Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 Psalm 90 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Matthew 25:14-29 (Homily for November 16th)
Building One Another Up
The Parable of the Talents (or Bags of Gold in the translation used today–to convey that a talent was a very large sum of money) is a parable that appears only in the Gospel of Matthew, so we encounter it only once every three years in our cycle of liturgical readings. But it’s a well-known Bible passage, so is there a way of approaching it that isn’t cliché? Then I came across what was for me a fresh insight in the analysis of one interpreter. Because of the condemnation heaped on the third servant, I had never considered the point Bernard Brandon Scott makes: that it’s most likely that Jesus’ original audience would have initially identified most strongly with the third servant. The average peasant did not look kindly on wealthy people who multiplied their wealth ‘without sowing,’ i.e., without honest labor. The prudent and just thing to do with one’s wealth was precisely to bury it. Jesus’ audience would have favored the actions of the third servant. [Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear then the Parable, pp. 219ff] They didn’t need an Occupy Wall Street movement to tell them that money under that mattress or buried in the back yard might have an advantage.
The other thing that would have surprised the first audience to hear this parable was the generosity of the estate holder. The assumption of the servants is that they have been asked to invest the vast amount of money on behalf of their master, only to discover during the settling of accounts that he had given it to them as their own.
This parable is placed in a section of Matthew’s gospel that deals with judgement and end times, which are themes we wrestle with every year as we approach the season of Advent with its two faces: the one looking back to the Incarnation of Christ and the one looking to the future and a final judgement. The apocalyptic literature in the Bible emerges whenever God’s people have a sense that the end is near, whether reason for imminent demise is from geopolitical forces like the Assyrians occupying their land or Babylonians invading and taking them into exile or the Romans destroying the Temple. Many of followers of Jesus believed that he was returning soon and suddenly without warning, “like a thief in the night,” as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.
Given what has been happening in the world around us, we can relate to the theme of end times. As the world approached the year 1000, or M in Roman reckoning, all of Europe was seized with anxiety over speculation that the end of the world was near. In the run-up to the year 2000, or Y2K, as it came to be known, the anxiety returned, out of a complex of fears. As we watch the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere ratcheting up and up, with all the attendant and predicted consequences, it is hard no to be thinking about end times. One of the ways prophetic voices try to get the attention of the masses is through science fiction. In the late 1950s, The Twilight Zone TV series provided a way to think about race relations and the consequences of nuclear war in a non-threatening context. The 2008 animated film from Pixar, Wall-E, is a reworking of the Noah story for our time. And Elysium, which came out last year, is a parable that extrapolates where income disparity and global environmental degradation lead: to a planet that has become a dystopic ghetto and an orbiting satellite, Elysium, where the wealthy live in a cocoon of security and high-tech healthcare.
I didn’t expect it, but the “way in” to today’s readings for me was the concluding sentence of the Epistle reading. Paul is writing words of comfort and assurance to people who are living in what feels to them like end times. “Just when people are saying, ‘Ah, peace! Ah, security!’ destruction comes—with the suddenness of a labour pang to a woman in childbirth—and there is no escape.” But what is Paul’s advice to them: “So strengthen one another and build one another up (as indeed you do).” He encourages them to keep on doing what they are doing already.
The prophecy of Zephaniah sounds jarring to our modern ears because the theological cosmology of that time and place gets in the way of seeing the parallels with our own situation. We have the advantage of a longer view of history, and we don’t need to attribute the consequences of greed, social injustice, and bad stewardship of creation to a wrathful God. Horrendous outcomes for the human race and all God’s creatures are the rewards of greed, social injustice, and bad stewardship of creation. I remember the Cuban missile crisis, when we walked to the precipice of a nuclear holocaust. We still see the consequences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Countless people don’t have potable water because of toxic chemicals in wells, aquifers, lakes, and streams. Air quality in parts of the industrialized world is shortening lives.
How do we build one another up in such a world? Where do we start?
How about taking another look at today’s parable? The safe approach, the common sense wisdom of the day would have had Jesus’ audience siding with the servant who buried the bag of gold. But the reign of God is about more than safety and security, it is about building up the reign of God, and that happens when we take whatever it is we have been given to work with–our brains, our financial resources, our relationships, our power and influence–and use them to expand God’s realm in the world. There are countless ways of expanding God’s realm in the world; we are familiar with many of them: working for affordable housing for everyone; helping settle refugees; striving for justice for sexual minorities in the church and in Canadian society; being part of the struggle for a moral economy. These are also some of the ways we strengthen and build one another up. Christians were designed for community, not to be Lone Rangers. That is not to say there is no diversity within the body of Christ; indeed, diversity of gifts is a feature. God has invested us with gifts untold. But it is up to us to unwrap them and put them to use in expanding God’s realm and strengthening one another.