Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25:14-30

In the name of God, who protects and cherishes us and yet asks us to do much…

As I considered this week’s Gospel reading and what my homily could possibly be, a single prayer kept coming to mind: “Dear God, please deliver us from these parables. Amen.” In all seriousness, I have had my fill of all things parabolic and from speaking to several of you over the past couple weeks I think you have too. Well, take a deep breath; today ends our lectionary trend with this final unnerving parable that once again ends with the not-so-beautiful imagery of a person being cast out into darkness. Thankfully, we soon will find ourselves in the season of Advent, as we prepare to behold the miracle of Christmas followed by the Feast of Epiphany, these are seasons of light, hope and promise! However, we aren’t there quite yet and so today we once again climb aboard the Jesus imagination train and grit our teeth for what is sure to be an interesting trip, as always.

Before we delve into today’s whimsical story, I want to talk about parables in general. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, a parable is simply a religious allegory, a religious story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. This hidden meaning is often political or moral in nature. Parables exist in the Hebrew Bible, throughout the teachings of Jewish scholars and teachers and Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, was an avid lover of them it would seem! A parable is not told to necessarily bring comfort, something I think we would probably agree on, but instead to cause a reaction. A parable worth its weight should be provocative, edgy and require us to deal with its message in some form. In theory, a parable should deliver an obvious message that offers something applicable to everyday life and experience. Of course, the issue being that no one typically agrees what that obvious message is exactly. We could let that upset us or we could remind ourselves that life and faith are rarely simple and tidy and the messiness of it all is where we often find God shining through the most brightly. In each and every one of Jesus’s parables we are given the opportunity (1) to be called to a higher quality of life,
(2) to have a better understanding of God’s plan for our world and (3) to learn how to work hand in hand with God so that life may be “on earth as it is in heaven.” So today we must ask ourselves how is this parable, this Gospel reading, calling us into God’s seamless will?

Most of us here grew up knowing only one or two interpretations for this parable, commonly known as the Parable of Talents. Either it was minimized to be nothing more than a call to use your talents, your gifts and abilities, for Jesus or it was a message about the very good possibility you might be thrown into utter darkness if you screwed up on God’s watch. As you can imagine, I take great issue with the second interpretation and the first interpretation ignores what I would say is the obvious heaviness and importance that Jesus gives to the story. So, if you will indulge me, I want to offer to you a few other possible understandings. I believe both are full of hope and complimentary but they also truly require something of us with inevitable negative consequences if we ignore the call.

First, let us consider the possibility that Jesus is simply asking us to become all we can be. If we take this road, we understand the monetary amounts given by the master to his servants to be reflective of the gifts and abilities given to God by us. This is great however we cannot ignore the final words of Jesus, which seem to threaten the person who does not make good on their investment by being cast into darkness. It seems they would have sealed their own fate and chosen death instead of life. Undoubtedly, this parable should put a little fear into us but I believe the church has typically misunderstood this fear and its purpose.

I was raised in a religious context that caused me to constantly fear being cast out of God’s love if I did not do everything exactly right and in a way that pleased God. Like the servants in today’s parable I had to be sure to invest my gifts just right, I had to be sure to worship just right, I had to be sure to never hide my religious belief, because if I did…the darkness was waiting!
What I came to understand just a few years ago was that I was already living in the darkness. I had spent my life denying who and what I was and I had squandered the joy of the Lord by living a life of misery and self-hatred. I, along with many of you, do not believe that God has to cast anyone into the darkness; the reality is that we place ourselves in the darkness when we refuse to live honestly as God created us. When we ignore the unique and beautiful creation we are, we have chosen to spiritually and mentally seal ourselves up in a dark place.

Perhaps some of you now find yourself in a dark place because you have wasted all your energy digging a hole and hiding. Maybe you have done this because you are different or do not fit into society’s preferred mold and serotypes?  Today, Jesus calls you to no longer allow yourself to dwell in the darkness but to come into the light. You are called to gaze into the mirror and say, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” and I will no longer hide all that I am and all that I can be in order to make judgmental individuals happy. I will be the person God created me to be! Yes, God calls you not to waste your gifts but this doesn’t mean denying who you are, it means joining the world as you are and making yourself available so that God may bring about an increase of joy in the world through your smiles and your actions. It is in your investment, your involvement in life, that God can bring about a great increase for you and others.

Which brings me to a second possible understanding of this parable, just incase you forgot and thought I would end early for a change. No such luck. William Herzog, a professor at Andover Newton Theological School, helps paint for us a radically different take on Jesus’s parable. He chooses to view the parable through a lens or understanding of liberation and calls us to –become- the servant who seemingly fails in the parable by not investing his monetary gift. For Herzog, Jesus is telling this parable to draw our attention to the financial selfishness and greed that existed and still exists in society and is exemplified by the master who becomes richer at the hand of servants.
In this understanding the third servant is not a failure but instead acts prophetically to reveal the true agenda of the master, which is to become rich and destroy anyone who stand in his way. Herzog says the third servant is a “whistleblower” and calls us to participate with him in revealing the darkness that often controls our society and takes advantage of the “least of these.”

Instead of the third servant being supported by the other two who know what it is like to be abused and used, they turn a blind eye as he is thrown into darkness and left for dead. In this understanding, Jesus is calling our attention to the financial plight of many and asking if we will dare to demand change or will we simply participate in a broken system to better ourselves while forgetting those who are weakest? As a people of faith, we cannot sit silently in the midst of an economical system that absurdly increases the wealth of the rich while watching the poor succumb to financial darkness and devastation.

Both of these understandings of today’s parable call us to arise to the occasion of life, to be daring, adventurous, honest, true, justice oriented, loving of self and others, and ultimately willing to break the mold of a society that would seek our utter destruction. Are we daring enough to do so? Are we willing to look in the mirror and see an individual who is called to make a radical change in this world by living a radically honest life? Will we dare to be true to ourselves and the abilities and unique qualities given to us by God? Will we be willing to demand justice not only for ourselves but also for all those around us? Will we fight for social and economic equality, for the rights of the GLBTQ community, for the protection of the immigrant and the rights of all people, especially women who are being assailed against on all sides? Will we stand with those who are daring or will we remain silent allowing the darkness of ignorance to overtake us? We are reminded that Jesus does not call us to a life of complacency and ease but instead to an existence of gritty, messy authentic living where we will not allow our voices to be silenced in the night! As a people of faith, we will arise and we will be victorious and with the grace of God no darkness shall overtake us! Amen.

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