Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost by the Rev. Martin Elfert

November 19 2017 image

Lessons:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

 

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When I was ten or twelve, a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure were a pretty big deal with my classmates and me. The Choose Your Own Adventure books were paperback thrillers: the “Adventure” part of the title referred to the spies and the astronauts and the explorers who were wading their way through peril and discovery and excitement therein; the “Your” part referred to the convention whereby the books were written in the second person, thus making explicit what is implicit in every adventure story, that the hero and the reader are one and the same; and “The Choose” part referred to the introduction of a rudimentary amount of roleplaying.

Throughout the book you, the lead character would be confronted with a choice: would you look through the keyhole of the door behind which you heard sinister noises, or would you throw it wide open, confronting whatever lay behind? Would you drink the contents of the strange vial bubbling on the mad scientist’s table, or would you leave it alone? Depending on your choice, the book instructed you to turn to different pages. Usually there were two or three choice: if you opened the door, you turned to page 56. If you were more cautious and looked through the keyhole, you turned to page 103. If you chose another door altogether, you turned to page 151.

And there you learned your fate.

Page 56 would tell you that you were captured and thrown into a dungeon – the end – whereas page 103 would tell your door-listening prudence was going to yield more life and adventure. All of the books, in other words, had multiple possible plot trajectories, or at least variations on the plot. All of them had multiple possible endings. For those of you into trivia, the Choose Your Own Adventure book with the greatest number of conclusions, of the ends, allowed the book to end in 44 different ways.

A couple of decades went by without me thinking much about the Choose Your Own Adventure books. But then I got introduced into the world of Biblical studies and Biblical criticism, of – to borrow the language of today’s opening collect, today’s opening payer – the world of reading, marking, and inwardly digesting scripture. And I noticed something familiar.

Here in the Bible was a single story or saying or proverb. And here, in the works of scholars and interpreters, were a heap of possible understandings of it. Depending on the lens that you brought to a given passage, you would end up in a very different place.

I went to the library leafed through one commentary after another with one understanding after another and I said:

Oh!

This is choose your own Biblical adventure.

Today we listen as Jesus tells us a folk tale. Let a lot of folk tales, it features hyperbolic violence. Also like a lot of folk tales, it features the characters, all of whom report to a master. Three is a classic number of characters in storytelling (think of the Three Little Pigs, the Three Bears, and the Three Billy Goats Gruff) as well as in jokes. The first two characters have the job of establishing a pattern, and the third has the job of breaking it. The moment in which the pattern breaks is, depending on the nature of the tale or the joke, variously funny, tense, morally instructive, or maybe all three.

So.

A Wealthy Man is going away on a trip. He has three slaves. And he gives each of them a large sum of money for safekeeping, one of them five million dollars, one of them two million dollars, one of them one million dollars. And then he leaves to spend a long time at his mansion on a tropical island.

When the Wealthy Man comes back in the late spring, he asks the slaves to give him an accounting of what they have done with the money. Slave Number One says, “You gave me five million dollars, I invested it in Portland real estate and I made another five million dollars!” The Wealthy Man says, “Good job! You can spend the rest of the week lounging beside my swimming pool while my chef comes by and feeds you grapes and tiny sandwiches.”

Slave Number Two steps up and he says, “You gave me two million dollars. I invested it in Nike stock and I made another two million dollars!” The Wealthy Man says, “Good job, Slave Number Two! You also can spend the rest of the week lounging beside my swimming pool and eating small but very expensive food.”

Slave Number Three steps up and says, “You gave me one million dollars. I knew that you were a terrible person, that you take things that don’t belong to you, that you steal. I was afraid of you. I knew that you would punish me if I made a mistake. And so I buried your money in a box and kept it safe.

“Here is your one million dollars.”

And the Wealthy Man says, “You knew that I was a terrible person, did you? Then you should have invested my money like the other two!

“Guards, take this Slave’s one million dollars and give it to the Slave with ten million dollars. And then throw Slave Number three into the pool and throw my pet piranhas in after him. For the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. If you have more, you will get more. And if you have nothing, even the little that you have will be taken away!”

Let’s play:

Choose Your Own Biblical Adventure.

Turn to page 103 if this is a story about making the most of the gifts that God has given you.

Paul Nuechterlein, the Lutheran pastor and blogger and scholar whose work has heavily shaped my understanding of scripture in general and of this passage in particular, says that he did a search for every children’s homily that he could find on this passage. And of the homilies that he found, 100% of them rely on this interpretation. They grab onto the word “talent” (“talent” being the Ancient Greek word for a weight or unit of currency, a word that evolved into our current word for “something that you’re good at,” although it is not at all clear that “talent” had the latter meaning or implication in Jesus’ time) and they tell us about how God – who, in this reading, is unequivocally the Wealthy Man – wants you to run with the gifts that God has given you, that God wants you to thrive.

That’s an okay reading, I guess. I think that God really does want you and me to thrive, that God has given you and me gifts that God hopes that we will share with the world. And there is no question that it is hard to watch, tragic even to watch, when you know and love someone who, for some reason can’t or won’t let their gifts shine, who takes their life and buries it in a field.

The problem with this reading is twofold. First, it’s kind of harmless. And I always get suspicious when we read Jesus’ stories in a way that makes them into gentle platitudes. Try hard and you’ll succeed! You can do anything that you put your mind to! These are bumper stickers, , they are posters in your guidance counselor’s office. They are not the tales of a brilliant and subversive storyteller, the tales of the Son of Man.

The second problem with this reading is that, well, it makes God look awful. If God is the Wealthy Man, then God is kind of brutal and arbitrary. God gives some of us way more resources than others – this reading more or less blesses or sanctifies the generational wealth into which some of us were born and into which some of us are excluded. And then God viciously excludes and punishes the ones who can’t or won’t do much with their limited resources, going so far as to take their resources and give them to the very wealthiest.

Here is the Prosperity Gospel: If you’re wealthy, you’re doing things right and God is rewarding you accordingly; If you’re poor, you’re doing things wrong and God is punishing you accordingly. Your privilege or your suffering is all on you.

I don’t know how much I like or trust or want to worship such a God.

Turn to page 56 if this is a story about how your image of God shapes the way that you encounter your life and the world around you.

Now, this interpretation intrigues me a little more. In this reading of Jesus’ folk tale, Jesus is teaching us that what we believe or don’t believe about God correlates pretty reliably with what we believe or don’t believe about ourselves and about the world around us. If we believe in and trust in and say “yes” to a God who is generous, who is loving, who has created a world which is singing with abundance and life and possibility, then that will shape us. Following such a God, we ourselves will become generous and loving and abundant. If we imagine God to be angry and petty and selfish, then we are likely to be angry and petty and selfish.

If our theology is small and broken, in other words, we ramp up the likelihood that we will live in a small and broken way. A way in which we dare not love, dare not risk, dare not become fully alive.

Proclaiming the abundant generosity of God, therefore, is important work for you and for me. Proclaiming that 1John is right and that God really is love might be the most important work that you or I can do. There is a reason that the 20th Century theologian, Mr. Rogers, said over and over again, “I like you just the way that you are.” How would the world change if it were filled with people who believed themselves to be truly and unreservedly loved by God and who believed that their neighbours were loved by God in the very same way?

That sounds like the Kingdom to me.

And I’d almost like to stay with this reading, except for the ending in which the God – who in this interpretation is also the Wealthy Man – goes along with the broken image that the third slave has of God. God says: “If you think I’m cruel, then I’ll be cruel. If you think I punish, then I will punish. If you think I’m the devil, then I will be the devil.”

That can’t be right. That isn’t the God whom you or I know and love. That is not the God whom Jesus proclaims in the remainder of the Gospel.

Turn to page 117 if this is a story about economic systems that sets the stage for a story about the Kingdom.

What if the Wealthy Man isn’t God?

Let’s remember the context in which this story is originally told. This is a story told by a peasant living under occupation to other peasants living under occupation. When that audience listens to this story, with whom do you think they identify?

Manifestly, the story’s hero, the “you” in this particular Choose Your Own Adventure, is the Third Slave. For Jesus and his friends, living in fear of a capricious and violent boss is everyday reality. Having few resources is an everyday reality. And I’m fascinated by those scholars who argue that for Jesus and his friends, investing money for gain was considered immoral, that making money off of capital rather than making money from work was something that they thought was wrong. (This is a perspective that is all but entirely foreign to us in late 2017 in the United States.)

If that’s right, then the Third Slave, the one who breaks the pattern, acts in a way that is not merely sensible given his Master’s violence – he dare not risk his Master’s money – but in a way that is good ethical: the proper thing to do when someone gives you money is to preserve it safely, not to try to make more money with it.

Now, I love the lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next, it takes us to holy and hard texts that we would almost assuredly avoid otherwise. But there are times when it kind of exasperates me. This is one of those occasions. Because, by ending the reading where it does, it encourages us to suppose that this text can or should be read in isolation from the rest of the Gospel. But Jesus’ folk tale only makes sense if you keep on reading in the Gospel of Matthew. It is incomplete, maybe even incoherent if you read it on its own.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the instant that Jesus says the last line of this tale, the instant that he talks about throwing the slave into the outer darkness, the next thing that he says is:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

All the nations will be gathered before him,

and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

This is the Judgment of the Nations. One of Jesus’ most famous teachings.

And the sheep and the goats are separated based upon what?

I was hungry and you gave me food,

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,

I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

I was naked and you gave me clothing,

I was sick and you took care of me,

I was in prison and you visited me.

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Jesus then says then goes on to say: Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.

What if the folk tale that Jesus tells today is about an oppressive economic system in which people like the Wealthy Man, blinded by their power and their privilege, forget that their slaves are made in the image of God? What if this story is about how what the Wealthy Man does to Third Slave – the Third Slave who is manifestly the least of these – is the same as what he does to Jesus? What if, in other words, this is a story about Jesus being cast into the outer darkness? What if in this story, just as he does on the cross, Jesus is saying to all those who suffer, all those who are crushed when wealth and power are abused, I am with you. I am with you ‘til the end of the earth.

And what if this story sets the stage for Jesus saying to you and to me: When you work for a living wage, when you work for a country in which everyone has health care, when you work for a community in which everyone is fed, you are doing this work for me and to me?

That is an adventure that I want to be part of.