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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 11/16/2014

There isn’t much question that Matthew’s interpretation of this parable of the talents had to do with the return of Jesus to judge the world. It’s pretty clear that for Matthew the master who goes away is the exalted Christ who, upon return, will demand an accounting of what each of us has done with the abilities we’ve been given. A favorable judgment grants us a share in the eternal banquet of joy, an unfavorable judgment throws us into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. A little scary, but it’s a great interpretation for those who are looking for an angry, wrathful, works righteousness God. However, it doesn’t leave much room for the grace that is at the center of Lutheran theology and I don’t think it leaves much room for Jesus.

Last week I said that if your interpretation of a gospel text doesn’t fit with Jesus and what he taught you can be pretty sure that it’s wrong and that’s what this interpretation does. We’re a still over a month away from Christmas and our celebration of the Incarnation, but in the Incarnation, we more clearly see the gracious side of God as revealed in Jesus. God didn’t have to become human to be viewed as a “you get what you deserve” judge. That was already the dominant theology of the Old Testament. A Jesus who only came to reinforce that doesn’t represent anything new.

Remember though that the gospel writers weren’t writing biographies of Jesus. Their accounts were intended to convince others that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was the Son of God so as each of them told the story their interpretation was, by definition, built into it, interpretation concerning Jesus and interpretation concerning God. Their thoughts were inspired to be sure, but still the personality and predispositions of the authors has to come through.

Of all the gospel writers, Matthew seems to have had the greatest difficulty in letting go of “you get what you deserve” theology. As he does in this parable, he’s fond of casting those who are undeserving into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, but is that where Jesus would leave them? It can’t be denied that Jesus had high expectations for those who claimed to follow him and it can’t be denied that judgment is part of the equation, but if Jesus is the judge, can that judgment be as frightening as Matthew makes it sound?

As was the case with last week’s parable, viewing this more as Wisdom literature that offers advice on how to live well along with the consequences for not doing so perhaps gets us closer to what Jesus was getting at. The problem with that approach is if the wisdom imparted simply winds up being “make good use of the gifts and abilities you’ve been given.” Obviously that’s good advice, it’s a good Sunday School version of this parable and it is quite true that the world is sadly littered with people who have squandered their abilities; but still, that version only skims the surface of the parable.

While Jesus can be viewed as a teacher of wisdom, the wisdom he represents is different. It’s what you could call Kingdom of God wisdom so it’s not intended just as sound moral advice, not simply what a nice motivational speaker would offer. After all, you don’t get crucified for serving up moral niceties that everyone can agree with. You get crucified for proclaiming a kingdom that sounds threatening to those in power and that’s what Jesus did.

Having said all that, when you move this parable past traditional “you get what you deserve” theology and past simple moral niceties, it’s gets complicated because then you have to pay attention to some details that it’s easier to ignore. Paying attention to those details and the implications thereof, takes the parable in a troubling direction, one that I don’t like very much and one you might not want to hear.

First of all, the master who goes away is not a nice guy. He’s very wealthy and he hands out enormous sums of money to those who work for him, people called slaves or servants but who who must be in positions of responsibility, and with this distribution of money he might appear to be quite generous.

But the conversation the master winds up having with the third slave indicates that his dealings are not all on the up and up. “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?” With that he reveals what kind of a person he really is, one for whom making money is the bottom line and he’ll do what it takes to get more; he’ll exploit some and curry favor with others, lend at high rates and demand payment, whatever it takes. That’s the world the master lives in.

Slaves one and two reflect the character of their master. They each double the investment entrusted to them which sounds good but which doesn’t happen unless the master was gone for a really long time and the market was on a big upswing. Otherwise, these two must have learned well from the master how to wheel and deal, how to cut legal corners when necessary, how to leave the unsuspecting in your wake and not worry too much about it. That’s what you do if making money is the only thing that matters. Love thy neighbor is off the table. And for that, for their efforts, they were praised, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You’re going to move up the ladder.”

But then there is the third slave, the only honest one in the bunch, unwilling to engage in the sleazy ethics of his compatriots. You might think, according to how we imagine the ethics of Jesus, this third slave would be praised for taking the high moral ground but instead of praise, the money he was given is taken from him and given to the sleaziest of the other two and number three is the one banished to the outer darkness. As traditional wisdom literature, this doesn’t work, it doesn’t make sense. It’s not practical, moral advice on how to live in this world, at least not how to live honestly in this world.

To say then that it’s not traditional wisdom but instead it’s Kingdom of God wisdom is also problematic if it then leads to the conclusion that in the Kingdom of God anything goes, the rules don’t matter, but that’s not it either. In this parable, one of Jesus’ most challenging ones, he uses an illicit tale of unethical business practices to make a point about the kingdom. He puts us in a harsh and reckless world in which those who don’t risk everything and act boldly will miss out. Jesus challenges us to consider things from a perspective that for many of us takes us out of our comfort zone and into a world where the expected moral calculus doesn’t work, a world that isn’t for the faint of heart and isn’t for those unwilling to take a chance. He takes us there because his kingdom is worth the risk.

Jesus was good at creating paradox. The Jesus who told this parable of reckless risk taking is the same Jesus who said, “Blessed are the meek” just like the Jesus who proclaimed grace and forgiveness is the same Jesus who speaks of what sounds like works based judgment. In our minds it doesn’t all fit together but apparently both sides of these statements need to be said and both sides need to be heard and we waste our time trying to resolve the paradox. We’ll get another dose of it next week in the parable of the sheep and the goats. All we can really conclude is that the reign of God, the Kingdom of God has its own logic and perhaps all we can do is consider one angle at a time.

It doesn’t make for a religion that is neat and tidy, it doesn’t make for a faith where you can passively sit back and wait for the answers. It’s a faith that calls for your bold, risk taking engagement. It’s also a faith that doesn’t give you a Jesus who is little more than a divine teddy bear you can cuddle up with. Instead it gives you a Jesus who has enough of an edge that he just might get crucified for the sake of the paradoxical kingdom he proclaimed. It does give you a Jesus who paradoxically has room for both the meek and the risk takers. It does give you a Jesus who has room for you.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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