wouldn’t do anything too drastic. If that’s our temptation, unfortunately we’ll end up with the same result. It’s a decision that separates us from the Master’s creative, loving, healing, fruitful purpose for this world.
So don’t worry, it’s not a parable about giving your money to church. But it is a parable about giving your self - your energy, your creativity, and strength - back to God. It’s about gift and responsibility. Not because we think God is just waiting to drop a hammer, but because we believe God is inviting us to be a part of his loving, creative purpose for the world.
And if we’re still concerned about that harsh, judgmental language, well then let’s just remember that this is the last story Jesus tells before he himself gets treated like a worthless slave, before he gets thrown into outer darkness, before he himself is weeping and gnashing his teeth in the Garden of Gethsemane in the face of a horrifying death. Let’s remember that, for Christians, this becomes the very center of God’s own healing, creative, life-giving purpose for the world. And finally, let’s remember that our job isn’t worrying about whether we think God is naughty or nice, our job is recognizing the “talents” we’ve been given - all of them - and using them to show people that God’s healing, creative, life-giving purpose is still continuing with the Master’s faithful servants today. Amen.