Don’t you just love it when a scripture reading ends like this one, with "throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," and then we ask you to say, "Thanks be to God?" Ellen Davis, a professor at Duke Divinity School would remind us that all the words of the Bible are words of God. But some are harder to understand than others. So let’s pray:
Eternal Lord, and author of the Living Word, remind us that before the earth was formed and even after it will cease to be, You are God. In these moments and in these words, break into our short span of life to show us those things that are eternal, that we may serve Your purpose in all we do. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Both of our texts today are not "pretty" texts, they are not sweet stories that resonate immediately with us. They both are in the midst of other very harsh texts. The story of Deborah, the only woman recorded as a judge over Israel, goes on from the short passage we read to tell a gory story of the death of the general Sisera. Deborah’s place in scripture, even in the midst of a violent time, was as a judge in the legal and moral sense, as a prophetess, and, for Barak, as a symbol of God’s presence and power. Deborah "drew out" this evil general so that he might be eliminated. The Book of Judges depicts a lawless, violent time in history. Many people like to disregard this book of the Bible, and even disregard a good deal of the Old Testament. We think that the God of the New Testament is a kinder, gentler God, more to our liking.
But then we read stories such as we have been reading the past few weeks, stories told by Jesus, the divine example of kind and gentle. Yet here he tells in chapter 24 of a master returning to find a drunken slave beating the other slaves, and the text tells us the master "will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (24:51). Then Jesus tells the story of the 10 Bridesmaids, which Chris talked about last week. Here, the five wise bridesmaids who had extra oil would not share, and the door to the ceremony was shut, locking out the five bridesmaids whose oil ran out. They begged to be let in, but the groom would not let them in.
Then we read today’s story, one that is familiar to many as the Parable of the Talents. The traditional interpretation of the story is like the story I read to the children – God gives us talents, or gifts, and what we do with those talents shows how worthy we are. The two servants who multiplied the talents were praised, and welcomed into the joy of the master’s household. The servant who sat on the talent in fear was scolded and cast out into the darkness. But, really, this does not sound like a God we want to follow!
Scholar Tom Long says it is unfortunate that a piece of money in ancient times was called a "talent," because that leads to our modern interpretation of this story applying to more than money, but also to the gifts we share, or do not share, with our church community. A talent was actually a lot of money, about 15 years’ worth of wages for a regular worker. But the story, though often used in stewardship time, is also not about money or how to make a profit with good investments.
The story, according to Jesus, is about the Kingdom of God. The whole series of stories here are about the Kingdom of God. The only kings we know of in modern times are really figureheads. They do not yield much power. But in ancient times, a king was supposed to be a ruler of both the state and religion. Some kings were faithful, while others were evil in the sight of God, the books of the Bible tell us. We are not sure just what a kingdom might look like now, and we in American much prefer a democracy or republic, with elected officials.
So the Kingdom of God is perhaps beyond our understanding. The Kingdom of God exists in the here and now but also in the past and in the future. The past and the present always point towards the Kingdom to come, the fulfillment of God’s purpose at the end of the world as we know it. The big word for thinking about the coming age is "eschatology." The Gospel of Matthew was written in a time when the church thought the end would come soon to the world in which they lived, one they saw as very evil and corrupt. They looked forward to delivery from slavery and oppression and persecution that God’s kingdom would bring. They expected a Messiah who would wipe out the evil powers of the world as a mighty warrior and rule the world as a wise, all-knowing leader. Over and over, the parables of Jesus tell us that the vision we have of a Messiah and the Kingdom are not quite what God has in mind.
"The Kingdom of God is like…" Jesus says over and over. The kingdom of God is like a sower who casts seed all around, some of it on good soil but other on rocks or in the middle of weeds. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that grows to be a tree where the birds can nest. The kingdom of God is like a net thrown into the sea that caught fish of every kind. When the fishers drew it in, they kept the good fish but threw out the bad. The kingdom of God is like the 10 bridesmaids, some prepared and some unprepared who find themselves locked out. The kingdom of God is like the master who leaves his servants with talents, but without any instructions, yet he expects them to do something with them, and when one does not do anything, he is cast out.
If this is the Kingdom of God, maybe we should look for another place to go! It is not looking very pretty or attractive. Scholars see this too, and have looked deeper to interpret these texts for us. They, and we, do not see God or Jesus as cruel taskmasters. So maybe the texts are more about how we relate to God than about who God is.
For if we look closer in a literal way, the master in our story is surely not a God figure. God does not have money, yet the master is very wealthy. He has many servants, these three being higher in power because he will entrust them with considerable amounts of wealth without any instruction. God never leaves us, yet the master goes away for a very long time. He is kind and welcoming towards those who increase his already considerable wealth, but dismissive and cruel towards the one who does nothing with his money. He is, according to the reluctant servant, harsh and a cheater. God is not that way! If we look at the story to tell us about God, we do not find a picture that we like, or that fits our image of God the creator and redeemer.
But if we look at the story from the viewpoint of the servants, we see two who are very trusting and willing to risk. They must feel safe enough to risk losing what the master has given them by trying to increase them. And indeed they are rewarded for their efforts. But the third servant sees the master through dark-tinted glasses. He sees something the others do not see, a harsh man who cheats to get whatever he can for his great wealth, with little regard for the welfare of others.
There are some scholars who see the third servant as a sort of hero. The other two are willing to invest in a system that continues to exploit the poor for the sake of the rich. Making money in those times meant using peasants, paid labor, to farm the master’s land. If they did not produce enough to please the master, the land and all their belongings could be either highly taxed or taken away from them. They could even be sold as slaves to make up the difference. So, say some scholars, the third servant refused to participate in this oppressive system when he did nothing with the money entrusted to him. Rabbinic law even recommended burying money to keep it safe. He may have acted faithfully.
Yet still the fate of the third servant haunts us. He is "cast out into the darkness, where they will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." He is cast out to a place of mourning. He is cast into the same existence of the peasants he perhaps sought to protect from more exploitation.
But Jesus also said, earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." (Matthew 5) What if the third servant is the one who will reach the kingdom of God? What if he is the one who really gets it that God’s kingdom is so different than the values of this earth? What if he is the one who knows that God is not a capitalist, a wealthy landowner, an oppressor of the poor and meek whom God defends time after time in the scriptures? What if the third servant really gets the message and we don’t? Still, we don’t much desire to join him in the dreaded darkness.
But if we look at the whole picture, the message we take away seems to go another direction. The story is not about God’s gifts to us or about wise investment of money. But perhaps it is about how we live in the interim, in the "in-between" time, as Chris called it last week. We wait for the Kingdom of God to come, knowing that it will be a glorious place and time, a time without war and hatred, violence or suffering, with no pain or tears. It will perhaps be the end of the world as we know it, but the beginning of something more peaceful and beautiful than we can ever imagine. In the meantime, we live as faithful disciples who want to share a glimpse of this goodness with others. We do not sit and let our oil run out, or sit on the talent God has given us. We work to spread the Gospel message that God is good and loving, merciful and peace-loving, and we know this because of all that Jesus risked in love for us. So we risk carrying forth the talent, which may just be the Gospel message rather than a piece of money, in order to see it grow and spread. We have good news of love and joy to share in the midst of a world that is sorely in need of good news. We dare not sit idle, or we may find ourselves swallowed up by darkness of the world around us, weeping and gnashing our teeth. Instead, we choose to see the world through rose-colored glasses, through Jesus’ eyes, a place where the poor and outcast are embraced and welcomed, where faithfulness is more valued than the acquisition of money and possessions, where all can live together in harmony and peace, and know that we are all the beloved of God. What if this is all possible, here and now? Can we help to make it so?
In the name of the Creator, Child and Comforter, Amen.