Matthew 25: 14-30
Reflection by Anne Stewart
Last week we entered the last section of Jesus’ parables, delivered as he was approaching the end of his ministry. You might recall I suggested that these can be known as the parables of judgement. To recap briefly; they follow the parables of the kingdom where Jesus talked about the mystery of a kingdom already present in this world, and the parables of grace, where Jesus talked about the device by which that mystery operates, grace working through death and resurrection. The parables of judgement, are a series of pictures of how grace ultimately triumphs by separating those who accept the mystery in faith, from those who, by unfaith, reject God’s freely given acceptance of them.
So, here we are this week on to the second of these final parables about those who accept the invitation into relationship with God by faith and those who either can’t make up their minds or who have openly rejected the whole thing. I am fascinated by the struggle so many of us have with the idea, and the reality, of grace. Sometimes the struggle is about being gracious and other times about accepting grace. Surely, we have just been treated to be the most outstanding example of the struggle to be gracious, in the inability to let go of power exhibited by an outgoing President. To be fair, this is not the first time that a public figure has shown a lack of grace. I imagine most of us have had experiences of people we know who have struggled at times to show grace. We may even be able to see moments where we have struggled with this ourselves. But just as common is the struggle to accept grace. How often are we quick to say, oh no, not me I haven’t done anything to deserve that. It’s not always easy to accept something we don’t believe we have earned or deserved. And this can be what makes the relationship that God seeks with us, hard for some to accept. God desires relationship with us and offers this despite everything we are and aren’t and it can be hard to accept because we might think we have not done anything to earn or deserve it. Yet all God asks is that we say yes – and then get on living as though we believe the relationship is real and it’s ours.
In this particular parable the man who was heading off on a journey divvied up his property to his servants according to their ability. It’s probably important to note, at this point, that Jesus is understood to be talking about God, when he speaks of the man in this story. What the servants were given was then multiplied according to how it had been distributed, that is, if they were given five talents, they made five more, if they were given two, they made two more. So, their investment grew according to their original allotment not according to their own efforts. It’s important to note this because otherwise faith turns into something, we are responsible for multiplying rather than something freely given to us, and grown in us. If we miss this point, then faith can very quickly be reduced to works. We do the works as a response to an acceptance of God’s offer in faith, we don’t get faith as a reward for our works. Extraordinarily, we never have to earn what God offers.
I have come across a number of people who, if you push and shove hard enough, can’t get past the image of God as bookkeeper. They get stuck here because they can’t get past the notion that God keeps a record of our rights and wrongs, and treats us accordingly. Now, there is nothing wrong with bookkeepers, they are generally good people who do good work, but God is God and therefore is not bound by any rules of bookkeeping nor is his work subject to a yearly review or audit! This parable shows us that God is not looking, necessarily, for productive results, what God is looking for is that we do something with what we have been given. What brings God joy is seeing us fully living the life we have been given, rather than hiding it away in fear. The only bookkeeper in this story is the third servant. He was the one who feared his work wouldn’t survive some non-existent audit so he hid his money away. He was the one who missed the point – it wasn’t what he could produce with his money – the results were immaterial – it was that he did something with it.
The idea of using what you have been given or hiding it away, got me thinking this week. I was brought up with a very cautious, fearful mother. It was unusual for me to have a new item of clothing, because I had older cousins who lived nearby who enabled a constant supply of hand-me-downs. So, it was something of an event for me to get something new. When this did happen, it was normal practice for the new, precious item of clothing to be taken home and ‘put away for best’. Sometime in the future, when it was deemed to be ok, it would come out for Sunday use and then slowly begin the journey down to ‘school wear’ and then finally to ‘around home wear’.
These things of our childhood stick, I still struggle not to do something similar today. Sometimes new purchases are put away so deeply that I am surprised to find them months, even years later! But then I married a character who will, if appropriate, leave the shop wearing the new item of clothing! I notice that when this happens, I have to conceal my shock at the frivolous nature of his approach, because now I think he does it just to see the struggle on my face! We have much to learn from one another!! I hide my new things away for fear that they will get dirty or be ‘used’ in some way – which just might be their purpose. He lives into what he has been given with great abandon, from day one.
Last week you might remember I said that theologian Robert Capon described faith as the great party of life that God invites us all too. Some people get it and see what they have been given, accept the invitation and jump right in to the party. Others can’t make up their minds and there are some who openly reject the premise of the party and/or their invitation to it. Well here we are again with a story about a God who revels in throwing his money around showing an unaccountable even irresponsible joy because he just wants everybody to be joyful with him. This divine party only asks one thing; that we accept the invitation by faith – that’s all we have to do! Not hide the invitation away in case someone finds it and has trouble making sense of it, but accept it and live into it.
This is not the first parable that points to God being this way with us. Here are a few other places Capon suggests that we see this played out – in the fatted calf served up for a prodigal who did nothing but come home in faith, in the free champagne and caviar for wedding guests who did nothing but trust the king’s insistence on providing fancy costumes and party hats, in the full pay for next-to-no- work-at-all given to grape pickers who just said yes to a last minute promise. The only reason that judgement comes into it at all is the sad fact that there will always be sad folk who refuse to trust a good thing when it’s handed to them on a platter. A few years back the band U2 got themselves into awful strife because they released a new album by having it land in the inbox of everyone who has an iTune account. A free gift, no cost, nothing asked of anyone. Well, they were vilified for daring to give something away that some people, it turns out, didn’t even want. They obviously didn’t have a delete button on their devices! At the time Bono made a few wry comments about our struggles with grace, and why we don’t understand Christmas. Can you see where you might have struggled with this in your lives? Maybe the struggle has been for you around how God could love you when you can’t see your own perfection! But that’s the thing of course God doesn’t require perfection by your standards, or anyone else’s for that matter; we are all perfect in God’s eyes despite, or maybe even because, of our flawed ways.
The third servant is fearful, he says so in his explanation to the master when he returned. He was afraid so he hid what he was given so he wouldn’t risk losing it, and it would still be there to give back on the master’s return. He didn’t know God, clearly, and presumed that God was as small as he was, and that God would punish him if he took a risk and did something with the gift he had been given. This guy has a lot in common with the elder brother in the prodigal son story, and the labourers who worked all day. They all underestimate those in charge because they don’t know them. But they are all also easily identified with. Who hasn’t felt some sympathy for the older brother, the cautious money-hider or the hard-done by labourers? We just can’t always see that God isn’t like us. That God plays to a different tune. That God never wants to hurt anyone, he’s never even mad at anyone. There are no lengths to which God won’t go to prove that there are no restrictions on the joy he wants to share with us. We have no reason to distrust the invitation to the party, except if we stay playing within rules that we have created. If we judge God’s actions by our actions, we will always have trouble with God. That’s why theology matters – theology starts with who God is and how God is with us which has to come before any ideology, which is our ideas about who and how we are, which we then try to fit God into.
What do we do with what we have been given? Do we lock it away because of some imaginary fear, or do we commit to fully living because we are people who have accepted the invitation to the party? Do we settle for a self-limiting life or give it all we’ve got, as a way of saying YES to the invitation? Life is a game and all that matters is that you play – not that you play badly or well. Is our idea of God so small that we hide who we are away in fear, or so big that we open up to life, in trust?