Sermon for Sunday 16th November, 2014
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Ephesians 4:25- 5:2 (This reading is used as we are having a special service later in the morning)
Recording includes illustrative comments from CS Lewis “the Great Divorce” not included in the text below
The terrifying abundance of God
When we hear these last words of the gospel 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would not be unreasonable to hear an alarming degree of dissonance with regard to the closing words of our epistle Therefore be imitators of God, as dearly loved children . . .
To be a dearly loved child is as we have explored these past weeks to be absorbed in the life of the parent, and learning to live through imitation. Those who have children will know how much play takes the form of copying parents, whether it be pretend driving a car, or playing at cooking in the kitchen. Who cannot have known the delight of being given a lovingly made mud pie with a side order of grass 🙂
Yet hearing the words of the master to the third servant ‘You wicked and lazy slave!’ we may be brought up short. Certainly this text has caused a flurry of correspondence amongst clergy this week. ‘What do we make of this text?’, ‘can it really be Jesus?’ One alternative reading which has become almost commonplace is that this is Jesus decrying the world as it is – where ‘Bosses’ hold all the strings of power, and those who blow the whistle on the operation are condemned. And of course that is an alluring suggestion, for we see this so clearly, Jesus is only condemning what we see in front of us and which we agree is evil. Jesus agreeing with us and condemning the World . . . yet ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world . . .’
Such a reading leaves us as petty moralists – and more importantly it leaves our eyes fixed on the condemnation of the world, which is not life giving. It leaves us as moral agents, charged with bringing in the Kingdom of God, rather than upon what God in Christ has done and continues to offer to us, as dearly loved children.
The relationship of master to slave in the time of Jesus is not as clear to us as we might like to think. ‘Slave’ is a very loaded word in our culture and understandably so. We cannot claim that ‘slavery is a good thing’ (yet we continue to allow it in many and diverse forms required to keep us in the manner to which we have become accustomed. Slavery in all its forms is as rampant as ever. Every person who works for less than a living wage is in a form of slavery. It is the only work they can get, and it doesn’t pay enough but it keeps Our world ticking over.) Actually for many of the slaves of the time of Jesus, many – perhaps not most – we do not know – for them their service was a form of social security. In a world where it was and is ‘devil take the hindmost’ – to have the security of work and usually food and shelter, was a better deal than for many. Jesus parable of the workers in the vineyard showed how it was for those who were not in a form of regular service, waiting in line on the hope that they might get a day’s work, and often not for a day’s pay.
So here is a master with three slaves and ‘he entrusted his property to them’ as he goes away on a journey. He puts it into their hands. Immediately we are told, their is an expected relationship of trust. ‘He entrusted his property to them’
But then WHAT PROPERTY!!! Five talents – probably as much as 100 years of wages at usual rates!! What trust the master has in his slaves. Immediately we see that there is a different relationship here than we might think of ‘master-slave’. Even the slave who was given one talent – 20 years worth of wages – still a huge trust.
So let us think for a moment of the first two. In clear sight in this parable is Jesus going away, and entrusting his life to his servants, the disciples. Huge treasure.
Part of our problem as we read this story is that we do not recognise what God in Christ has done for us – we fail to see in these huge amounts of money a clear Revelation of the Glory of God in Christ Jesus and the truly amazing nature of His Life. We have developed amongst ourselves over many many years in the church, ‘the myth of scarcity’, as if we have to be careful for everything, as if God is not Yahweh Jireh, The God who provides imaginably more than all we can ask or conceive.
God’s Love and mercy and forgiveness and sustenance is Superabundant. It overflows to all those in need. His Life is like a HUGE wellspring bursting up – irrepressible. He is the God who gives and gives and gives.
The first two slaves Know their master – and they get in on this almost terrifying superabundance. They live out of the masters abundance and produce more life. As Jesus says ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” They like dearly loved children are rejoicing in the abundance of the life of their master – and so upon his return they gladly return their version of mud pies and grass to him. They already know their Lord, they know his Joy and he just amplifies it 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 slave has proved worthy of his masters trust. He Knows his master . . . he knows Him.
Jesus, twice in Matthews gospel uses the chilling words ‘I never knew you’. Once, last week about those who were not paying attention waiting for him, Once in the Sermon on the Mount where he says “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
And so it is with the third slave, except here we see, he is the one who does not know his master – it is the same difference.
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” He calls his master a harsh man – yet his master has entrusted vast wealth to his care – we have already seen that he does not even reappropriate to himself the gains the first two slaves have made. The fact is he does not know his master at all. He believes him to be a Master of Scarcity, not a master of abundance. His master replies “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. ‘You knew me?’ Well if you believe me to be the man you say I am, the thing you should have done was to put the money to work at the bank. The master is not agreeing with the slave, the statement is a rhetorical question? If you knew me to be like this you would have behaved thus . . . The fact is you are hiding behind your own deceit – your actions betray you. You are a liar and untrustworthy.
How often in the presence of the Overwhelming abundance of God people hide – Adam and Eve hide, people ask for the mountains to fall on them. At Sinai the people, tell Moses to deal with God, He is too much for them. God’s mercy Love forgiveness and provision are too much for those who live in fear and assume scarcity, who do not rejoice in God’s provision of Daily bread, but seek to hoard and to hide.
When we refuse to believe in the Abundant Goodness of God, we show we do not know who he is. It is perhaps salutary to note that interpretations which avoid the call to the abundant life made known in Jesus have risen and risen as the church has shrunk – perhaps shrunk back in fear? As we think about the Church in this place and time, do we see a church which rejoices in the Abundance of all that God provides, or one whose story is of Scarcity – which is a lie about God, and a Lie about His Life made known to us in the Creation and fully in Christ, Risen and glorified.
The parable is about the end, but also about the ongoing judgement of God’s people when they prefer to hunker down with a small view of the Goodness of God and do not step out as dearly loved children, Imitating the glorious abundance of the Life of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sam Wells in his staggeringly beautiful book ‘God’s Companions’, says that our situation has at its heart four disorders: sin, evil, collusion, and poverty of imagination. This last speaks I think most clearly into the current state of the church, which in its life is far closer to the third and last slave, than the first two.
Does our Imagination stretch far enough to See the abundance of the Father’s love for us? As always, if not there is a simple remedy, turn to face Him. Allow his Presence to fill our imagination and absorb us wholly – and then as dearly loved children live in imitation of that which we See and Know.