Pentecost 23 A: How Do You Imagine God?

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Well that was fun! Our sharing and conversation via last week’s letter and comments, that is. Let’s do the same this week, and continue building a community of partners in preaching.

As to this week… Over the years I’ve learned a lot from marketing guru Seth Godin. And one of the things I’ve learned seems particularly apt in light of this week’s parable. Godin argues in his little book All Marketers Are Liars that it’s not just marketers who lie, but all of us do. What he means is simply that we regularly tell ourselves things that we at least suspect, and sometime know for sure, are not true, and yet in telling ourselves them, we come to experience them as true. So we tell ourselves stories about why we shop at one store over another, make a certain purchase, or drive a particular car. And by and large these reasons, while interesting, do not so much accurately describe the factual truth but rather describe our perception of truth. And as most of us have come to learn, perception constitutes a very large part of reality.

This week’s parable is, I think, a great example of this. The great scholarly debate about this passage is whether or not we should treat the landowner as God. If so, then Matthew may again be urging his community to increased watchfulness; indeed, to a far more active faith that doesn’t sit back but takes risks for the sake of the Gospel. The problem, as others point out, is that this landowner doesn’t seem like much of a candidate to serve as an allegorical surrogate for God – with his dubious work ethic (“you do all the work and I take the profit”), cold-hearted approach to business, and violent response to what some would call prudent financial management in uncertain times.

I suspect, however, that many of these questions may be a bit beside the point. Because what strikes me is how deeply affected the third servant is by his perception of the landowner. We should note that there is no clue ahead of time about the character of the landowner. The first we hear about it is from the lips of the third servant: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Neither the first nor the second servant voices this concern or affirm this sentiment, and the landowner himself neither confirms nor calls this assessment into question either. Notice that the landowner’s retort is in the form of a question. We might therefore hear it as, “If you thought I was so awful, then why didn’t you choose another strategy?” The landowner’s response might be a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he decides to act in just the way the third servant has characterized him.

And here’s the thing: I wonder how often this happens in our relationship with God. We imagine God primarily as an enforcer of rules, and we get hung up by the legalism of religion. We visualize God as stern and prone to punishment, and we come to believe that everything bad in our lives is punishment from God. We see God as arbitrary and capricious, and that’s what we experience, a fickle and unsympathetic God who meets our expectations.

On the other hand, when we view God primarily in terms of grace, we are surprised and uplifted by the numerous gifts and moments of grace we experience all around us. And when we imagine God to be a God of love, we find it far easier to experience God’s love in our own lives and to share it with others.

What you see, all too often, is just what you get. And so perhaps this parable is inviting us to examine closely the pictures of God I believe we each carry around inside of us. Might we, Dear Partner, therefore ask our people what they think about when they think of God? Is God gracious or stern, loving or judgmental, eager for peace or prone to violence. We can certainly ask these questions and invite people to voice their responses to each other or to you in the service. But there is value, I suspect, even in asking folks to ponder these questions in silence (and giving them a moment or two to do so!). We might further ask whether the picture they carry – often constructed unconsciously – matches the picture of the God we know in Jesus or may have been shaped by other persons and events in their lives.

This will be an easy exercise for some. But for others it may occasional difficult memories or surface uncomfortable emotions as we recognize that some of our pictures of God – and therefore of the world and even ourselves – are quite limiting and even damaging. Therefore I would also invite folks to approach you in the days and weeks ahead if they want to talk further.

For now, though, it may help to anchor this parable in its narrative context. Jesus tells this parable just days before he will give his life on the cross, not as a substitute or surrogate to be punished in our place, but rather as testimony to just how far God will go to communicate God’s love for us and all the world. Jesus has spent his life and ministry proclaiming God’s kingdom, feeding the hungry, healing and sick, offering forgiveness, and welcoming ALL who recognize their need into the loving embrace of God. And for that message he is crucified. That’s how much God wants us to know of God’s love. And just in case we miss or underestimate that message, God raises Jesus on the third day that we might know that life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate.

That’s the God we proclaim, Dear Partner, and I pray that our people do not go the way of the “third servant,” but instead see, rejoice in, and live under the love and grace of the God we know in Jesus. Thanks very much for sharing this good news with your people. For some of them, your words of grace this week will make all the difference in the world.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Feel free to keep the conversation going in the comments. I found the discussion so helpful as I prepared my own sermon for this past Sunday!


Post image: “Teachings of Jesus: Parable of the talents.Jan Luyken etching.