What We Think About God

Judges 4:1-7 | Psalm 123 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Matthew 25:14-30

Jeremy Richards

Our Gospel passage today isn’t an easy one to swallow, and it isn’t found in an easy section of Scripture either. Giving it context hardly helps us temper Christ’s words from Matthew 25:14-30. This parable is found within a series of parables, all of which preach judgment with an apocalyptic bent. The parables in this section of Matthew all refer to the final judgment and make a point to differentiate between those who have lived faithfully and those who have lived unfaithfully, with harsh consequences for those who have lived unfaithfully.

Last week’s reading, which we heard but wasn’t preached on, was about 10 bridesmaids – 5 of whom are prudent, and 5 of whom are foolish – who are waiting for a bridegroom to return. The prudent ones brought extra oil, the foolish ones didn’t. In the end, the 5 prudent bridesmaids are invited into the wedding party while the foolish ones are out trying to find more oil. In a severe ending, much like the one from today, the foolish bridesmaids are denied entry into the party and are left out in utter darkness.

Next week’s parable, if Britt Carlson chooses to preach from the lectionary, will be the famous “sheep and goats” parable, in which Jesus distinguishes between those who serve the poor, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphans and those who do not, summing up his teaching in the famous lines, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me,” and, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters you did not do for me” (Matt. 25:40, 45). “The goats,” or those who have not taken care of their siblings, and therefore have not taken care of Jesus, “will go away to eternal punishment.”

Quite understandably, these kind of parables make us feel uncomfortable, and usually it’s not the point of the parable that makes us uncomfortable, but the conclusion. We don’t have a problem with Jesus encouraging us to take our lives seriously. We might even feel empowered by the affirmation that what we do matters. What makes us uncomfortable is the harshness of the judgment for those who have failed.

Does the bridegroom really need to tell the foolish bridesmaids, “Truly, I tell you, I don’t know you?” Do the goats from next week’s reading really need to “go away to eternal punishment?” And what does the master mean in today’s reading when he says, “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them?” And does this third servant really need to be called “worthless,” and be thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?”

These consequences shock us, upset us, and quite possibly offend us. They don’t line up with who we believe God to be – which I think is the very crux of the parable we read today: who we believe God to be.

To quote the pastor A.W. Tozer, “What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”[1]

This idea, that who we believe God to be is the most important thing about us, might seem all wrong to us. We might believe that it’s not who we think God is, it’s who God really is that matters. God doesn’t conform to our outlook, we, if we’re good Christians, conform to who God is. And certainly that’s true, in a sense, but, judging from this parable, it’s not the whole truth. This parable argues that what we believe about God shapes how we live, and how we live will, in turn, shape God’s judgement of us.

In our parable from today, a master gives three servants various amounts of money, but not just “some money,” a lot of money. One talent was worth 20 years’ wages for the average day laborer. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average income for individuals in the U.S. in 2008 was $26,964.[2] Multiply that by 20 and you get $539, 280. So, the servant who was given the least was given the equivalent of $539,280, the second servant, who got 2 talents was given the equivalent of $1,078,560, and the first servant, who was given the most, was given the equivalent of $2,696,400.

So the first thing to notice is that the master is over-the-top generous, and Jesus’ audience would have known that because they would have known how much a talent was. Even the servant who’s given the least is given a vast sum of money. And when the master gives them all this money, which was his personal money, he doesn’t give them a bunch of rules, he doesn’t try to tell them what to do with it, or how to manage it. He gives it to them and promptly leaves for a very long time. The amount of agency these servants have with such vast sums of money is astounding.   

Like these servants, we have been given an invaluable gift in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the master gives his servants what is his, so God gives us what is God’s. We’ve been invited into the very life of God, the life shared by Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit. Romans tells us that “The Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…” Co-heirs with Christ?! Can you believe that?

And what’s more, when we are invited into this life with God we are also invited into the mission of God – God’s mission to redeem all of humanity and all of creation.

Just as these servants are given a generous gift and then entrusted to take that gift out into the world and use their own skills, their own passions, to multiple that gift, so we are given the good news of the Gospel –

…that God is with us and God is for us

…that God is breaking down the dividing walls that separate us from one another

…that God has forgiven sins and brought healing

…that God has repaired the breach between human and divine, that the breach between human and human might also be repaired.

We are given the Good News that every person we meet on the street, in the coffee shop, at our work, is a beloved child of God, and that God loves them – that God want to know them, God wants to know us.

But we aren’t told exactly how to relay that message in our own unique contexts because, like the servants in our parable, we have quite a bit of agency. We get to use our own creativity. We do it in our own way, as teachers and engineers and property managers. We can embody the Gospel when we invite friends over for dinner, or when we go out to play Scrabble with our British friends, or when we open up our home to family who need a place to live. We all have unique opportunities to multiply the gift that has been given to us.

The other thing is that God doesn’t give us more responsibility than we can handle. Some people get one talent, which is still an over-the-top gift, but it’s not as big of a responsibility as 5 talents. Some of us have a smaller platform, and that’s what we want. We don’t want to be preaching in front of a thousand people, or speaking on the nightly news. We don’t want to be quoted in newspapers, and we certainly don’t want to deal with the internet trolls that every public figure deals with.

Jesus is okay with that. The gift given to each servant is not a way of ranking. The one who was given 5 talents is no better than the one who’s given 2 talents. This is clear from the master’s response when he returns home. Both the first and the second servant receive the exact same reward, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” The master is so joyful over them both. They both receive the same gift, because they were responsible with what they were given.

The important thing to recognize is that they were all given something. We are all given something. And, like the servants, we are all expected to do something with what we were given, whether it’s one talent’s worth, or 5 talent’s worth.

The third servant doesn’t seem to understand the master’s gift. Instead of thinking of it as a gift, he thinks of it as a responsibility. It’s not something to use, to take risks with, to bless and be blessed by. It’s something he doesn’t want. “Why did the master give me all this money?” he must have said when he got home,  “I don’t want to be responsible with that!” So he hides it in the ground.

Think about the difference between how the first two servants must have interacted with the gift the master gave them, and how the last servant must have interacted with the gift the master gave him. The first two must have thought about the gift every day. They must have woken up thinking, “How should I use this? How can I invest it? How can it grow?” This gift must have given them a purpose and a passion. It must have been all-consuming.

The third servant, however, must have thought very little about the gift, except, perhaps, to worry about it. “Oh, I hope it’s okay. I hope no one found it. The master’s going to be so mad at me if I lose it.”

The master’s going to be so mad at me if I lose it. That’s the real problem here. That’s where it all goes off the tracks, where the third servant has misunderstood, and this misunderstanding is costly.

This third servant says to the master when he returns, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”

A hard man, harvesting where he has not sown and gathering where he has not scattered seed? Does that sound like this master to you? This master who gave his servants a minimum of 20 years wages and let them do with it what they would? This master who’s overjoyed by the first two servants, and makes them equal with himself, inviting them into the very joy he experiences?

This third servant doesn’t know his master. To get to the heart of the parable, this servant does not know God. He doesn’t understand who God is, what God is like.

Many of you have probably seen the movie the Sandlot. The movie is about a group of young boys who love baseball, and play every day of the summer in an abandoned lot near their homes. On the far side of the outfield is a wooden fence. And behind that fence, according to legend, lives a dog, the Beast, who eats people alive. This dog was fed human being by his owner, Mr. Mertle. So, whenever a ball gets hit over the fence it’s a goner, they don’t even try to get it back.

Well, the main character, Smalls, let’s the boys play with his step-dad’s baseball signed by Babe Ruth, without knowing who Babe Ruth is. When the group’s leader, Benny, smashes the ball into the Beast’s backyard, Smalls is distraught. When the rest of the team finds out the ball was signed by Babe Ruth, they spend the summer trying to recover it.

Finally, Benny hopes the fence, grabs the ball, and takes off with the Beast following close behind, resulting in an epic chase scene. The end up back at Mr. Mertle’s and the fence Benny had jumped falls on the Beast, trapping him. Despite their fear, the boys lift the fence and let the Beast out. The next thing Smalls knows, he’s face to face with the Beast, who simply starts licking him in the face with his giant tongue.

Mr. Mertle comes out, and when he hears what happened he asks, “Why didn’t you knock on my door? I would have gotten it for you?” It turns out he’s a blind old man, who used to play with Babe Ruth. He gives Smalls a ball signed by the entire 1927 Yankees team.

The boys had assumed so much about the Beast, who turned out to be named Hercules, and Mr. Mertle, but none of it was true. They had lived their lives in fear of a good man and a kind dog, who became their mascot from then on.

How many people today live with a similar understanding of God? How many people live in fear of a good God? Preaching judgment and damnation, because they think God is a hard God, reaping where God doesn’t sow? How many people are motivated by fear of God. That’s what motivated this servant, fear. “So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground.” What a sad perspective.

How the third servant viewed God shaped what he did with the gift. What we believe about God shapes how we live as well. Is God a God of anger? Just waiting for us to mess up? When God comes back, will it be with hellfire and brimstone? If so, we will live in fear for that day. When God returns, we’ll be the last of the servants to come face-to-face with God, we’ll linger toward the back of the line, because we don’t want to be a disappointment. We’ll quietly mutter, “Look, I held on to what I was given. I promise. I never lost it. Here, take what is yours.”

But we know that what is God’s is also ours. Remember, we have been made fellow heirs with Christ!

If we are like the first two servants, we’ll understand this. We’ll approach God with joy, we’ll run to God like children who have missed their Mother for so long and want to show her all the things they’ve accomplished since she left. They’ll want to show her how much they’ve grown, what they’ve learned. They’ll want to tell her about their new friends. And God, like a mother, will respond with joy. God takes all that we are, all the ways we’ve changed and grown, and invites all of us into God’s mission. God wants every bit of who you are. God wants every fiber of your being to tell the world of God’s great love. God will make room for the people we’ve become over the years, since we first received that generous gift of the Gospel. And when our time has come, we’ll enter into God’s joy as the servants enter into their master’s joy.

The strange thing about this parable is that it implies that God, in some sense, becomes who we expect God to be. The first two servants see their master as a generous man who has entrusted them with much, so when he returns they are excited to show him what they’ve accomplished. He’s already invited them into his work by giving them the talents, so it only makes sense that when he return he also invites them into his joy. What’s his is there’s. What’s God’s is ours.

The third servant, though, thinks his master is a hard man, and so the master becomes a hard man. How we view God shapes how we use the gifts God has given us and this shapes how God will respond to us. It kind of reminds me of Jesus’ teaching that we must forgive if we want to be forgiven. Once again, the idea is that how we understand God’s relationship with us will inevitably shape how we live our lives, and how we treat others.

The morale of this parable seems to be, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

It’s as if, in this parable, Jesus wants to scare us out of being scared. It’s as if Jesus wants the fear of fear to erase all fear from our lives.

Jesus seems to be saying that there is absolutely no place for fear within our relationship with God. In the beautiful words of 1 John 4, “we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.”

God is love and there is no fear in love. If we understand God, we have nothing to fear, for we are in God and God is in us.

To multiply the gift of God is to love recklessly, to risk and invest, to “live in love,” because to live in love is to live in God.

Love is the currency we are given.

In Christ we are given more love than we can imagine, and then we are sent out into the world to multiply it and grow it. God’s love becomes our love. God’s joy becomes our joy.

May it be so.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1082290.A_W_Tozer

[2] https://www.census.gov/prod/2009pubs/p60-236.pdf