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The Question that is asked, and the grace beneath the question

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 1:19 pm on Monday, November 20, 2017

A sermon preached on November 19th, 2017 based upon Matthew 25:14-30.Jeff with Kathryn and Anna

We finish off the liturgical calendar with a series of challenging parables that Jesus told at the end of his ministry, shortly before he was nailed to a cross.

Parables can be pretty frustrating.  The meaning can seem pretty obscure. Last week we had the wise and foolish maidens.  This week we have the three stewards.

We know a fair amount about the one who told the parables — that being Jesus — about what was important to him and what wasn’t, so we can say with some certainty that we haven’t gotten a hold of what a parable means when our initial reading seems to contradict what Jesus cared about.

Last week, although the maidens were praised as wise who didn’t share their oil with the foolish maidens we can safely say the point wasn’t that we shouldn’t share with those in need because… that’s not Jesus.

And this week the first read-through seems to suggest that we are to go out and devote ourselves to investing in the stock market with the hope of making as much money as we can, and that those who don’t make a lot of money – well, they’re wicked, lazy bums who deserve the impoverishment of their lives.  But nope…  that doesn’t sound like Jesus either.

Parables invite us to climb inside and play around with them, and as I did so with this parable I found myself thinking interesting thoughts.   If the story isn’t about the need to go make a lot of money, then it must be symbolizing something.

The story starts off with a very large gift being given to these three sevants.  In those days a single “talent” was a life time’s worth of wages — an enormous amount of money.  Perhaps the “talents” symbolize the gift of life itself.

Now it is interesting that the amount of money given to each servant isn’t the same.  One servant gets five talents, another two, and the third a single talent.

Perhaps there is a recognition here of an unavoidable unfairness in terms of the life people can get born into.  There are certain “givens” to any particular human life, and they fall into two categories.

Some are the givens have to do with our DNA.  Some people are born with more of the traits generally considered desirable:  intelligence, good looks, musical or athletic talents, and some not so much.   Some people are born with naturally healthy bodies and some with sunny dispositions, while some are born with disabilities or with brain chemistry predisposed to depression and other mental illnesses.

The other part of the givenness of our lives has to with the environments we are born into.  Some people are born into a stable family with a generous capacity for love, and some families have more money than others which opens up a range of opportunities.  Others are born into abusive, highly dysfunctional families and some into families that have no home at all.

So the hand we get dealt isn’t fair, but only God can see the true extent of the unfairness, because some settings that can appear ideal under the surface may not be nearly as ideal as they appear, and others that seem highly unfortunate may contain hidden blessings.

But regardless of our DNA and the environment we are born into, a question hangs over our lives.  In the parable, the question isn’t put into words until the end, but in every life whether spoken or unspoken the question is there and it is this:  “What are you going to do with the life you were given?” It is the question that points to the mystery of our free will – that regardless of the givenness of a particular life there are always choices to be made along the way that effect how the life will play out.

The answer to the question is always a work in process — that is until our life comes to an end.  Then the question becomes, “What did you do with the life you were given?”

There are, of course, different criteria by which the question can be answered.  In the eyes of the world the answer is thought to be found in how successful a person was — how much money and power they obtained, how much attention their obituary gets.

But again, that doesn’t sound like the way Jesus would assess the question.

We can assume that with Jesus, the question would have to do with what we did in the course of our lives for the sake of his kingdom here on earth.   What was the impact our lives had on others?  Were we an instrument of God’s love and justice in this world?

The answer to this question would take into account what God alone can see — the extent of the limitations and possibilities that were the givens of our lives.

There is this Biblical principle that applies in this final accounting of our lives, and that is, “to those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” With this principle in play, the people who get to hear, “Well done good and faithful servant” may be surprising to us.  

There could be a billionaire who regularly attended church and never broke a law – who was admired by many, frequently getting his name in the paper for giving away millions to various charities, but whose giving never involved any real sacrifice and whose real concern was with being admired rather  than with truly being of service to others. Such a man may hear at the end of his life, “That’s all you did with what I gave to you?  You had the opportunity to do so much more!”

And there could be a man born into poverty to a crack-addicted mother, who never had a father, who grew up in foster care, who in his adult years spent a lot his life as an addict and a great deal of time in prison, but who in spite of the material and spiritual impoverishment of his life the man still managed on occasion to be truly kind to people, resisting the temptation to kill another human being when it would have been so easy to have done so.  Such a man may hear at the end of his life, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

I found myself a little annoyed initially that the parable has the two guys who at the outset received the most be the ones who end up getting the master’s praise, and the guy with the least getting called “lazy and worthless,” because it seems to give the prosperity Gospel people the encouragement they are looking to go for as much money as possible and to blame the people who struggle in this world as lacking faith. I wanted Jesus to have one of the rich guys be the one who flunks.

But then I remember that Jesus told other stories that make that same point.

“The Rich man and Lazarus” was one – where the rich man receives judgment for ignoring the suffering of poor Lazarus.  Another was the parable of the foolish rich man who reaches a point in his life in which his barns are stuffed full with grain. Instead of reflecting upon how blessed he is and considering how he might begin to devote himself to helping people less fortunate than himself, he chooses to press on in building bigger barns to contain even more grain to keep for himself.

So Jesus made that point elsewhere.

Maybe Jesus had it be the one talent guy who flunks the end-of-life test because we have this tendency, do we not, rather than comparing our lot in life to those less fortunate to compare ourselves instead with people who seem to be more fortunate:  “Look at the raw deal I got in life compared to them!”

We tend to look at ourselves as insignificant, with limited giftedness compared to others, and quickly conclude, “Hey, you can’t expect me to make a real difference in this world!  I’m not special.  I’m just trying to get by!  It’s up to the really smart people, the rich people, the politicians to make this world a better place!”

So we let ourselves off the hook.

But the Bible is full of stories of people who in the eyes of the world seemed like nobody special – the disciples themselves come to mind – who ended up offering themselves to God with the result being the world was mightily blessed by them.    It wasn’t Caesar, Herod or the clergy that turned the world upside down with the Gospel – it was a bunch of nobodies from Galilee.

And churches do the same thing.  We’re just a little church – what can we do?

One of the troubling things for most of us is the way the parable ends.  The third servant gets called “wicked and lazy” and gets thrown out into the “outer darkness to weep and gnash his teeth”, seemingly for eternity.  Talk about harsh!

But again… that doesn’t sound like Jesus. (Of all the Gospel writers, Matthew seems to have had a particular fondness for such language.)

It is interesting how the parable simultaneously holds together judgment and grace.  Because the parable finishes the way it does, the judgment is easier to identify.

But the story starts off with grace.  Remember, a single talent was an enormous amount of money.  The master simply gives all he has to these three servants.  They didn’t earn it.  It was purely a gift that they were given – a treasure they were to be the stewards of for the rest of their lives.

The first two servants seem to get that.  They recognize the graciousness of the master, and trusting in that graciousness, they aren’t afraid to live their lives fully, to take risks, to truly enjoy their lives.  They’re not afraid to make mistakes, trusting that if something doesn’t work out, they can get up try again, and something will have been learned in the process of making the mistake.

But the third servant doesn’t experience gratitude.  Although he has his needs provided for he doesn’t feel blessed.  He views the master as being “harsh” in spite of the fact that the master gave him this treasure – this huge amount cash outright.   And then not comprehending the nature of the master, he buries the treasure, afraid to fully live his life – unwilling to take any risks lest things go badly.

So there is a direct link between the capacity to experience gratitude for our lives, and our capacity to offer ourselves to God as a part of God’s ongoing blessing of this world.  If we don’t experience our life as a gift, we won’t hear the question that God asks us in the course of our lives.

How does this happen?  We get too anxious and troubled, too hurried in this world and miss the most basic thing:  that we are alive, and life is a blessing!  Life is an opportunity!  One of the things that church provides us with is encouragement to step out of the anxious hurry of our lives, and enter into the stillness of worship – to allow the natural gratitude that is within us to rise to the surface as we return to an awareness of the basic giftedness of our lives.

We are alive.  We didn’t have to be alive.  We didn’t choose to be alive.  God chose to give us life.  It is a gift.  Life includes a lot of very hard stuff in it, but it is far better to experience the gift of life than not to have the opportunity at all. Nobody gets to live our particular life but us.

Life is this holy adventure we are invited into where we get to experience wonder and beauty and love, and the God who gave us this gift was willing to embrace the adventure – to take the risk – of taking on human flesh and living among us.  Our God is a risk taking God.

Something that fascinates me about the parable is the way the beliefs that the servants have about the nature of the master get confirmed over time.  The first two servants view the master as generous and that belief leads them to experience life as full of wonderful opportunities.

The third servant views the master as harsh – a rigid law keeper just waiting to punish for any transgression, and full of fear he experiences life as being full of danger.   As the story progresses, he interprets what happens as confirmation of his initial belief.

So it’s not enough to belief in “God” – what matters is the kind of God we believe in.  The God revealed in Jesus is one who loves us more than we know, and although this God holds us accountable, this God never gives up on us, even when we live our likes like that third servant so consumed with fear that we seem to have no room in our lives to consider being of service to others.

If you’ve heard me preach for a time you know that one of my favorite Jesus stories is the one where he was teaching in a house fully of people in Capernaum.  Four friends bring a fifth friend who is paralyzed on a stretcher in the hope that Jesus can make their friend whole.  When they find no room to enter, they refuse to give up on their intention to get their friend to Jesus, and thinking outside the box, the hoist their friend up on the roof where they tear a hole through which to lower their friend.  Jesus seems not to care about the reconstruction of his house, but pleased indeed by the faith and determination of the four friends.

One of the interesting things about the story is what Jesus says right up front to the paralytic.  “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  It seems peculiar because the friends have brought the man to Jesus for a physical healing, but Jesus seems to recognize that the root of the man’s paralysis is a burden of guilt and shame that is keeping him from living his life.

He has bought into the image of God that was the dominant one abroad in those days – the ones held by the people present who grumble when they hear Jesus audaciously claim the authority to forgive sins.  They believe in a harsh ledger keeper God.  Believing this lie about God, the man has become the third servant in our parable, having buried the treasure of his life in the ground, afraid that he dares to truly live his life he very well might mess up yet again and add to the heavy burden of sin and guilt that weighs him down so, leaving him paralyzed.

But with his encounter with Jesus, he gets acquainted with the true God – one intent on empowering people to live their lives boldly, joyfully, lovingly.  Having set the man free from the burden of his sins, he commands him to take up his stretcher and walk.

That’s what we are about as the church – helping one another and this world to know the God revealed in Jesus – a God generous with grace who created us for a holy purpose – to share the grace and love that is knit into creation.

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