Near Molong, NSW 2011

Unfinished Business

Week of Sunday 13 November - Pentecost 22
Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.”23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

29For 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.

30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

There is more than one God in the New Testament. Just as you or I imagine God differently, whatever the Reality, so do the various authors of that book. I have followed different Gods during my attempts at being a disciple. There was a time when the hard God described by Matthew, especially in chapter 25, was the one I imagined. That God scared me into the Faith. I read Matthew, and realised that if this was true, I was on the wrong side! That was my first conversion.

But Matthew and the other writers in the book have converted me in other ways. I can no longer make sense of a god who consigns people to outer darkness (25:30) and eternal punishment. (25:46) Such a god contradicts the God of love and forgiveness that I have begun to imagine from a wider reading of the same book.

So what am I to make of Matthew? Matthew himself has been a part of that wider reading, and re-reading, which has taught me about mercy.  Do I simply conclude that this bit (chapter 25) is wrong, and skip over it? Do I treat it as a kind of Leviticus, which we mostly, but rarely, read for background? Or do I look for some other truth, beyond outer darkness, in the parables of the chapter? In Matthew’s scheme, the chapter is a crescendo which has been building for some time. It is the last lesson before we begin the story of the crucifixion. Skipping over it would be to leave out a significant part of his vision of Jesus.

I summarise chapter 25 as a blunt warning that discipleship without action misses the point. There is a brutal condemnation of the Pharisees in chapter 23. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” The word hypocrite is used seven times.

Matthew’s apocalyptic vision follows in chapter 24, and at the end, the Christian who is not a faithful slave is “cut ... in pieces and put ... with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It’s the dark other side of Paul’s recognition that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. (Ro 10:12)

If we do not believe with the heart; that is, our whole selves and actions, something is wrong. If we simply “confess” with our mouths and do not live it out with faithful mercy, we will not be saved. (Ro 10:10)

Chapter 25 rams this message home. Nominal Christians are just as liable to judgement as anyone else.

Some of my congregation will be mystified by my concerns. They will see no problem. Indeed, I too once saw no inherent contradiction between salvation for all, but negative judgement for some.

For others of the same congregation, and every congregation, the problem is there. They may  not call it an “inherent contradiction.” It may be a deep revulsion at the inhumanity, and the divine injustice, that accompanies eternal punishment. This troubling contradiction can drive the very person who the faith has brought to a deep appreciation of the grace and mercy of God, away from the faith. We need to find words and images to deal with the problem.

Last week in my sermon, I said that judgement was an unfinished idea.

The evil and oppression of Matthew’s time was so great, that no one had much doubt that some people deserved eternal separation from God. We can certainly see that Matthew had no doubts. “...these will go away into eternal punishment,” he says at the end of chapter 25.

But even before Matthew, people had begun to see that the love Jesus showed us was so great, that maybe even the most wicked would be loved back into the kingdom of heaven by God.

For me, scripture itself is an unfinished idea. This is a heresy compared to my past understandings. They grew from a childhood church that implied a finished product, and were topped off with an unfortunate dose of American fundamentalism, in early adulthood. The fundamentalists provided me with an explicit formula for the final, finished product, invulnerable to further adjustment.

Slowly, I began to see that scripture is not like that. It is unfinished. It adjusts itself! Mark’s vision is supplemented and altered by Matthew and Luke. The original Paul is modified by the writers of Ephesians and Colossians; if it really is Paul writing there, he has gone off the boil! The authors of the One and Two Timothy begin to contradict him.

If faith grows, and reassesses, and even regresses sometimes, how will we be faith-full when we read Matthew 25 today?

I try to work from two basic ideas. The first is that scripture is a part of the revelation of God.  This is important. Ultimately, last week’s tale of the ten bridesmaids is not about us missing out if we are not alert. It is a story of the nature of God. It begins with the phrase, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this...” This kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God. It is God’s ultimate desire for Reality.

“The kingdom of heaven will be like this...” says the parable.  Here is the second idea that the church has developed over the millennia. Theology is finally restricted to the via negativa when it speaks about God. God is like this... but is not this. God cannot be this. If we can define God, then it is not God. If we could define God, then we would be greater than God. That god would not be God.

We approach the problem of God, and the problem of Truth, from all sides, trying to find a way in to the Truth. We sense the Divine is like this... but is not this. And like that... but is not that...  A bit like a man going on a journey, and leaving a slave in charge, but not exactly like that. Like ten virgins waiting for the wedding feast, but not too much like that; that’s only a story, after all.

And it’s as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.... but this is only a story, only as if. Don’t forget that.

16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

There is an apparent inequality between the first two servants (and the third.) One has more ability than the other. This is real life. My son “just looks” at numbers and gives me the answer. I add them up three times, get two different answers, and have to do a fourth adding up to be sure!

Life is like that. There is an inherent inequality in our genes, in the upbringing given us by our parents, and unfairly influenced by whether the worst bully the school has ever known is in our year, or on the year of our little brother.

In the story, all this is evened out. In the mercy of God, ability does not matter. What matters is our response. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” The master’s response to both of the first two slaves, one worth far more than the other to him, is the same. He would have said this to the third slave, too.

Is God like this? Does God value us all equally, despite our apparent inequalities and lack of worth? Isn’t this an attractive idea? We love this God! This is grace.

Then comes the hard part of the story.

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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.

30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Background: the reference to investing money with the bankers comes from the perception that bankers reaped where they did not sow, and gathered where the did not scatter seed. It sounds like a proverb. Jesus would have been popular with Occupy Wall Street! At the very least, this man ought to have put the money in the bank.

This third slave in the story perceived the master to be the opposite of what we see him to have been! He sees a master who is harsh, rather than one who brings his slaves into his joy. Be careful how you imagine life, says another proverb, because that is how it will be!

The principle seems to be this: 29For 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.

It’s not about the money. It is not simply the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. God is not that, says the via negativa.

Instead, that slave had a poverty of spirit that meant he lost life itself. Something of God grows in us, stimulated or fostered by our discipleship and our compassion. As we use what we are given, it grows in us, and it grows us. If we will not follow Jesus, that something withers. (This is not exclusive to Christians. Romans 2:14-15)

It is a reality which I believe I discern in the lives of people around me. It’s a sort of compound interest of compassion— or perhaps the poverty of self interest.

I meet people who have suffered enormously, who have had no hope based in genes and parenthood, and yet despite all this, have a kind of wholeness,  and are rich, and know joy. I meet others who seem to have had everything... yet seem to carry a kind of misery inside. They have no shalom.

This is a mystery. It is the reality of God in which I must live. If I seek too hard to resolve the mystery; that is, if I insist on defining God too closely, I limit the limitless mercy of God.

If I try and pin God down in this parable, the only solution I find is that God really is the harsh master, who will not help the third slave to turn around, and live life in the direction of truth. This god really does let some of us go into outer darkness. Indeed, he sends us there. This god really does write some of us off as worthless. (25:30) If this is God, then this god is worthless as a God. This is not a solution to the mystery. This is the darkness.

If I want to make it all hang together neatly, I end up with a loving God who calls some of his people “worthless.” This is not God.

But the principle is true! If we are faithful in very little, we seem to reap rewards far beyond what we deserve. The nature of God is like this. We are gifted beyond all deserving. But the story does not define God. When it comes to God, we have unfinished business. We are always seeking, always trying, always finding— but never the whole story.

And I fear that if I’m ever finished in my business with God, I will be finished.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Bishop Rick 22-11-2014
Dear Billy: hey you, I can see across the aisle, on the the other side. Remember when we were kids, we used to play and always have fun. I missed you so much when you had to move because of what Dad called the great separation. This does not make much sense that this guy Jesus never referred to himself as a king, and the feast of the great separation was created in 1925 by someone called a pope. I know you must be hurting. Supposedly, I did the right things, and you didn’t I gave someone to drink, and you didn’t I was a sheep in a kid’s farm animal and made them happy, you didn’t I clothed someone , you didn’t At least they say you didn’t You can give milk, I can’t …. I’ve seen you share your milk. You can go to places like high mountains, I can’t …. I’ve seen you prodding goat brothers and sisters up the hill to keep them from danger … I can’t … wolves all around us then ... People don’t expect much from goats, so I guess they miss any good you do. Look, we gave our wool for clothing, you give cheese for food …. I really don’t understand the fuss. And the Jesus I know, he does not look very comfortable in that throne with a crown of jewels on his head and he doesn’t move around well in those cumbersome regal clothes they dressed him up in, He doesn’t laugh much and get around to shepherding us …. his handlers make sure he stays put. I am sorry. I think he really would like you. I heard the other night that he was able to sneak out, did you see him? Dear Sheepy, It has been absolute chaos here, Mom and Dad really miss playing cards with your Mom and Dad. Folks are pretty miserable here. And my teeth are getting worn from gnashing them. Jesus, did I see him …. I don’t think so …. I have been busy trying to get milk and cheese to the poor folks down the street. Seen Jesus? Was her wearing that royal crap. No haven’t seen him. Was he brandishing a scepter or walking around with his body gaurds, did’t see any of that. I miss you too. Listen, I gotta go …. there are some hungry kids down the block. Dear Billy, chucks Billy, I think Jesus may be pulling our bluff again ….. I know a secret place we can meet, on the border where I heard Jesus was gonna come again and talk about peace, his handlers are having a conference on what Marketing the Jesus Experience, so he is gonna get away and tell us something about the good news…... something called the beatitudes…. See ya there…….

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