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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Knowing Your Master

We are given gifts to use for the good of our master, whose love for us inspires us to make the most of the time we have, a master who enters the outer darkness to find us and give us life.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ordinary Time, Sunday 33, year A; texts: Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Psalm 90

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

There’s something that troubles me about the parable Jesus tells us today. Set in the context of two other parables in Matthew 25, this is the middle parable of the chapter. These three parables are chosen to be the Gospel readings for the three weeks which conclude the Church Year in year A, the year of Matthew. They’re parables of judgment, like some parables we had in October. Last week, if we hadn’t celebrated All Saints, we would have heard the parable of the ten bridesmaids: five wise who were prepared, and five foolish who were not. Next week we have the parable of the sheep and the goats, which is really a parable about the coming of the King, the Son of God. Today, the three slaves, the middle story.

As with all three parables, there are particular issues with the parable of the three slaves and their talents which need addressing, but as I said, there’s one thing that’s been bothering me all week. The third slave, as we all know well, did nothing with his gift, his talent; he buried it. And I’m troubled by his reason: “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.”

Now, the first two slaves seemingly were glad to use their talents for their master’s benefit, and seem glad to report their good results. Their reward: “Enter into the joy of your master.” This relationship seems warm, trusting, gracious. Slave number three has a very different view of his master, whom he fears. The master doesn’t agree or disagree with the assessment, either. He merely casts it back at the slave, “You knew, did you, that I reaped and gathered without doing the work?” He doesn’t deny or confirm that what the slave says is true. So what are we to believe about this master? Is the third slave correct? Or are the first two?

It may occur to you that it doesn’t matter, and I suppose in the course of things, it’s just a story Jesus has created and the background details aren’t necessarily important. But if Jesus is telling this parable with the urgency I think he is, and if he’s commending the first two slaves for their faithful risk-taking in using the gifts they’ve been given, as I think he is, then the relationship of the master and the third slave is actually important for to understand.

Before we get to that, there are some things which are both similar and important in these three parables which are worth noting and might be helpful.

First, in all three parables of Matthew 25, the audience are insiders – these are not evangelism parables to tell to non-believers. We know this because the central figures of each story are insiders – trusted, beloved, important people. What happens next is always in that context. The bridesmaids are the favored friends (who else gets asked to be a bridesmaid?), the three slaves are the most trusted or they wouldn’t receive such immense wealth to care for, and in the third story which we’ll hear next week both groups belong to and love their King – they both want to do good for him, serve him.

So these parables are Jesus’ message to disciples, to those who are called as followers already. And his message is simple: In the first – be prepared, be ready, do what needs doing before I get back. In the second, today’s story – use the gifts you’ve been given, whatever they are. Take risks, and use them before I return. And in the third, next week – care for the least of these as if they are me – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and you do this to me. It’s elegantly simple: these are the priorities of our Lord and Savior for how we are to live as his followers in the world.

Second, what drives all three parables is a sense of time. At some point, there will be no more time to do these things. These parables are rich with urgency, with a sense of impending end-times. The bridegroom will arrive, even if it seems late. The master will come home. The Son of Man will come at the end of time. And in Matthew’s Gospel, the context simply heightens the urgency: Jesus is telling these parables right in the heart of Holy Week, just a couple days from his death.

And today Paul reminds us of the same thing, that it is daylight now, and we need to be about the work of children of light while we can, before it gets dark. And as the psalmist today reminds, “teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom,” that we will realize that there will come a time when each of us has no more time. No more time to be ready to do God’s work here. No more time to use our gifts, our talents, to share our wealth in service to God. No more time to care for others in need and so care for Jesus.

And third, all three also have pretty serious judgment at the end of each, but remember what I said about these judgment parables back in October. After Jesus’ resurrection, he acts differently than we might expect, given the judgments in these stories. We’ll get back to this third point a little later.

Now, what seems to be important about today’s parable is what is going on in the relationship of the master and the slaves.

We have two different ways of being together here – a relationship of trust and apparent affection, and a relationship of fear.

The first two slaves are really foils for the third, and they’re carbon copies – identical work, identical results, identical praise and reward. They get differing amounts, but both of them are held up as ones who use what they’ve been given to prosper the work of their master. And they seem to love serving him, risking for him. We get the impression from the master’s response that what he really wanted was that they use the gifts, not necessarily the results. That if they’d invested and failed, they’d still be praised.

Slave three buries his gift – which, we must say, was a completely appropriate thing to do with treasure in the first century. Keep it safe and stowed away. He didn’t take any risks with it – he didn’t want to incur the wrath of his master. He actually fears his master.

But he also didn’t want to do anything which might benefit his master. He resented that his work went to the good of his master. And that’s the insight we need to have here – he resents that his work is not for his own good, and therefore he resents his master and fears him.

But it’s easy to disprove his contention that his master is harsh and unfair – he entrusts enormous wealth to these three slaves. A talent was roughly 15 years wages for a laborer, perhaps 20 years. So even slave number three received hundreds of thousands of dollars to care for, in our currency. And the first one received 75-100 years’ wages – well over several lifetimes of work’s worth. These slaves were the top three, the truly trusted. And keep in mind – these are slaves. Sometimes translated servants, these are not free people. They are owned by the master. Their lives are not their own. And yet he entrusts them with immense wealth.

Secondly, the master shows generosity and grace in his giving of the wealth. He knows his slaves, and he knows their capabilities. He knows what each can handle, and gives them what they are capable of dealing with. He trusts them. That’s the kind of master we’re dealing with.

The third slave didn’t know this, or trust this. All he could see was that it wasn’t fair that he didn’t get to keep what was his. Even though none of his talent was his – it was his master’s. He’d never be able to put together that kind of money on his own. And he lived in fear of this generous master. And did nothing.

What this means for us, then, is inextricably tied to who our master is, and what our relationship to him is. And even more importantly, what we know about him.

So in our case we have Jesus as our master, facing imminent death, urging us to risk using the gifts we’ve been given, for the good of the master and the world.

We don’t have any more time than today, because the master is returning. That’s a certainty, and an urgency. That person we could help, that life we could change – we might not get a chance to do it tomorrow. We might not even have tomorrow.

And we’ve been given generous gifts of talents, wealth, abilities, to use for the sake of our Lord, each to our own level of competence. And what Jesus invites us to consider is what it would mean to live without fear of our master, to live in the joy of our master right now, and use the gifts we have right now, to make a difference. To risk, to trust, to rejoice that we’ve been trusted. And do something with what we have.

Because there’s one more thing about our master that we need to know. It’s the reason the risen Jesus ends up not acting in judgment as he seems to say he will in these parables.

Each of the three Matthew 25 parables ends, as do most of Jesus’ judgment parables, with a casting-out of the offender, with darkness and sorrow. The door is closed on the bridesmaids, the slave loses everything and is cast into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and the unfortunate followers of the King next week are sent to eternal punishment. These are horrible ways to end stories, and they’ve caused all sorts of problems.

But here’s what we know that the disciples did not when Jesus told them these stories: their Lord and master is going away, but not on a pleasure trip to a beautiful place, a junket to a tropical isle, while they are told to be ready, to use their gifts, to care for others.

Jesus is going precisely into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. He’s going outside, where the door will be slammed in his face, and he’s left in the dark with those who weren’t ready. He’s facing the eternal punishment of death.

This is what we know about our master that the third slave did not: It in fact is true what the slave said – he does reap what he did not sow, and gather what he did not plant. He reaps pain, and suffering, and death. He takes in the harvest of all our sin and evil and brokenness and takes it on himself.

The reason the risen Jesus doesn’t consign his sinful disciples to the outer darkness and the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth is because he has entered that place and destroyed it by enduring it. And there is no more outer darkness to be found.

And that’s the master who has given us gifts, and urges us to use them until he returns.

When he rises from death and meets his disciples, those who betrayed him, who ran away, who failed completely – far worse sins than any of these three stories imagine – instead of casting them out and finding new followers, Jesus forgives them. And then reissues the same call as these parables: feed my sheep, tend my lambs. Go and tell others. Offer forgiveness in my name.

The master is returning, there’s no question about that. But we have something to do while we wait for that.

That’s our call today. That we take the incredibly generous gifts and abilities God has given us and use them to bring God’s love and grace to this world, to our community, to our neighborhood. That we stop worrying about what is ours and what is God’s, and live in the joy of our master knowing that all is God’s, and all is well, and all is for the transforming of the world.

Because our master has returned from the outer darkness and the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and one day is going to bring all into his joy. And in the meantime, while we still have time, there are sheep who need feeding, flocks who need caring, gifts which we can risk for the sake of our Lord and God.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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