Fear and Hope
Matthew 25: 14-30
All over the gospels we hear Jesus introduce a parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who…” and then he tells a story. Some of the stories seem like the life we know and understand. Some of them seem pretty weird. Some of them are a little scary. Many are just plain confusing – especially on the first listen.
If I had to boil it all down, here’s what I hear Jesus saying about the kingdom of God:
1. This world doesn’t operate like the kingdom of God operates
2. God is in the middle of re-ordering this world to reflect and to be the kingdom
3. We are all called to live now as if that re-ordering is already finished – so, we live by God’s rules and priorities, not the world’s
That’s it. This world doesn’t run on God’s rules but we are called to live by those rules in the midst of this world, to help God bring about a new order, a new creation.
It’s like a rich man who is headed out on a journey and he calls his three slaves to him and gives them everything he owns – all of his property. He gives 5 talents to the first man, 2 to the next, and 1 to the last and then he leaves for his trip. The first two invest the rich man’s money and they each end up with double the original amounts. The third slave buries his money in the ground to keep it safe.
When the rich man returns he calls the three men back to him and asks for an accounting. He’s extremely pleased with the first two slaves – the ones who’ve doubled his money – and tells them he’ll be trusting them with even more money and responsibility now.
Then he comes to that third slave. It’s interesting to me that the third slave is the only one who says why he did what he did. The first two just give an accounting: You gave me five and I invested them and here you are: 10 talents. But when the third slave says, “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” (Matthew 25: 24-25).
What is the rich man’s response? He calls him wicked and lazy and takes away that one talent to give it to the 10-talent slave. And he says, “For to all 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” (v.29).
What’s fascinating to me is that in Jesus’ time, investing money and making interest was considered sinful. The Jewish people listening to him and the early Christians hearing and reading the book of Matthew would have been shocked to hear that the first two slaves were rewarded for sinful, immoral behavior. And that poor third slave – the one who actually followed the religious teaching of the time – he got punished for doing the upright, moral thing. Hearing this story, they would have been shocked all the way around. This wasn’t how the world worked and everything was backwards and upside down.
Sound like a kingdom you’ve heard about?
I want to focus on three parts of this parable, as the key to hearing what it has to tell us about the kingdom of God. The first one is verse 14: The rich man is setting off on a journey and he entrusts all he has to his slaves. This would also have been shocking for people in Jesus’ time to consider. No property owner would have done this, for any amount of time, for any length of trip. So from the very beginning of the story, we’re in unfamiliar territory.
If the rich man in this parable acts as God acts, what does that mean? What kind of God do we find here? This is a God who created the entire world and everything in it, who owes us nothing, but who trusts us with everything.
And those first two slaves receive this good, unearned gift and give back more than they were first given. But the third slave…Do you remember what I said about him? Here’s the second part of the parable I want to focus on. He is the only one who says why he does what he does: “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.”
At first it seems like it makes sense: he’s the one doing what was moral and customary in his day, and he gives back exactly what he is given. But this should sound a little bit strange to us by now. This doesn’t really sound like the Master after all, does it? Does the slave’s description sound like a rich man who gives everything he has to his slaves? Against all custom and convention of the time, he trusts them with everything.
So the slave gets it wrong. Maybe the rich man did have the reputation of taking what wasn’t his. But the slave already has proof—right there in his own life – that the rich man is generous beyond measure, beyond all imagining.
Why does he get it wrong? It’s right there in what he says when the rich man returns: “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” I was afraid.
Do you know anything about being afraid? Do you know what it’s like to do the wrong thing because you’re scared? Does anyone here know what it’s like to be so scared that you throw right back at God the good gifts you’ve been given – the very things God has trusted you with?
Here’s the third part of the parable I want to focus on tonight. It’s verse 29, right at the end: “For to all 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.” Sounds unfair, doesn’t it? Sounds like the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Sounds kind of like business as usual in this world.
Listen again. The first two slaves had more than the third slave and they were given more at the end. But why? The first two invested what they had been given; they used their talents and they were able to give back more than they started with. The third slave was afraid of even the small gift he was given and he buried it in the ground. He was relieved to get rid of it again, to give it back just as he received it.
Is this really business as usual? Or is it the radical, risk-taking business of the kingdom?
Jesus is asking us to use what we are given and to risk making an investment in the kingdom of God. Jesus is asking us to make the priorities of the kingdom our priorities – loving our God with all that we are and loving our neighbors as ourselves; giving to those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison (Thomas E. Boomershine, Go Tell, http://www.gotell.org/pdf/commentary/Matthew/Mt25_14-30_commentary.pdf ).
This is not the rich getting richer. When we recognize and receive the gifts God gives, and offer these gifts in service to God in the world, we will receive even more gifts to use like this. When we throw back God’s gifts or fearfully bury them unused we’ll find that even those gifts are taken away, withered like untended grapes on a vine.
Making an investment in the kingdom of God means that we live right here and now as if we are already there. It means we risk looking foolish or crazy because we choose to live for God rather than for ourselves. It means we know God as the giver of all good gifts – the One who trusts us with them – and it’s our job to use them to build up the kingdom of God. It means we live openly and generously, with nothing hidden from God. It means we are also full of fear but that we choose to live in hope.
Living by this world’s kingdoms limits our potential and feeds our fear. Living like citizens in the kingdom of God fills us with hope and gives us abundant life. God is in the middle of re-ordering this world, re-creating it every day, until that time when heaven and earth are the same. And God needs us for this work.
I have one more thing to say about the kingdom of God: It’s wide and it’s the kingdom of second chances. This parable is not the only glimpse Jesus gives us. We also know that God is like the father who runs out from the house while his prodigal wayward son is still a speck on the horizon, running out to greet him and welcome him home, no questions asked, past behind them. We also know that the kingdom of heaven is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep who did what they were told to go off looking for the 1 sheep that jumped the fence. And when he finds the lost sheep he lifts him up like a favorite child and carries him home to the fold on his shoulders. Like the father or the shepherd, God never stops loving us or looking to bring us back home, no matter how far we’ve strayed, no matter how many talents we have thrown back in God’s face or buried deep, deep in the ground.
It might be too late or too far away to go dig up the ones you’ve buried before. But look around! Look for what God is giving you right here and now – even and especially here – and be thankful. Offer these fine gifts in any way you can, to the gracious loving Giver, to your neighbor, to the life of the world! Because this is what the kingdom of heaven is like: the women at Fluvanna living right here and now for the God who never gives up on any of us!
Thanks be to God!
© 2011 Deborah E. Lewis
13 November 2011
Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women