20 November 2017

"Trust, fear, love - what are we to do?" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
November 19, 2017
Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30

Today’s parable makes me think of an episode in one of my favourite TV shows, Rev.  It is a BBC show, and I don’t think that it has been broadcast in Canada, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard about it or seen it.  It is set in a struggling Church of England congregation in inner-city London.  Adam, the minister, is collaborating with the imam of the local mosque to build a playground for all of the neighbouring children – the are each going to fundraise with their congregations, and pool the money together so that the work gets done.

Adam decides to use this parable as the basis of his half of the fundraising.  He reads the parable, and then hands out £10 bills to each member of his congregation, telling them to act like the first or second slaves in this story, finding some way to turn £10 into £20 or more.  And they go on their way after the service.

A few weeks later, one person comes back to Adam and tells him that he has invested his £10 in the very best “emerging markets hedge fund” that has an unheard-of return of 9% in just one month.  So the original £10 is now worth £10.90.  The investors charge a 20% fee on any profit – there goes 18 pence, plus tax of 20% on their fee, and so the original £10 is now worth £10.68.  Not quite the doubling of the investment that the first two slaves are able to produce, plus the show doesn’t tell us how ethical the investing practices of this hedge fund are.

Another character comes back to Adam, and hands him an envelope containing £350.  He was not returning twice as much as he had been given; he was returning 35 times as much.  When questioned about how he had managed this, the character presented a very sound business plan – he had bought £10 worth of drugs, cut it with detergent and sold it to kids in the low-income housing area and made £50.  He then did the same thing twice more, ending up with £500, but kept back some as his cut of the profits.  He claimed that it wasn’t really drug money, but was more like detergent money.

So all of this raises for me the question of how the first two servants in today’s parable managed to double the value of the money that was entrusted to them.  Surely this parable couldn’t be an endorsement of exploitative investment practices or drug dealing.

Where are the teachers here this morning, or retired teachers?  Put up your hands.  Now, everyone who has ever been a student, put up your hands too.  OK – I’ve got another story to share with you.

For the kingdom of God will be like a university classroom.  At the beginning of the semester, the teacher gathered the students around her and reviewed the course syllabus.  She explained to them that there would be a weekly seminar where the students would learn the course material, but at the end of the semester, 100% of the students’ grades would be based on a creative independent study, which they were to prepare using the course material and their own research.

So week-by-week the class met together.  They learned together.  They challenged one another.  The first student grasped onto an idea early in the semester and spent the rest of the semester researching and looking into his topic.  He dug into the historical research and read a variety of scholars, and at the end of the term, he pulled all of his ideas together.  Likewise, the second student had decided on her topic by the middle of the semester, and she did similar research on her independent study.  The third student, however, attended class each week and took copious notes, but did no outside work on his topic.

At the end of the semester, the class gathered together and they presented their work.  The first student stood up and presented a paper that amazed all who listened to it with its brilliance and relevance for daily life.  When he was done, the teacher said to him, “Well done, diligent student.  Put on this cap and gown and prepare for your graduation.  You have entered into the joy of scholarship, and now you can claim your place as a scholar.” 

Likewise, the second student stood up and presented a paper that amazed all who listened to it with its brilliance and relevance for daily life.  The teacher said to her, “Well done, diligent student.  Put on this cap and gown and prepare for your graduation.  You have entered into the joy of scholarship, and now you can claim your place as a scholar.”

But when the third student stood up to speak, he said to the teacher, “I have heard that you are a hard marker, and that you don’t appreciate anyone’s opinions but your own.  Therefore, instead of a paper, I am going to stand here and read your class notes.”  And that is what the third student did.  When he had finished, the teacher said to him, “You timid and lazy student.  You could have at least plagiarized a paper and given us something interesting to listen to.  You have not done what I asked you to do, your grade is an F, and you will need to repeat this course next year.

For those who have done what I asked, they shall be celebrated; but for those who did not do what I asked, even that which they did do shall be counted as nothing.  As for this student, get him out of my sight.

So… I don’t think that Jesus would suggest plagiarism, just like I don’t think that Jesus was recommending unfair and unjust economic investment practices.  I think that the suggestion that the third slave invest the money for the sake of interest was possibly exasperation, or exaggeration in order to make a point.

So if the parable isn’t about how to invest money, what might it be about?

Some people suggest, because of the word “talent,” that this is a parable about how we are to use our skills and abilities.  But that argument falls apart when you realize that our English word for talent actually comes from an interpretation of this parable, not the other way around.  What is meant by a talent here is a very large sum of money.  One talent was equivalent to the wage earned by a day labourer for 6000 days – approximately 20 years – of labour.  In today’s terms, the first slave was entrusted with around 2 ½ million dollars, the second slave was entrusted with just over a million dollars, and the third slave was given just over $500,000 which he promptly hid in a hole in the ground.  It’s not a story about our skills and abilities, it’s a story about how the slaves reacted when they were given something really, really valuable.

So if it’s not a story about cheating the investment system, and it’s not a story about using your musical gifts to sing in the church choir or using your mathematical gifts to serve as the church treasurer, what point is Jesus trying to make with this story?

I think that we get a hint if we look at the context of this parable. 
This parable is part of a series of parables that Jesus tells to his disciples to answer their question back in chapter 24, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  In other words, how will we know when the world is going to end?

Jesus’ answer is quite clear – he doesn’t need a parable to answer that question.  He tells the disciples directly that nobody knows – only God.  Not the angels, not the Son, but only the Father.  The parable that we read together last week – the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids – told us that the end of the world and the coming kingdom of God is probably further away than we expect, but we shouldn’t give up hope and we should never stop expecting it to come, because it’s going to be like a big party when it does get here.

Last week’s parable of the ten bridesmaids is followed immediately by today’s parable of the three slaves.  Now the idea of slavery doesn’t sit well with our 21st Century understanding, and if I am being honest, stories like this one have been used over the centuries to justify practices of slavery.  I’m not going to say slavery is right – I think that slavery is very, very wrong – but it was a part of the culture in which Jesus lived.  And a slave was obligated to do whatever his or her master demanded.  No questioning, no negotiating – this isn’t a relationship of equals but there is very much a power imbalance in this relationship with the master holding the power and the slave in a vulnerable position.  Maybe a bit like the teacher and the students in my re-write of the parable.  And maybe a bit like the relationship between God and us.  God has the power in the relationship, and we are vulnerable next to God.

But the master in the story doesn’t wield his power arbitrarily – instead he shows a good deal of trust in his slaves.  He trusts them with immense sums of money in his absence; and the first two slaves respect their master enough that they do their best with what has been entrusted to them.

But the third slave doesn’t respond to the master’s trust with respect, he responds with fear.  When his master returns, the third slave says to him, “I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

So like last week’s parable, we’re dealing with a delay.  Last week, the groom was delayed from his own wedding until after midnight; this week, the master returns home from his journey only after a long time.  So if we think of the master in today’s story as being like God – the one with the power in the relationship, but also the one who loves and trusts us – God was with us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.

But remember that Jesus is telling this parable in the last week of his life – in a few short days, Jesus is going to be betrayed and crucified.  He is telling this story in a time and a place of increasing tension and conflict.  He likely had a pretty good sense that his death was near – that he, like the master in this parable, was going to be going away on a long journey.

Jesus knew that he would be returning, but remember that he told the disciples that he didn’t know when – not the Son but only the Father knows.  And maybe, with this parable, he is telling them how they should wait.

Jesus has entrusted his disciples – the original group that he was telling this story to, and all of us who have come in the centuries since – Jesus has entrusted us with a valuable treasure.  We have been entrusted with the stories of Jesus – with the stories about how he healed people, how he liberated people, how he welcomed people.  We have been entrusted with the teachings of Jesus – the parables that he told, the sermons that he gave.  And what should we do with this great treasure?

I think, with this parable, Jesus tells us that he wants us to share this treasure with others.  The first two slaves, who are called good and trustworthy, and who are invited to enter into the joy of their master – they don’t hide the treasure that they have been given – they go out and they trade with it – they give it away, in effect – and the treasure is multiplied beyond anything that is possible in the regular market economy.

But that poor third slave.  The third slave was afraid, and he let his fear drive his actions.  He hid the treasure – the good news of the gospel – in a hole in the ground and sat there, waiting for his master to return.

How often do we let fear drive our actions?  Fear is a horrible thing, but it is a very powerful thing.    Think of the increase in terrorist activity in this century.  The ultimate goal of terrorists is not to cause death and destruction, but to incite fear, to incite terror.  If we respond with fear, then those who want to cause that fear will win.

Fear is a tool used by people and groups who want to oppress another.  You see it in politics – be afraid of what the future holds and be afraid of what the other party might do; vote for us and we will protect you.  You see it in advertising – be afraid of the world; give your money to us and we will keep you safe.  You also see fear in our day-to-day world – be afraid of those who look different than us, be afraid of those who speak differently than us, be afraid of those who pray differently than us; and this fear leads to prejudice and hatred and violence.

But Jesus tells us not to be afraid – not to be like the third slave in today’s story – not to let our actions be driven by our fear.  We have been entrusted with the treasure that is the good news of the gospel – that God so loves the world that God became vulnerable in the human flesh of Jesus Christ.  And because of this, we don’t ever have to let our actions be driven by fear – our actions can be driven by this overwhelming love that is God.  Thanks be to God!

Let us pray:
God who is love,
            fill us with your love.
Let us be so filled with love
            that there is no room left for fear.
Help our every action,
            our every thought,
            our every words,
                        be driven by the love
                                    that is at the centre of the gospel.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            who came to this world singing love.

(Even our third snowfall warning in the past week didn't keep people away on Sunday morning - though a train passing through the middle of town just before the service started slowed some people down!)

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