Year A, Pentecost 23
When I was newly ordained, I was at a large clergy gathering and was standing next to the bishop as we were about to sit down for a meal. (This was not our current bishop by the way.) This particular bishop would often ask the new clergy to pray. I think he thought it was an honor. To me, it was just mean. When he asked me to pray I said, “No thank you.” The thought praying in front of the bishop and 100 clergy who were all older than me and much more experienced at public prayer was absolutely terrifying. A couple years later, another priest told me that he thought I would not last very long after I refused to pray for the bishop. While I said no because I was afraid, in retrospect it was probably a lot riskier to say no to the bishop then it was to pray in front of all those people who would no doubt judge my praying skills and possibly boo me out of the room, throw rotten fruit and shame me for life. Thankfully that bishop while slightly intimidating, never held my fear against me.
The Gospel reading for today is perplexing. Many people interpret it the same way I did for the children’s sermon; as a story about the importance of using our gifts and talents for the greater good. Don’t hoard the gifts you have, share them and then you will be rewarded. I must confess, I thought about preaching that. It is tempting especially on Stewardship Sunday when we ask you to pledge your time, talent, and treasure. I could use this text and say, “Pledge to the church and you will be rewarded by your Father in heaven. If you do not, you will be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It would definitely change the tenor of our stewardship campaign. But I’m just not convinced that is what this text is saying.
One of the challenges of interpreting this text is the character of the land owner. People have assumed that the landowner represented Jesus Christ and the slaves were us. The first complication is the word slave…which can also be interpreted as servant. Jesus did not treat people as his slaves nor his servants. He treated people as friends. He told his disciples “I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends…”
Another problem is the way that the landowner treated the third servant. As you will recall, each servant was given a sum of money. The first servant was given five talents, the second two talents and the third was given one talent. The text does not say that he asked them to invest these talents; it just says that he entrusted his property to them. The first two servants doubled the investment and the third servant buried it in the ground. Now I will concede that burying money in the ground is not the best investment strategy, but it was definitely the safest approach. When the landowner returned he rewarded the first two servants and punished the servant who buried his talent in the ground.
There are several theories about why he rewarded the first two and punished the third and why this is true to the character of God. However, it still does not make much sense to me. All the theories seemed a little too convenient. I think what is interesting is not what the third servant did with the money or why he was punished, but the reason why he buried the money. The reason is there, right in the text. The servant told the man on his return, “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.”
He was afraid of his master. He perceived him as a harsh man with questionable business practices. The man never gave the servant the money. He merely entrusted it to him for a time period and that servant did not even know how long it would be. He did not know if he was returning in a week, a month or several years. The master did not specify. So to me, and to many people, the third servant really did the smartest thing.
Yet here is the curious thing, there is no evidence that the first two servants feared the landowner. Do we really even know if the landowner was really as bad as the third servant implied? When the landowner responded to the servant, he did not say, “You are right, I am all of those things you said I am.” No he said, “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” It was a question, almost a challenge. Now you might say that the landowner confirmed that servant’s perception when he threw him into the outer darkness; but let’s put our literal interpretation on hold because this is obviously not meant to be interpreted literally. If it was, he would have thrown him into jail or a dungeon, not outer darkness. There is no specificity in the punishment.
What if this story is not about how God punishes us, but about how we punish ourselves with our own misconceptions of God and faith and even ourselves? Perhaps the first two servants felt comfortable taking risks because they perceived the landowner as a generous and forgiving man. The third servant buried his talent in the ground because he was so afraid of losing what the landowner entrusted to him. He expected the landowner to be cruel and merciless and so he was. It was essentially a self-fulfilling prophesy.
When people perceive God as judgmental, vindictive, and fickle, then that is what they will see. They will expect judgment from God and anyone or anything that represents God. Yet when people perceive God as a friend, someone who loves them unconditionally and will do anything to display that love…then they will act in a way that reflects that confidence. They might take chances, not with investment, but with who they love and how they love. They might work a little less and rest a little more. They might love people who could spurn their love. They might share the love of God with people who perceive God as judgmental and merciless. They might invite someone to church even if they don’t think there is any chance that person will attend. They might believe in God wholeheartedly even when the world tells them that faith is foolish and God is imagined.
It has been eight years since I refused to pray in front of the bishop and the clergy of the diocese. A lot has happened in that eight years. For one thing, I am a lot more accustomed to praying publically. But what really makes a difference is that I know the bishop and I know most of the clergy of the diocese. I don’t fear them or expect judgment. I except acceptance and support and that is what they give.
Yes, we should all share our time, treasure and talent. However, I wonder if the first step to sharing those things is that we know that God loves us for whatever time, treasure and talent that we have and the people of God do as well. So maybe you have never acted, but we need to do a Star Wars themed Advent play and you think just maybe you could pull that off. Or maybe you have never led a Bible study but you know a priest who could walk you through it.
I’m not going to say that there is no risk in sharing our gifts. There is. But this is the place to take those risks. God is who you should trust with your fears and insecurities. And I think St. John’s is really good at supporting people who try. You would not believe how many St. John’s people cheered when I threw (more like rolled) that horrible pitch this summer. So please expect God to support you and love you. Look for examples of that love and you will see it. Be grateful and you will discover the many things that you can be grateful for. There will still be disappointment, loss and pain but if you have nurtured a relationship with God, you will not perceive a God who has abandoned you in these moments, but a God who walks with you through the pain, the insecurities and the joy. God can hold all these disparate parts of us…when no one else can. We just need to give him the chance.