Homily for Pentecost 27 November 16, 2008
I Chronicles 16: 28—34 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come before him.
Worship the Lord in holy splendour; tremble before him, all the earth. The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it.
33Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.
34O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever.
Psalm 123 To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us. Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 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 labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Matthew 25:14-30 “For it 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. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Note from an ancient elementary school report card:
“Grant is wasting his talents.”
The Gospel today is a parable – the Parable of the Talents. It is not a comment about 1st Century banking practices and it’s not just about money – it’s about what you believe and how that shapes the way you live your life. Parables are always about something else, something which is not immediately obvious.
On one level, Jesus is speaking to people of his own faith community, the people of Israel, who had been entrusted with the covenants and the law and the promises of God. But in his view, they had stagnated and refused to share what they have with others, becoming exclusive and arrogant and complacent. Like the man who buried his talents, it’s as if they are saying to God, “Here’s what you gave us – totally unchanged – we kept it hidden and buried and out of reach of the Gentiles and all outsiders. Here it is – it may be a little mouldy but just as you gave it to us . . . “ The story clearly indicates that preservation and protection are not the way to be faithful, and tribalism and exclusive views about salvation are not the point!
Being God’s people means having the courage and faith to move forward and engage life with the gifts you have been given – it’s about trusting God enough to offer the gifts God has given for the sake of the world – not about conserving and preserving – and hoarding and hiding – your life. God, in Isaiah, says: “’I have given you [Israel] as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness (42:6) . . . I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” 49:6 Instead, the point seems to be that the people of God have closed off their life, and really rendered it unavailable to others. Thus the Master (God) removes the covenant from them and gives it to someone prepared to take it forward. The same can be said of the Church, when it refuses its true calling, or of us, when we refuse our true calling.
Being a servant of God is about accountability – realizing that we are expected to make a difference, to grow by offering our “talents” (whatever gifts we have been given), offering something, realizing that the gifts we have been given are just entrusted to us – they don’t belong to us.
The Gospel is about our basic orientation to life. Is it one of giving in – contributing — paying it forward? – or is it finding ways to keep others away from our stuff – is it more about trying to guarantee our own security – at the expense of others?
The problem is a mis-perception about the nature of the Master (an obvious figure for God) – the servant who buried his talents says, almost accusingly, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man …” Like Adam, he was afraid, so he went and attempted to hide from God. The unfaithful servant is wrong about God in the first place – his theology is wrong. When we think of God in certain ways, it obviously affects our actions, our behaviour. The Master responds, perhaps with an edge of sarcasm, “You knew, did you . . .?” Well then – what you see is what you get! The point is the man didn’t really know anything about the Master – he didn’t have a clue — yet chose to base his life on a mis-conception. The Gospel suggests what a painful and permanent mistake that can be.
The Gospel seems to acknowledge the experience of many — of God seeming rather absent – disappearing on us or only making rare appearances. So what do we have to go on? Why should we be faithful if God’s not really there? Like leaving home or losing a parent, fear of not being taken care of can become overwhelming. The response can be a closing up- — closing out the world, because without a sense of God present, the world can seem harsh and threatening and foreign – and thus protecting and guarding what you have can become a priority. When we don’t have a sense of God’s presence, if the Master seems to us to be an absentee landlord, many tend to become concerned about taking care of themselves, protecting themselves, rather than relying on God, or even on observing godly principles and values.
On the other hand, if we sense that God is present, that can be equally problematic, because who knows where God might take us or lead us? Who knows what God might require of us? He might take away all my stuff! My position! My security! God might send me off to Africa! The result: many people, even though they know there is a God, still lock themselves away, burying their talents in the ground of their subconscious, because to expose them is too threatening.
The parable seems to fixate on the blame or condemnation aspect – the lack of faith on the part of the servant who was immobilized by fear. That is only part of its meaning. In truth, I believe the parable is far more about an invitation to life. I know very well that this summons to engage fully in life is not easy for many people. People close up and turn away and hide for many reasons. I am certain Jesus is aware of that. It helps if we have a sense of confidence that the universe is friendly (Einstein). The Gospel today is saying life is not necessarily about success – it’s about being faithful. It’s saying that taking a step, any step, in faith, is better than giving up. We learn how to be faithful by being faithful, even in small increments, and, like the interest from an investment, God multiplies and compounds even our feeblest response. Faith enables us to operate with a sense of confidence and security that comes from God, not from the opinions of others, the things we own, or the position we hold in relation to others. The Gospel points to the necessity of taking that risk — living with abandon – because it’s what life is about. The Gospel is about faith that liberates us to be truly alive. The answer is not to abandon the idea of God or to believe that God is cruel or unfair, but to live fully, treating your gifts as gifts and life itself as a gift — not just hanging on to what you have been given but taking it forward.
As St. Paul attempts to teach the Thessalonians, our securities often turn out to be false and misleading. The irony is that if you take the approach of attempting to secure what you have, you end up losing on a much grander scale than you could imagine – “even what you have will be taken away.” You really lose your soul by being so preoccupied with our own well being that everyone else becomes a threat. By thinking that it’s about protecting and preserving yourself, and getting to the end intact or untouched by life, you end up missing out on life.
And others are impoverished and cheated as well. When we don’t offer our particular gifts, our particular life, into the human community because we’re too afraid of what we might lose, those around us cannot really be blessed or enriched by our presence – they can’t truly be in relationship with us — because we are not really there. At best, we are standing at arm’s length; worse, we see everyone else as a threat to our well-being; worst of all, we end up buried so deep in our own fears we no longer see them at all.
The Gospel is a summons and a challenge to perceive the Master from a faithful point of view, and to begin living for God and for others.