Sermon for Sunday, November 13th, 2011 || Proper 28, Year A || Matthew 25: 14-30
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Let us pray:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I don’t usually open a sermon by having us re-read the Collect of the Day, but with a gospel reading like the one we just heard, I figure we need all the help we can get! Talk about a tough Word! This thinly-veiled parable of Jesus as the Master who entrusts his assets to his servants before “going away,” then judges the prudent one so harshly when he returns, makes Jesus seem more like Bernie Madoff than God’s only Son, the Divine Love Incarnate!
“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance;” Jesus says, “but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” As if that’s not bad enough, those left with nothing will then be “thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
I see a lot of wrinkled brows and confused expressions. That’s perfect. Because if you’re confused you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Remember that parables are meant to confound us. They’re meant to discombobulate us—to shake up our mental categories so dramatically that any fixed notions we’re holding are totally dislodged, creating space for something new. It’s no coincidence that the Hebrew word for “parable” is also the word for “riddle.” Parables are riddles. In fact, earlier in Matthew’s gospel when the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables so much, Jesus answers with—believe it or not: “…to 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.” That’s right, twelve chapters earlier in a completely different context, Matthew’s Jesus uses the same enigmatic riddle to explain why he speaks in enigmatic riddles!
So riddle me this: What happened to last week’s Jesus, the one who says things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” or “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”? How come Jesus, the champion of the poor and vulnerable, suddenly sounds like that sketchy Michael Douglas character in the movie “Wall Street”?
Well, a big part of the answer is that we take this parable too literally. Given the plain meaning of the text it does seem grossly unfair. But surely we know enough about Jesus to say with confidence that he can’t really be talking about money here, much less about the stock market. Jesus would never deem “faithful” those who trade at great risk with other people’s assets, nor would he deem “wicked and lazy” those who are prudent. And there’s no way he would ever mete out the kind of judgment where the wealthy get even wealthier, while the poor have what little they have taken away. Granted, that happens to be exactly what’s happening in our country right now, but I think we all know that it’s not God’s will. I think we all know that it doesn’t please God, and that in fact it breaks God’s heart. So we must all know that money, investments, and wealth can’t possibly be what Jesus is talking about in this parable.
But we still have all that talk about the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” to deal with. But think about it for a minute: Can you imagine the same God who loved us so much he was willing to become one of us just to show us how to live, or the same God who loved us so much he was willing to take on all the evil we could hurl at him and keep on loving us…can you imagine this same God of unimaginably persistent love suddenly changing his mind and deciding to throw us into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?
I don’t think so.
On the other hand, it’s not so hard to imagine, as Biblical scholars now suggest, that this threat about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” was a later gloss (addition) that Mathew added to this parable. For starters, the expression “weeping and gnashing of teeth” only appears seven times in all of scripture, and six of those times are in Matthew’s gospel. Nowhere else in the entire New Testament does Jesus use that language except once in Luke’s gospel—and Matthew was one of Luke’s sources. Not only that, but we know Matthew has an agenda: he’s a Christian Jew writing to other Christian Jews at a time when many are being tempted to give up this new-fangled faith as Christ-followers. From their perspective, Jesus should have returned long ago, and they’re starting to wonder if he ever really will. And in the meantime, they’re being cut-off from all their friends and family members in mainstream Judaism, ostracized as unclean heretics. So Matthew’s harsh polemic is meant to warn these struggling believers in no uncertain terms that they better keep the faith no matter what, because there could be dire consequences if they decide to “”play it safe” by retreating to the safety of the synagogue instead.
So this parable isn’t about the rich getting richer and the poor get poorer. And it isn’t about the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness of hell. What this parable is about is responding to God’s call in Christ –with faithful risk-taking.
God always calls us out of our comfort zone. God always calls us to work that feels too difficult for us, to goals that feel too challenging for us, to visions that feel too big for us. That is how God acts. That is how God stretches us into being more than we think we can be, and how He seduces us into being more than we already are. God always calls us beyond ourselves to that terrifying place that requires nothing less than total reliance on Him in response. That’s faith.
The sin of the third servant in this morning’s parable isn’t that he was too prudent with his Master’s assets. It’s that he was fearful, not faithful: He was full of fear, instead of faith. And based on what? Absolutely nothing that is provided for us in the text. Quite the contrary, the fact that the Master in this story trusts his servants with what he holds most precious and has faith that they won’t squander it in his absence, indicates he is worthy of the same trust and faith in return. Instead, the wicked slave acts out of some self-centered fear about punishment, and of course it’s that very fear that brings on the punishment he so fears.
Fear-based decisions are self-centered decisions; it’s never a good idea to make fear-based decisions. Faith-based decisions are God-centered decisions; and it’s always a good idea to make God-centered decisions.
Let me give you an example. Have you ever thought about trying some new kind of activity or ministry in the community, at church, or at work– but that critical little voice in your head kept saying you weren’t good enough, or that you might mess up, or that you’d probably fail anyway– so you decided not to try after all? We all know what that’s like, right? And it’s a lousy feeling, playing it safe. We’re always left wondering, “What if…? We’re always left feeling “less than.”
Now imagine for a minute how different that decision might have looked if you’d stopped to consider whether God might have been the source of the initial idea, or whether God might have had something to say about your decision, too. Or what if you’d prayed for the courage and the resolve to step out in faith as God was calling you to do?
Or think about some time when you’ve actually done exactly that. Think of a time when you felt called to do something you weren’t at all sure you could do, and had no idea why God would call you of all people to do it, but you just sort of surrendered and said, “OK, God, I’ll do it –but you’ve got to show me how.” That’s the response of a good and faithful servant. That’s stepping out in faithful risk-taking. And if you’ve ever done it you know that just like it says in the parable this morning, the result is remarkable joy. That when we make decisions based on faith in God’s strength– and not on fear of our weakness– the result is darn-near giggle-producing delight! Because it works! Ask Jim Graham about his work with Haiti. Ask Lisa Norton about her trip to Golden Living with our little ones, or Olivia Baldwin about her decision to go back to school to study art. Ask Amy Whitcomb Slemmer about her decision to discern a call to the priesthood, or Phil Flaherty about leading the Saturday Bible study. I could go on and on! This church is thriving because more and more Christ-followers are responding to God’s call with faith rather than fear. They’re not playing it safe like the wicked servant in today’s parable, they’re stepping out and taking risks for the gospel. And the life-giving joy of that faithful response is palpable! It’s amazing!
Still, I think the challenge for us at St Stephen’s and at so many churches today is remembering that in the Biblical culture of Matthew’s time, this parable would have been addressed to the community as a whole, rather than the individual. So in addition to each of us reflecting on this teaching in terms of our own faith journeys, I wonder how this parable might speak to us as a whole, in the life we share together as a community of faith?
I know we do a lot already individually and collectively. But I also know God continually calls us out of our comfort zone as a church, not just individuals. God continually calls us to work that feels too difficult for us as a church, to goals that feel too challenging for us as a church, to a vision that feels too big for us as a church. That is, indeed, how God stretches us into being more than we think we can be and seduces us into being more than we already are as a church.
So I invite all of us to consider prayerfully: What precious asset has Jesus entrusted to this particular community of St. Stephen’s, and how might we step out in faithful risk-taking as a church family, for His sake, in response? Amen.