23 Pentecost A—11/16/14
Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; Ps. 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matt. 25:14-30
American Idol. The X Factor. The Voice. Top Chef. America’s Next Top Model. And, America’s Got Talent! Growing up, I thought of talent shows as something you’d find at summer camp, or church events. Today on television they’re big business!
“The kingdom of heaven is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.”
Today’s reading from Matthew is a kind of “talent show”—who can do the best with the talents they have. But from the get-go, we have a problem. The word “talent” as it’s used in the Bible is not about skills and abilities. A talent in the ancient world was a unit of measure. In Jesus’ time, for example, it referred to a large sum of money.
But whether a talent is about money, or skills and abilities, what lesson do you take away from this parable? “Work hard and you’ll be rewarded”? Remember, Jesus says, “To those who have will more be given, and from those that don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away.” But, how can it be that the Christ who spent his whole life defending the poor and the powerless—the woman, the child, the leper, the prostitute, the foreigner–seems now at the end of his life, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, to be preaching what we would call today a “gospel of success”?
“Work hard and God will reward you with wealth and success.” Is that what we believe?
There is more than one way to read this parable. For example, imagine that the master in the story is not God, as we suppose, but the master of an unjust economic system who expects his slaves to play by the rules of the game. Two of the slaves do. Each doubles what he has been given. “Hard-working and productive,” we would call them. The third, however, refuses to play by the rules of the game and produces, apparently, nothing.
What happens next is most interesting. The third slave describes the master this way: “I knew that you were a harsh man…” To this the master replies: “You wicked and lazy slave!”
Who do you think is the more righteous person in this story? The master who is described as “harsh” or the slave who is described as “wicked and lazy”? We have been trained from an early age to think of “hard work” in almost religious terms. What is judged as “lazy” in our culture is thought of as a sin, maybe even a crime, and is punished. So like the first two slaves in this story we might be willing to overlook the fact that the master is a tyrant, “reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter seed.” We fear such a master; and yet, we respect him. But notice: We accept the tyrant’s description of the third slave as “wicked and lazy.” We do not question this judgement; we do not respect the third slave.
We may not like the masters of the unjust system but we do respect them. Back in 2008, you remember, the world financial system was brought to its knees by bankers and lenders whose only concern was profit. And yet, as you recall, those same financial institutions were bailed out, because this is one of the rules of the game: If you’re poor you get a welfare check. If you’re rich you get a much bigger welfare check. If you generate wealth or if you are judged to be “productive” you are rewarded. If not, you may be considered, as the master puts it, “worthless.” If you doubt that, come with me to visit a nursing home, or a rehab facility, or a prison, or a hospital, and see whether many residents feel loved and affirmed…or worthless.
But an unjust system is not simply about banks and corporations and governments. And it’s not just about our own American system. There’s a good chance that injustice is embedded in any system where money is exchanged.
An unjust system is something that all of us participate in, whether we want to or not. This past week I was in conversation with a small business owner who asked me, “How does the gospel speak to a small business owner?” What a great question! Here is someone who is earnestly trying to apply the teachings of Jesus to life. Part of what I heard in the question was: How does the gospel offer encouragement for someone who longs to live faithfully and responsibly in their chosen field?
How does a small business owner, for example, compete with a big-box store? The answer in many cases is: they don’t. They can’t. And why can’t they? Because the most important thing for shoppers is a sale. Given a choice, shoppers will go to the big box for low prices and the convenience of one-stop shopping. The small business owner doesn’t stand a chance. In a just society every employer would pay a livable wage and generous health and retirement benefits to all employees. But–if the small business owner wants to survive, in many cases they can’t afford to offer such benefits because people who are perfectly able to support small businesses, to pay full value for goods and services, choose not to.
All of us, it turns out, whether shoppers or small business owners or corporations or financial institutions or governments participate, willingly or not, in an unjust system. Last week the Scriptures proclaimed to us an alternative to our unjust human systems. That alternative is described as the “day of the Lord,” which we hear proclaimed again today by the prophet Zephaniah: “The day of the LORD is at hand…Those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.’ Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste… Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath.” And Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape.”
Dear friends in Christ, the day of the Lord is at hand. It is here today. There is no escape. What remains for us is to decide how we will live: as obedient subjects of an unjust system, or as disciples of Jesus Christ who look for opportunities to say no to injustice. Some interpreters of Scripture have said that the third slave in Jesus’ story is Jesus himself. He alone stood up to the unjust system. He alone paid the price. It is he who was cast into outer darkness, onto the cross, “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
What, then, are we to do? One of our newer worshipers came to me recently and said, One of the main reasons we come here to worship is the statement on the back of your bulletin: “Lakeridge Lutheran Church is a spiritual community that celebrates the gifts of God that empower us to engage in the struggles of life, to care for each other, and to serve Christ where we work and live. Lakeridge Lutheran is a Reconciling-in-Christ congregation. We welcome the participation of people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, educational backgrounds, and economic conditions—all who want to join in community to honor God and be of service to people.”
Here is a glimpse of the day of the Lord, a vision of God’s justice, very different from the unjust systems that we find ourselves caught in that favor those who have more, punish those whom society judges to have less. To welcome all people is to participate in the kingdom of God. God’s welcome is not a simple “Hi, how are ya?” on Sunday. To welcome all people is to allow our hearts and minds and lives to be transformed. We choose for or against God’s justice in the everyday choices we make, whether we know it or not. We choose between the master who reaps where he does not sow and labels some people “worthless,” and, the master who calls every single person on earth beloved…no matter what.
We gather this morning as equals around a table to share equally in the symbols of God’s grace, love, forgiveness and mercy—in water, oil, bread and wine. We go from this place, assured and re-energized, to stand with those whom society judges to be worthless or of little value. Today is the day of the Lord. And, praise be to God, the Holy Spirit is with us as we strive to pour our lives out for the sake of the world.