The 24th Sunday after Pentecost: November 19, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer
One of my family’s favorite books is one that my father had as a child, called Junket Is Nice. It’s by the same author as the profound classic Pat the Bunny, Dorothy Kunhardt. Anyone know it? (Anyone know what junket is? It’s a sweet milky dessert, made with rennet. No, I’ve never had it either.) In the book, an old man is eating junket, and all the people in the whole world gather around him to find out what he is thinking about as he eats the junket. He tells them that if they guess correctly he will give them something nice. They make all kinds of guesses, each of them elaborately inventive: A tiger creeping past the door on tiptoe because the rule is no tigers clattering about at baby’s naptime. No, says the old man. A hippopotamus with all the lights turned out laughing at how hard it is to see the other people on the sofa. No, says the old man. Finally a little boy steps forward and says, I know what you’re thinking about as you eat junket. You’re thinking about: junket. Right, says the old man, and he lets the little boy lick the bowl.
Today I’m going to tell you a few things I am not thinking about before I get to what I am thinking about. You might, as I go along, find yourself still caught on what I’m not thinking about. Just like you may still be thinking about that hippo. That’s ok. Go ahead and think about it yourself if you like. But I think what I’m thinking about might be useful to us in these days we’re living in.
Because today we have another one of Jesus’ parables that make us anxious. If we barely got past worrying about being ready from last week’s story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, now we’re sweating all over again. The parable of the talents, with yet another division into the right, and the very-wrong, way of doing things. So which one do we find ourselves in today?
The problem is that there are at least three different ways of understanding the parable. What might be the usual interpretation has it that the parable of the talents is about making more of ourselves and our gifts and skills. This is the version we use for stewardship campaigns and spiritual gift inventories. Particularly because the word ‘talent’ is used, it can mean for us both money and talents and skills. The landowner is God and we’re the slaves; God has given us talents and resources to use well, and when God comes back to wrap things up here on earth, we’ll be held to account for what we’ve done with them. Since the slave who buries his talent in the ground is thrown into outer darkness while the other two are praised, it seems that God wants us to invest well and turn a profit, if you will, while he’s away. If we don’t, we’ll lose what we’ve been given and it will be granted to others instead. Be all that you can be – or else.
The problem is, that interpretation fits suspiciously into our modern American values – here they are again – the be-all-you-can-be philosophy. Invest and make more; live up to your full potential and be rewarded. Fine – common sense for us, and why wouldn’t God want us to be all that we can be? But I’m not convinced that earning interest on the investment is God’s intention for us exactly. For one thing, earning interest at all is contrary to Levitical law – it was called usury. (Sorry, investment committee.) And it was against the law because to earn interest meant that you were extracting more money from the poor. In the thinking of the Law, the poor were poor – and the rich were rich – because the rich were exploiting the poor. Affirming that system, even metaphorically, seems pretty unlikely for a Jewish Messiah. There’s a lot to think about there about how we handle money and whose we think it is, particularly as we wait to hear about tax cuts and who will benefit from them. But I’m not thinking about that interpretation.
So then let’s look at it another way. We tend to automatically think that parables about a landowner and his servants are about God and us. But Jesus doesn’t actually say that. Perhaps in this case, the landowner is not God. Look at how the third servant describes him – a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow. This landowner is rapacious, one who makes a profit wherever he can, off of whomever he can make it. And the landowner clearly expects to get richer while he’s away, assuming his slaves will continue his ‘legacy’ – continue his business, take risks to make a profit, and follow his example of wheeling & dealing. This sounds a little more like the Trump family than God. Perhaps this isn’t a parable about God or God’s ways at all – perhaps it’s about the ways of the world, and how hard it is to be Jesus’ followers. The world reaps where it does not sow, and the rich are rich because they steal from the poor. The first two slaves go along with that system. The third slave is the honorable one because he doesn’t do that – but he pays for it. It’s hard to buck the system we live in. There’s a lot to think about there also. But I’m not thinking about that today either.
But then again, maybe the landowner is God, or God in Jesus, and we are the slaves. After all, the parable tells of the landowner going away and then coming back to see what’s happened in his absence, and it comes directly after the one about the bridesmaids, which is also a story about someone being away and returning. And right after this Jesus goes on to talk about the coming, or the return, of the Son of Man. So a story about someone going away and what happens when he returns does seem in context to be about, well, Jesus, his death and resurrection and coming again. In which case it is interesting to look again at the exchange between the third slave and his master. The slave tells the master that he buried the money because ‘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.’ The landowner responds, ‘You knew that, did you?’ and then goes on to order punishment for the slave: take the talent from him and throw him into outer darkness. Is this God talking to us? But you might notice that the landowner never owns up to this characterization of being a harsh man. He simply says, that’s what you think of me, eh? Which makes me wonder: what if that is not really what the landowner is like at all, but simply what the third slave expects him to be? And what if the slave’s expectations shape the way the story unfolds?
Because sometimes our belief shapes our reality: what we think we’ll get is what we look for, and it becomes what we do get. What we don’t expect, we might not even notice, and so we miss it. It might just be that God lives up to – or lives down to – our expectations.
I’ve seen that happen among people. People can get their minds made up about other people, so much so that they can’t see what’s really true. And the more we expect other people to be just what we expect them to be, the less they’re able to be anything else to us. We’re blind and deaf to them. Our minds are made up. In our country these days, where we are filtering everything through a political lens of liberal vs. conservative, this kind of expectation is absolutely shaping our ability to relate with one another. This Thanksgiving is already looking to be more of a tense one for many families this year.
I think this can happen with God as well. The parable of the talents might just be more about our perception of God than anything else. So how do we see God?
When the landowner leaves, he expects his slaves to carry on his business in the same way he did it. If this is meant to be Jesus, then Jesus expects us to follow his example. And what was his example? he loved people; he gathered in the lost and outcast of society. He called people on their bad behavior, yes, particularly when that behavior hurt people. But he also told stories about how when sinners return to God they are forgiven. He embraced children and taught people to care for the poor and the weak. He gave up his life in love for us. Jesus’ revelation of God is of a God who is supremely and deeply loving, always reaching out to us, always welcoming us back. It’s not an image that should inspire our fearfulness. It’s an image that should inspire us instead to trust – and to risk a little bit ourselves in order to love. And to allow others also to be full human beings, trying in their way as we are to love and follow the way of life Jesus taught.
So here is what I am thinking about for us all in these next few weeks, as the news cycles spin and the holiday season begins. There’s a lot in this parable, and a lot to take and mull over. But notice just what we’re expecting of God, and what we’re expecting of other people. Do we see God as punishing and vengeful, looking for us to fail? Do we see other people as out to get us, set against us, all wrong from the start? If so, then we’ll be fearful and interpret the world that way. We’ll be like the third slave, who acts according to his own worst fears of what his master is like, can’t reach out to others, and so loses everything. Outer darkness indeed – and a place our world tends to go all too often these days. Or do we see God as abundant and generous, and do we see others as children of that God? If so, then we can risk what God gives us, in order to do something big. We can be like the first two slaves, who take a chance and try something, flourishing as a result. We can be part of healing in our families and communities and nation.
So what might we risk? We might just try risking the belief that God really does love us. We might try risking love for other people, even the ones we are all too ready to write off. We might live into the possibility of what could be instead of fearing what might be. It is a risk – but I think that if we do this, the return on our investment may be more than we could ever imagine. May we enter into the joy of God’s abundance, and may we bring that abundance to the world. Amen.