Sermon – November 19, 2017 – Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 25:14-30

I get a little uneasy when I read this parable. Remember, parables are supposed to reveal something to us about God, or, God through Jesus. Parables in Matthew, in particular, are meant to point us towards the kingdom of God— this alternate reality that being ushered in by Jesus. Because of this, how we read these passages and where we look for God in them has considerable consequences for how we see God’s work in the world. Traditionally this parable is read with God or Jesus being interpreted as the master and, again, that makes me a little uneasy. Because seeing Jesus in this way, affects the way we understand the Kingdom of God.

Three servants are tasked with keeping an obscene amount of money safe for a master.  At the end of the story, all three servants successfully do what the master asks them, BUT WAIT, some servants preformed a little bit better and earned the master an even more obscene amount of money so, naturally, the servant who simply kept the money safe is worthless and should be taken away never to be in community again.  And if that isn’t enough to make you a little uncomfortable, remember that usually when we read this text we assume that the servants refer to followers of Jesus (us) and that the master, who is kind of a jerk, is Jesus.

Now, there are some indicators that could lead us to interpret the story that way but nowhere is it clear that this is how Jesus, or the author of Matthew, intended the story to be heard.  Although unclear as its intentions are, there are serious theological implications to viewing the story in this way—it affects the way we understand God.  To view the relationship between the servants and the master as Jesus’ relationship to his followers is to say that, indeed, if you work hard enough, are faithful enough, then God will bless you.  And, conversely, if you simply just scrape by and do not excel in your faithfulness, then you will be sent away, worthless in God’s eyes. I have serious trouble believing that this is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Why do we read the story this way?  Well, this kind of relationship where you can earn God’s favor in order to be blessed fits in perfectly in the kind of world we live in. It’s the American Dream comingling with the divine: work as hard as you can and you can achieve success, work as hard at being as faithful as you can and God will reward you. This is at the heart of the prosperity gospel that has seen huge success in our country. But what if we saw this parable differently? What if we instead saw this story as a critique?

What if at the heart of this parable is a reflection on what happens when a human being exploits another human being for their own financial gain?  It’s right there in the story; even the master admits that he “reaps where he does not sow.”  And this master is someone who has acquired an almost unreal amount of money.  One talent, just one, was equal to about 20 years worth of salaries for the average worker, and this story depicts the master dolling out 8 talents for his servants to protect.  Could perhaps this story be ancient Israel’s version of the 99% and the 1%?

See, at this time, similar to the financial climate that we live in, wealth was reserved for a miniscule amount of people while the overwhelming majority of households lived in poverty.  It was this wealthy elite that had control over political situations, and again, the poor majority had very little voice.  It is no secret that this elite, ruling class was threatened by Jesus’ message—remember, in just a few chapters after this story Jesus is executed, hung on the cross to die for this same message.  Similarly, the author of the Gospel of Matthew (where we find this story of the master and servant) was likely writing to poor, working class people. A similar story is recorded in the Gospel of Luke, another gospel where the disparity between poor and rich is highlighted.  At the time these gospels were passed on Christianity had not yet mingled with empire—it was a counter-cultural religion of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.  It makes sense, then, that this story of the wealthy landowner who exploits his servants for gain stands to get a strong reaction from the hearer who deeply understood what it felt like to be exploited.

This interpretation makes even more sense if we look at this story within its larger narrative in Matthew.  This story is nuzzled in between a larger discourse on what the Kingdom of God is like—it describes what life is like when Jesus’ message isn’t just heard but is embodied and lived. Immediately following this story, we hear Jesus’ command to care for the least of these, to feed the hungry, to house the unhoused, to visit the sick and imprisoned—This, is the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is not like a master who uses fear and exploitation in order to keep the rich, rich, and the poor, poor—That’s the kingdom that already existed in ancient Israel and in our world today.

At the heart of the gospel of Christ is the simple hope that our world can be different.  You may have heard it said before, “If the gospel truly is good news for the poor and marginalized then it is inevitably bad news for others.”  If our faith in Christ cannot challenge us to see our world differently, if it cannot challenge our own assumptions about how we experience the interaction between Christianity and culture, then it fails to be any different than the kingdom that we already live in.  We were made for so much more.

 

If we truly have to understand our relationship to God in the same way a master interacts with their slaves, then good news is scarce to be found.  If we truly have to be faithful enough, righteous enough, prayerful enough, good enough to receive the blessings of being in relationship with God, then that’s not good news either.  There is no room for grace in this kind of relationship and the God that we know through Christ is a God of grace. And siblings in Christ, you are enough. You are enough not based on your own worthiness, what you’ve done or what you have not; you are enough because of what God through Christ has done for you. This God will never send us away with the label of “worthless.” As hearers of this story today, we must remember that our worth has already been proven through Christ. Despite our own doing, we have been called, claimed, and named as beloved Children of God. This kind may not validate our own self sacrifice but it’s a love that will change the world. Thanks be to God for that.