What We Do In The Waiting
A sermon on Matthew 25: 14-30
Can I just say that I am SO READY to be done with Matthew’s parables?!
“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
What is that?!?!
I mean, I know what it is. It’s a description of how the world actually works a lot of the time. But what are those words doing in Jesus’ mouth?
Greed is not the self-giving agenda he promotes.
Doubling-down on inequality is not the love-your-neighbor-as-yourself that he teaches.
Disdainful unconcern for the needs of those who have nothing is not the way he wants us to live in the world.
And that’s right. It’s NOT the way he wants us to live, or the lesson he wants us to take from this parable… because when Jesus says, “For it is as if…” he does not mean “this is the way you should act,” or even “this is the way God acts.”
New Testament professor, Carla Works, explains how the contents of the parable make it quite clear that it is NOT intended to be read as a description of what we can expect from the God who is revealed in Jesus, writing,
“The master’s willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any allegorical interpretation of the parable that would directly correlate him with Jesus, who never acts in a manner to seek personal gain.”
Ok. So that’s one problem solved. This story is not evidence that Jesus had a sudden personality transplant. Just because something happens in the parable doesn’t mean God is endorsing the behavior.
But then, what does it mean? What IS Jesus trying to teach us with this story of investment versus fear, and the uncompromising expectations of an absent master?
Well, we can get a few hints from larger context:
First, this parable comes near the end of what scholars call Jesus’ “eschatological discourse,” meaning his teaching about the end times.
It is a story that calls us to consider how we should live given the certainty that Jesus will one day return to put right all that is wrong in the world.
While we know that Jesus is not “a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed,” there is at least a parallel with the master in the parable in Jesus’ absence and return at an unknown time.
And given that parallel, we can consider reading this story in the same way that Jesus compares God to imperfect parents in the Sermon on the Mount, arguing,
“If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:11).
In this case, the argument might run, “if this master who is evil expects his servants to be productive in something as ultimately valueless as monetary investment, how much more will God expect us to use the gifts given to us for the good of God’s redeeming work in the world?”
Jesus is using a pattern that is familiar (a wealthy landowner wanting to maximize his prophets) and applying it to something much more cosmically important: the part WE play in God’s saving work.
The second interpretive key we get for this parable is in the structure of three parallel characters. It’s a rhetorical device used in storytelling that flags for the listeners where to focus our attention.
(We have this pattern in English tales too. Just think of the three little pigs.)
Whenever there is a pattern of three, expect the third in the series to diverge from the pattern of the first two, and for that shift to be the focal point of the plot. That is where the lesson is.
In the parable, the third servant is the one who fails to use what the master has given him, thus earning his master’s censure. Presumably, we should learn from his negative example.
So, what are we meant to avoid in the use of what God has given us?
The first lesson is perhaps the least obvious: we should not compare ourselves to those around us.
In the story, each servant is entrusted “according to his ability.”
Nothing further is said in the parable about this distinction, but I can’t help but wonder if the different values entrusted to the three servants played into the third servant’s fear.
If he interpreted the distinction as meaning that his master did not trust him as much as the others, it could have reinforced his own insecurity. Maybe he assumed the master must not expect much of him, and therefore it was better not to risk falling even lower in the master’s eyes.
But the reality was that he was entrusted with great value. Even one talent was equivalent to about 20-years wages for a laborer. And he was expected to put it to use.
In our case, it can be easy to be intimidated by the skills and callings of others:
this person is good at organizing service projects; or another person has deep spiritual insights; or even that neighboring church is so much bigger, with so many programs…
But all of those observations are irrelevant distractions. Our focus should be on the callings on our lives and congregation.
The second negative example in the third servant’s story is the assumption that a time of waiting is just a holding pattern.
It’s an easy mistake to make. There is something about the emotional weight of the idea of waiting that feels a bit empty.
But time never has to be empty, not even times of waiting.
Time can be used for learning, or for developing relationships, or for trying something new even if you don’t know what will happen.
And time that seems empty can always be filled with prayer… because, unlike the servants in the parable, our “master” is not completely absent during the waiting time.
We can still talk to him knowing that he hears us. Sometimes we can even hear back in unexpected ways.
We are never meant to be passive just because we are waiting for God’s decisive action. We have a role to play now, even in the waiting time.
Finally, the biggest lesson from the third servant is the danger created by fear…
not the dangers that we are afraid of: the fears of failure, or of getting things wrong and earning God’s anger…
but rather the danger caused by fear itself.
Fear focuses our attention on all that is bad or threatening, rather than inspiring us with the possibility of good.
Fear freezes us into inaction rather than mobilizing us to do the good thing (however small) that is in front of us.
Fear traps us in an inward focused obsession with our own performance and vulnerability, rather than turning us out toward the people God has given us to love and serve.
And it’s the people God has given us to love and serve that are the reason our work during the time of waiting for Jesus matters so much.
In talking through this week’s gospel with my dear friend pastor Jill Collect she observed that, “it is God’s mercy that suffers when we hoard, and the people who need that mercy.”
The parable is NOT an allegory because it tells the story of a master who is out for his own gain, but God still cares about what we do with the grace that God has given us because God cares about the impact of our passivity on others.
If we let our insecurities tell us that what we do for God’s kingdom doesn’t really matter that much anyway…
If we treat the time of waiting for God to act as a time that is empty of any possibility for us to make a difference…
If we let ourselves get caught in fear about what could go wrong if we try something new…
It is not God or even us who will suffer. It is the people God has given us to love, and to serve, and to share God’s grace with.
Today our congregation is beginning a process of discernment about what God is calling us to do with the time, and talents, and resources God has given us for God’s work in this time and place.
This is a process that will probably poke some of our insecurities, and make us anxious to get through the time of listening & learning to we can take action, and maybe even invoke serious fears about the future of the congregation.
But if so, let us remember: if a master who is evil expects his servants to be productive in something as ultimately valueless as monetary investment, how much more will God expect us, and empower us, to use the gifts given to us for the good of God’s redeeming work in the world? AND, how much more can we accomplish with God’s help?
Thanks be to God.