Sermon: God is NOT “a harsh man”

Sermon for Williamstown

16th of November, 2014

Matthew 25:14-30

One of the things that I discovered as I researched today’s parable is that it’s one of John Howard’s favourite Bible passages. Way back in 2007, when he was speaking to the Hillsong Church, the then Prime Minister said: ‘The Parable of the Talents, to me has always been, has always seemed to me to be the “free enterprise parable”. The parable that tells us that we have a responsibility if we are given assets to add to those assets.’

This is why we shouldn’t look to politicians for biblical exegesis. On the face of it, Mr Howard’s interpretation seems reasonable: there are three slaves, two of whom double their master’s money and are rewarded, the third of whom merely preserves his master’s money and is condemned. Read simply, this does seem to be a parable about an apparent responsibility to increase assets. But as soon as we look at the context of the parable, and the details in the story, we discover that Jesus’ message is quite different.

We’re coming to the end of the church’s year, and in our Gospel readings Jesus is coming to the end of his life on earth. This is the second last Sunday before Advent, before the start of the new liturgical year, and today we hear one of the parables about the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus told his disciples in the last days before his Passion. They were parables told as he gathered privately with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, and so they’re parables for us, for the church, for the people who follow Jesus and call him Lord. It seems a little unlikely that in his last days on earth Jesus was teaching about the importance of free enterprise, and the virtues of accumulating wealth; I suspect that as he headed towards his death he had other things on his mind.

The first thing we need to do when hearing this parable is to forget our use of the word talents. The English word ‘talent’ to mean some sort of natural ability comes from this story, but that’s not what the parable was originally about. A ‘talent,’ when Jesus was speaking and Matthew was writing, was not an innate skill to be cultivated, it was an enormous great sum of money, about 6,000 times the daily wage. That means that the slave who was given five talents was given the equivalent of (if I did my calculations right) almost eight million dollars. This parable is about people being unexpectedly given treasure and what they then do with it.

Two of them, we’re told, use the treasure to make more. They not only make a little more, they double what they were given. So the slave who had the equivalent of almost eight million now has about sixteen million. The slave who was given the equivalent of almost three million now has almost six. Imagine the risks they must have taken to double their money like that! We all heard stories during the Global Financial Crisis of investors who lost everything because they got involved in something that was too good to be true. These slave-investors must have taken enormous risks and in their case the risks paid off. When their master returns, they’re praised as good and trustworthy slaves, told that because they’ve been trustworthy in a few things they’ll be given responsibility over many, and invited to share in their master’s joy. In last week’s lectionary reading, although we didn’t get to hear it, five wise bridesmaids shared a wedding feast with the bridegroom; this week the two wise slaves celebrate with their master. When the kingdom of heaven comes there’s always a party.

Rembrandt's Parable of the Talents

Rembrandt’s Parable of the Talents

But the third slave, the slave with least ability, given one talent rather than five or two, buries his master’s property to keep it safe. There should be nothing wrong with that. At the time there was nothing unusual about burying money. It was a prudent thing to do. At the very least, this slave is preserving his master’s property. No danger of his one talent disappearing on the stock exchange; when the master returns, there it will be, safe, able to be repaid. And so it is. When the master returns the slave says: ‘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, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

For me this is the most difficult part of this parable. Whenever I hear Jesus’ parables my automatic reaction is to translate them, to work out who the characters stand for. There’s a bridegroom – that must be Jesus. There’s a loving father – that must be God. There’s a slave – that must be me – so what am I doing? If we do that automatic mental translating here we seem to get a harsh and judgmental God, who reaps despite not sowing and gathers despite not scattering. This God is a master to be scared of, more than willing to cast out anyone who doesn’t live up to their potential. The parable ends with wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But listen to what the master replies: ‘You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?’ The master isn’t agreeing with the slave’s assessment. He simply points out how the slave should have acted had he followed his own assessment of his master: ‘Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.’ The master removes the talent from the third slave and gives it to the one with ten. The slaves are to keep the enormous fortunes, are to keep all the money, not merely the extra they made but also the original capital they were given. The master described by the third slave as harsh and unfair now behaves astoundingly generously. The third slave’s image of his master seems to have been completely wrong.

Somehow we have got it wrong, too, because so many people seem to have the same image of God that the third slave has of his master. God is seen as harsh and judgmental, someone to be afraid of. When I talk to people who aren’t members of the church that’s often the God that they believe Christians worship, a God obsessed with ‘thou shalt nots’. If we believed that God is like this, then we would behave like the third slave. Better to take anything God has given us and hide it away rather than risk God’s wrath by activity.  Better not to do anything too challenging or reckless. Better to be prudent rather than to be daring. This is not the God that Jesus reveals to us. This is not the God we worship.

God has given us the kingdom of heaven, the feast, the banquet, the great celebration. If we receive it with trust rather than fear and share it with reckless gratitude we too, like the first two slaves, will enter into the joy of the master. We can live lives that are daring and risky and open to change and new possibilities, because we know that God is not the harsh master of the third slave’s fearful imagining. We can be passionate and generous people, because we have been given treasure and to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance. This is why one of the ways that the Uniting Church describes itself is as a community that risks the way of Jesus. Being willing to take risks is part of who we are.

The first two slaves risk all they have, risk enormous great sums of money, and are praised for it. The third slave tries to play it safe and is condemned. As I said at the beginning of this sermon, this is a parable about the coming of the Son of Man, a typically Matthean parable about the last judgment. Matthew tells us that the master returns after ‘a long time’, just as in last week’s story the bridegroom was met by the bridesmaids at midnight after being delayed. These are eschatological stories, tales of the end of time, told by Jesus in his last days on earth before his Passion. Jesus tells them as he himself risks everything, going to the cross trusting that God will not desert him or forsake him, even as he dies a shameful death. We know that the crucifixion was followed by the resurrection; that Jesus’ risk-taking paid off. As we seek to follow in his footsteps, let’s take the risks that that involves, so that when the master returns he can say to us: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave’. Amen.

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