Sermon preached for the Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
“It is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.
“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.
“Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’
“His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’
“The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’
“His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’
“Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’
“His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the useless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’
“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.
A few years ago, I spent the summer working as a hospital chaplain. I was doing my rounds on the cardio unit when I came across a patient in an unusual state. She was sitting up, with her bags half-packed around her—usually a sign that patients are about to be dismissed. But she also was still connected to her monitors by all the different sensors and tubes. I decided to drop in and see what was going on, and found myself quickly immersed in one of the oddest conversations of my life.
The woman was waiting for her son to come get her, and nearly vibrating with anger. You could feel it as soon as you stepped into the room. She was furious at everyone—her son, her doctors, the nursing staff. I couldn’t figure out why, though, and her anger seemed sort of ingrained in her. Just a natural way of being, rather than set off by any particular situation.
The conversation turned theological—which is surprisingly rare, even when your badge says chaplain—and I had reason to ask her what she thought about God. She very nearly snarled.
“My son thinks God is just Santa Claus, but I think God is pissed off and ready to smack us around.”
I remember being absolutely stunned into silence. If we were in a cartoon, there would have been three little dots over my head. I knew that not everyone believed in the same loving and gracious God that I have met in my own life, but I’d never heard it said so baldly. And with such pride, that she knew the truth.
Her anger made more sense to me, though. If she thought anger was the guiding force of all creation, of course she would be angry. If we are made in God’s image, then she was playing her part to the full.
It was probably a good thing I didn’t answer, or I might have rushed to defend my vision of God, to explain why a loving God is not the same as Santa Claus, but that’s not what I was there for. Rule one of chaplaincy: listen, don’t proselytize. She moved on and the conversation continued, but I remember leaving feeling brokenhearted, that the God she knew was so different from my own, that the God she knew seemed to have left her with a bitter taste in her life for everyone and everything in it.
I recognized that woman this week, in the third servant of this parable. The one who is given an extraordinarily valuable gift and who buries it in the ground because he is afraid. Because he thinks his master is cruel and dishonest and harsh.
This parable is another tricky one, and scholars disagree on how best to interpret it. One thing I do know is that it’s not really about money, any more than last week’s parable was really about oil. The God who came to earth as the son of a carpenter, to flee in his mother’s arms as a refugee and survive in his ministry off the hospitality of strangers is not primarily interested in beefing up our bank accounts. As much as we might like it to be, this is not the parable of Making Bank for Jesus.
Which leaves me wondering what those talenta, those valuable coins, do represent. Talenta were almost impossibly valuable—at least fifteen year’s worth of income for the average laborer—probably somewhere between 2 and 6 million dollars today, depending on how you do the math. They could weigh up to 75 pounds, meaning a single person could barely pick one up. This is a hyperbolic amount of money. It’s shorthand for “most valuable thing you can think of.” If God is the master in this story, they represent the most valuable thing that God has given us.
Jesus tells this parable just a few days before his arrest and crucifixion. He knows he is nearing the end of his earthly story. And so far, he has been doing all the work—all the healing, all the feeding, all the teaching. Now he’s trying to get his followers prepared to take over. Trying to remind them that when he’s not physically there, they’ll still know what to do, because they saw him do it.
That is that talenta he has to hand over to them, before he goes on his journey: his own ministry. What he still hands to us: the mantle of fulfilling Jesus’ ministry on earth.
After all, it’s Jesus who shows us how to behave. How to care for others. How to call out hypocrisy—others’ and our own. How to pray. How to carry a cross. How to trust God. How to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s the ministry we have to take out in the world. Christ’s compassion is our currency, Christ’s love is our business.
And two of the servants take to it enthusiastically, going out into that world and doing Christ’s work. But the third simply doesn’t. He buries that talenta in the ground, because somehow he’s gotten the idea that God is harsh, just waiting to smack him around, and he’s afraid.
And I get it. I can’t imagine living under the weight of a God like that. I can’t imagine having to live so scared all the time, that one foot out of line, one mistaken action, would send the wrath of God barreling down on me. Jesus’ ministry is messy. It calls us to difficult places, to places where we might get things wrong, where we might do harm, even as we try with all our might to do good. If God is lying in wait to catch us out, then it’s too risky. Better to just sit on our hands and hope God doesn’t notice us.
I do know people who believe in a vengeful God. They don’t usually put it as clearly as my patient, but I’ve noticed that they are generally fearful people. The attitude seems to be, “I can’t sin if I don’t do anything at all. If I’m just as quiet as can be, maybe God will never notice me.”
But the problem, of course, is that God does notice. The master returns, and rejoices with the two servants who have taken his gifts out into the world, and have found themselves enriched because of them. There is celebration with the ones who have been faithful in carrying out Jesus’ mission while Jesus is not physically there.
But the third servant gets called “evil and lazy.”
It’s a slap in the face. Lazy I can maybe understand. But evil? Is it really a sin to refuse to answer our call to Christ’s work?
It hits home, because I feel for this third servant. Even though I believe in a loving and gracious God, I still get scared and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of Christ’s call on my life. I still want to avoid risks and play it safe. And before you say—oh, but Carol, you’re the pastor, call answered—there are absolutely ways to play it safe in ministry. There are ways to bury that talenta in the ground, no matter who you are.
And it’s tempting. It’s so tempting, because that means we don’t have to go out in the world, and risk being hurt, or risk hurting others. And it doesn’t feel like a bad move—after all, the master doesn’t lose anything. Surely avoiding getting it wrong is a good thing, right?
Here’s the problem, though: sometimes not doing anything is just as bad as doing something, even imperfectly. Sometimes avoiding action is the sin we commit.
There’s a line in one of the confessions from the Book of Common Worship that—well, I can’t say I love it, but I need it. It hits home. “Merciful Lord, forgive us—for what we have done and what we have left undone.”
We tend to think of our sins as things we do. It’s safer that way, because most of us can and do avoid the big ones—no murder, no mad thieving. But when we think of the things we don’t do—that list gets convicting. When we think of what we allow to happen, what we pass by in silence, who we overlook—when we begin to list those sins, we begin to see what harm is done by ignoring Christ’s call, Christ’s example.
There are a million examples of what happens when we take the route of least engagement, but I’ve been thinking particularly this week about the national conversation around the way men, and particularly men with power, have felt entitled to treat women. It feels like a lot right now, because a tsunami of silence is finally cresting over. It is easy to be angry at perpetrators, but it takes more than just them to create a culture where women cannot speak up, or are not believed when they do. It takes lots of people agreeing to look the other way, deciding that it’s not worth the risk to stick their own necks out. For generations, people who have probably considered themselves good Christians—people who have read the scriptures where Christ respects and values women as God’s children, where Christ commands that we treat each other as neighbors and not as things to be exploited—these people have played it safe, deciding that it’s not their business what their boss, or co-worker, or friend, or family member does. Thinking that as long as they weren’t the ones doing it, then it wasn’t their sin to carry.
It probably felt safe. It may even have felt righteous, not to judge, not to get involved. But it did harm. Sometimes not doing anything, not calling out abuse when we see it, does just as much harm as anything. “Evil and lazy” are harsh words. But I do recognize that a lack of action can be sin too.
Dietrich Bonhoffer, the German theologian who watched his Jewish neighbors be rounded up and executed by his own government, noted that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility.
In other words, our desire to bury God’s call on our lives—God’s call to love kindness, and seek justice, and walk humbly—to bury it in the ground and feel like we’ve done all we need to do. To accept what God has given us, but not share it with others.
I’ve wondered this week about my own tendency to want to play it safe. I’m not afraid of God’s punishment—I believe what we say each week, that God forgives all our sins, those of action and inaction. So I wonder if perhaps I am overwhelmed in the other direction—not by the wrath of God, but by the goodness of God. It seems like too great a gift for a regular old sinful person like me to handle, to take out into the world. It’s as if I don’t want to tarnish God’s love and grace by forcing it through my fingers, my words, my choices. And so I say nothing, or do nothing, because I can’t be Jesus here. Not totally. And I know how much better he would be at it than me.
But that ignores that God has given me—given each of us—this call. This ministry. God has given it to us, not by accident, not as Plan B, but on purpose. We’re the ones God asks to do this work, to go out in the world and make love and justice and mercy multiply. God never asked us to do it perfectly. God just asked us to do it.
God trusted that servant with the one talent. God had faith in that servant. It only went wrong when the servant failed to have faith in himself.
Friends, we have a call. A gift. And it can feel like it weighs a full seventy-five pounds, when what we are called to do is scary, or goes against the status quo, or goes up against the powers and principalities of this world. But we don’t have to be afraid, because we know the truth:
God is not ready to smack us around. God is not itching to smite us the second we put our toe out of line. The cross meant more than that.
And God is not Santa Claus. God does not prize “niceness” above all else. Not above justice. Not above truth. Not above calling sin out by name.
God is God. The one who marched into the mess of this world, not always nicely, but with fierce compassion and truth, to show us what could be possible if we learned to love each other the way God loves us.
That is the God I love. The God that comforts and challenges me both. Jesus who sends me out into the world, to be, even clumsily, his hands and feet. The Spirit who pushes me away from safety, away from holes dug neatly into the ground, and into the busy, hurting, hoping world.
For that God, for that grace, and for that gift, I give thanks. Amen.