11/19/17 – Living in God’s Economy

LIVING IN GOD’S ECONOMY

November 19, 2017
24th Sunday after Pentecost
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

This parable is the sixth of seven parables Matthew places in what is called his “Final Discourse” of Jesus. Of all the gospel writers, Matthew is the one most concerned with judgment. This group of parables about the final judgment when Jesus returns are set with only Jesus’ twelve disciples in attendance. Once Jesus “set his eyes upon Jerusalem,” his instructions to his disciples became more forceful and urgent. And, yes, he added some hyperbole to make sure the disciples were at full attention.

If you thought the story of God and Deborah contained cruel and unusual punishment found only in the Old Testament, don’t forget about Matthew’s Jesus telling parables about people being thrown into “outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Remember the parable we heard just a few weeks ago about the wedding guest who came wearing the wrong clothes? I suspect the scripture reference and the sermon on that one are still on the website if you want to refresh your memory. Matthew took God’s judgment seriously.

But before we tackle the stark ending to this parable, let us go back to the beginning. As much as preachers have used this parable to direct their congregations to use their God-given abilities, talents, to bring forth the kingdom of God on earth, this was not actually the direct meaning of the word, talent. The Greek word, “talenton,” meant a large sum of money, roughly 15 years’ worth of the average worker’s wages. Unfortunately, its similarity to the English word, “talent,” meaning an inborn skill, has confused readers and interpreters. The word, talent, as we use it today was coined in the Middle Ages, based on this parable, to mean a ‘god given’ ability.

Our capitalist mindset tends to focus on the amount of return on the servants’ investment of the master’s money; but, the real focus is not on the business sense of the servants, but on the risks, they are willing to take for the benefit of the master.  Matthew’s audience would have been struck by the inordinate sum of money to which these servants were entrusted. Matthew tells us that the servants were given the varying amounts based on their ability. The actual Greek word used here is “dynamis,” which can also be translated as “power.” The parable leads us to assume that more is expected of those with more “dynamis” – power-  than others.

It is the power that is the chief commodity in our society. Money and prestige are often the tools by which one wields power, but it is the power that leads and controls us. When we look at the issues facing our society and our government today, it is the same for us. Who has the power and what they choose to do with that power affects us as it did the people in the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time? We cannot ignore what the bible tells us about leaders, be it judges, kings or presidents and their responsibility to deal with their people with justice and mercy. What God demanded of the kings of Israel was that they focus their efforts on taking care of the most vulnerable in society. What Jesus saw in the Judean province of the Roman Empire was the antithesis of what God expected of leaders.

What Jesus saw was those of high rank and exceptional wealth using their power to exploit those with less for their own gain. The “servants” in Jesus’ parable would have been high-level management. The lowest level of worker would have been those who lost their land due to their indebtedness to the master of the estate.  How did they become indebted to the master? In hard times, a drought or perhaps the small landowner’s illness which kept him from working, the master would loan money at high-interest rates. The poor landowner would be forced to take the loan, or his land would be taken away. It was a gamble he had no choice but to take; but, often the interest rates would keep accruing to the point there was no way out no matter how hard the debtor worked. Once the family’s fields went to the master, they could stay, but their fields would no longer be used to feed the family. Their land would be repurposed for a crop that was easier to turn into quick cash and moved out of the area – like olive groves or vineyards. The family then became part of the master’s economy and would have to buy food to survive. As in our society today, these indebted workers could not pull themselves up by their own bootstraps because they no longer had boots.

The three servants in the parable would have been workers much higher up the food chain. They would have been in charge of managing the workers, keeping the books, and collecting the debts with the opportunity to take a portion for themselves as their wages. What was good for the master was good for them. You might compare these servants to those of us in society who have had the privilege of being able to save and then invest to increase our surplus. The debt slaves were those today who must live paycheck to paycheck, always owing money. The least setback in the family’s circumstances puts them further behind. These are the most vulnerable, “the least of these our brothers and sisters,” who Jesus will address in next week’s final parable. The wealth at the top never trickles down and they are enslaved to a cycle of poverty.

The master in this scripture reading is a master with a lower-case “m.” If we interpret the parable on that basis we are looking at Jesus’ commentary on the ways of the world. If, however, we choose to make the “m” in master an upper-case “M,” we find another layer of meaning. If upper-case, big “M” is God, then what is God’s currency? It would not be silver. The valuable assets of God’s kingdom are love, mercy, kindness, and justice. Are we the servants to whom an abundance of these blessings has been entrusted? If so, have we been high-risk takers, or have we been so fearful of investing the wealth of God’s kingdom that we have not multiplied that wealth. By not reaching out, burying our blessings, rather than sharing we fail to create even the smallest of increase in the kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus spoke in parables that are rich and layered in meaning. More than one interpretation adds to the depth of the message. But no matter how we choose to interpret the parable, the gospel assures us that Jesus was more concerned with teaching and commissioning his disciples to be his body in the world than about final judgment. We must remember that Jesus promised that he would be our Advocate and our Judge. But, Jesus also wanted to remind his disciples that both their actions and inactions had consequences.

How do we keep from being like the third servant?  If God is the Master with the big M, then Jesus is also saying that how we perceive God affects our ability to invest in God’s kingdom. First and foremost, God sent Jesus to reveal God’s nature and purpose. If we perceive God primarily as a harsh Master, meting out judgment and punishment, we are going to see everything bad that happens to us as punishment. Likewise, we are apt to judge others harshly and be unwilling to share. I would consider living with this concept of God’s nature to be like living in “outer darkness with great gnashing of teeth.”

If we see God as capricious with justice and favor, we will not only perceive God as frightening but also irrelevant in our lives. But, if we perceive God as our Master who deals with us with grace, entrusts us with what is God’s, and empowers and frees us to make use of what we have been given for the good of all, then we will be like the first two faithful servants. And, back we go to what Jesus declared to be the Greatest Commandment: “to love God with all your heart and soul and mind; and, to love your neighbor as yourself.” Fulfilling this commandment faithfully leads us into the joy of the Master.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois