Preached by the Rev. Miranda K. Hassett on Sunday, November 23, 2014.
So this is the assignment I gave myself this week. Compose a sermon that deals with the Parable of the Talents, one of the most complex, elusive, and contested parables in the Gospels; that deals also with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, with its beautiful themes of service to the poor and its terrifying language of damnation; touch on the Kingship of Christ; and keep it short, so we have plenty of time to eat pie/digest. Hah. I’ve always liked difficult assignments.
I could easily have skipped the Parable of the Talents; it’ll come around again. But I’ve become really fascinated by the way these two parables interact. They are the last two parables in this long speech of Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, about being ready, and how to live while you’re waiting. We are on the cusp of Jesus’ arrest and trial here, in Matthew’s narrative, and we should read these stories with a sense of the whirlwind of repressive violence about to catch up Jesus and all those close to him.
It is as if a man, going on a journey, entrusted some money to his slaves – huge sums, more than they could earn in a lifetime, even if they were free men. And two of the slaves used the money to make more money; but one buried it, hiding it in the ground for safekeeping. And when the Master returned, he called the slaves to settle accounts. The two who had used the money to make more money earned the master’s praise: “Well done; enter into the joy of your master. ” But the third slave spoke the harsh truth to his master: “I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow; so I hid the money, to keep it safe. Here you have what is yours. ” And the master was furious, and had that slave thrown into the outer darkness. For to all those who have, even more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
When the Son of Man comes in glory, all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people, as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. At his right hand, he will gather those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the prisoner. And he will say to them, Just as you did these things for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them for me; come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you. At his left hand, he will gather those who did not feed the hungry, care for the sick, or visit the prisoner. And they will go away into eternal punishment. It is fascinating to look at these parables together. I’ve never really done it before. The lectionary, our calendar of Sunday readings, gives them to us one at a time. And that week in between gives the preacher the luxury of forgetting or ignoring the ways the two stories overlap, and simultaneously tug against each other. After spending ten days mulling them over, off and on, noticing their resonances and their tensions, I’m increasingly convinced that they need to be told, and interpreted, together; that they are, in some deep sense, paired. At the same time, I’m quite convinced that I can’t begin to do justice to either, let alone both, in the space of twelve minutes or less. So prepare yourselves for some broad brushstrokes and unanswered questions.
First, what these two stories have in common: The message that there will be an accounting, a judgment, a sorting. And what we do with what we have, matters. How we use our wealth, our time, our skills and yes, our talents, will be weighed and measured. Both parables have a strong message that we should live in the present as people mindful of an ultimate future, with an awareness of the impact and import of our actions and choices. But maybe it would be more accurate to say that there will be two accountings. Because the Master of the slaves and the sheep-sorting King are not the same guy. I believe these parables are mirror images, their similarities intended to call our attention to the ways in which they are profoundly different.
Consider the punch line of the Talent parable: To all those who have, even more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Or as Billie Holiday puts it: Them that’s got shall get; them that’s not, shall lose. Not all of Jesus’ parables are kingdom parables, parables about God’s reality and God’s intentions for the world. Some of them are parables about the world as it is, standing in the tradition of Wisdom literature that sees and names the deep patterns of human life and society.
Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose: does that sound like God’s way of doing things, anywhere else in the Bible? It sounds to me very much like the human way of doing things. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It was sure as heck happening in first-century Palestine. It is sure as heck happening in twenty-first-century America. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. By many measures, we are the most unequal society in the developed world. I see that reality manifest every week in the stories of the folks who come to our doors seeking help. I’m sure our members who volunteer at MOM or Porchlight or IHN see it and hear it, too. If you want data instead of anecdotes, there’s plenty to be found. To look at one heartbreaking number, released this week: nearly one in every thirty children in America is homeless. Those rates have worsened even as our economy recovers. To those who have nothing, even the little that they have will be taken away. Is this God’s way of doing things? Is this harsh master meant to stand for God? Or is the slave who speaks truth to power, refuses to collude with corrupt systems of wealth creation, and blows the whistle on the master’s greed – should this slave remind us of the man who tells us this story, the man who, one chapter later, will himself stand before the seat of power, and be judged, condemned, and cast out? …
This parable has been read as a call to make the most of what you have. That’s a good message; I do believe that God wants us to make good use of our gifts, skills, time, and resources. But that very familiar reading of this parable makes God an unjust and greedy master, and endorses “them that’s got, shall get” as the divine order of things.
I can’t make peace with that interpretation. I don’t believe that was the story Jesus meant to tell. Consider the story he tells next.
In this story, the authority figure, the King on the throne, is identified as the Son of Man: a phrase Jesus seems to use to refer to himself, especially in his role as Messiah, the one who acts and speaks for God,… as God. The judgment here, then, is a divine, not a human, judgment. And the people gathered before the throne are not judged on whether they’ve doubled their wealth. They are judged, instead, on whether they’ve spent their gifts, skills, time, and resources responding with compassion and generosity to those in need.
Preachers and commentators sometimes fret that this parable teaches us works-righteousness – the idea that we can earn our own salvation by our acts of compassion, our righteous works, instead of receiving God’s grace as a free gift. But notice: in the parable, the people who lived with compassion didn’t know they were serving God by doing so. They ask, “When did I do something for you? ” They weren’t trying to get on Jesus’ good side; they had no idea. They just saw someone hungry, and fed her. As simple as that.
I admire people with that kind of spirit; sometimes I need a little more help. I turn to this parable on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, to remind myself how to respond to those in need. People often call the church or come to our doors, people whose lives have gone off the rails and who don’t know where else to turn for help. Dealing with those requests is one of the hardest parts of my job. It’s hard because I’m busy and it takes a lot of time to hear people’s stories, to let them cry, to negotiate what I can offer and how to provide it. It’s hard because their stories are hard to hear. It’s hard because what I have to offer is so little, if anything. I can’t fix their situation. The most I can do is offer $100 towards rent or a gas card, and a little food from our kitchen, and a prayer. And all of that is demoralizing and painful and sad for ME. When I hear that someone is at the door seeking help, my heart doesn’t leap in my chest at the opportunity to serve a child of God in need. My heart sinks, because the need is so great, and mostly all I can do is say, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry all this has happened to you. And I’m so sorry that I can’t make it better. I can’t find you a place to live. I can’t give you a job with a living wage. I can’t fix your addiction problems, or your bad back. I can’t get your violent ex-husband to leave you alone. Here is the tiny, tiny bit I can do; and I’ll pray for you. It is hard, and sometimes I don’t want to do it. I just don’t want to.
This parable reminds me that in doing whatever I can, as little as it may be, I am serving Christ. It keeps me grounded. It helps me respond when I feel like I have nothing to give. I don’t think that’s the dreaded “works-righteousness”, because I’m not imagining a tally sheet somewhere (and if I did, I’d imagine myself perpetually in the red). The story simply remind me that the person standing before me belongs to Christ. It’s a touchstone for me, because it lays out so clearly what it looks like to follow a Savior who came as a servant of all.
That is not to say that this is an easy parable. Half of this crowd is shuffled off to eternal damnation. Judgment is a tough subject. I will happily put off the topics of judgment and hell for another sermon… and keep doing so indefinitely. And of course I’m running short on time today, so….
Returning to the relationship between these parables: can you see how they line up as twinned opposites, mirror images? There is a moment of judgment, of standing before the one in power and having your deeds weighed, your sums tallied. But one is a judgment in this world’s terms, success and prosperity as we measure it on this side. And the other measures success by having given away time, skill, resources, even self, in service to those who have nothing, and less than nothing. A life lived like that isn’t likely to double anybody’s wealth. But in this accounting, it’s the ones with empty hands who earn the Master’s praise.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the Sunday of the church year when we honor, and puzzle over, the paradoxical sovereignty of Jesus. One of the pitfalls, maybe THE pitfall, of naming Jesus Christ as King, Lord, and Master, is that we tend to project onto him the trappings and dynamics of human power. In life, he had no use for all that. He wasn’t interested in pomp and praise, in wealth or glory. He got on his knees and washed his friends’ stinking feet and told them, This is what leadership looks like. Even in this parable, in which he seems to put himself on a throne, he turns right around and climbs down into the gutter, the sickbed, the jail cell.
But we struggle with his humility. Our images of wealth and power are so entrenched. As often as he climbs off the throne, we put him back on it; as often as he shakes off the purple robe, we wrap it around his shoulders again; as often as he says, Put down your swords, we call up another army to fight for him.
On this Christ the King Sunday, looking at these two parables, I invite you to try a thought experiment.
In Matthew’s Gospel, one parable leads into the next with this abrupt jump: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ” When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. ” What if we fill in the space between these two parables, like this? The third slave was bound and thrown into the darkness. In the darkness he suffered and died, at the hands of those who hated him for naming the injustice of their ways. But the story wasn’t over; and the slave wasn’t really a slave. (Philippians 2:6-9) He humbled himself, submitting even to death; therefore God raised him up in glory, freeing him from the power of the grave. In the fulness of time, he returned to the human world, surrounded by angels, aflame with divine power, to claim the throne of judgment and mercy, and to bring to fulfillment that Kingdom in which no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love, and no wealth measured but the wealth of kindness.
Come, Lord Jesus.