Pentecost 24 A: What You See Is What You Get

Matthew 25:14-30

Dear Partner in Preaching,

What prompts the terror of the third servant? I mean, he’s not just nervous, or even afraid, but rather terrified. And so not only doesn’t he go out and trade to increase the considerable amount with which he has been entrusted – approximately a million dollars – but he doesn’t even put it in the bank for interest (as the property owner observes), but buries it in the ground (lest the banks fail?).

What’s curious to me is that I’ve often read this parable without even questioning the servant’s assessment of his boss. When he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” I have often taken that at face value, perhaps because of the very strong, even harsh, reaction of the master. But I wonder if that assessment is justified.

Consider these points:
1) Neither of the other two servants felt such fear, even though they were entrusted with significantly more (and therefore had more to lose).
2) The landowner gives them considerable sums to invest and then only comes back “after a long time” – that’s trust!
3) The landowner rejoices in the success of the first two servants – “Well done! Enter into the joy of your master!”
4) Notice that he responds to his servant’s assessment with a question, “You knew, did you?,” calling that assessment into doubt and, perhaps, expressing his indignation at that portrayal, which might explain his reaction, as he deals with the servant according to the servants (mis)characterization.

So I’ll ask again, why is the third servant so afraid? Or, as perhaps we may never be able to answer that question, allow this one: Are the third servant’s fearful actions and tragic fate a result of a distorted image of the landowner?

More often than not, this parable has been read either as a warning against laziness in light of the landowner’s (God’s/Christ’s) eventual return or as an exhortation to be actively preparing for the day of reckoning when all accounts will be settled. Perhaps that’s understandable given its placement among other similar and seemingly eschatological parables. But I wonder…  I wonder whether instead this might be a warning about how we picture God. About how we imagine God wants to interact with us. About how we assess God’s character and disposition toward us.

Perhaps Matthew realizes that given his emphasis on the law and exhortation to active waiting and all the rest, it’s probably a good idea to remind folks about what God is actually like and, just as importantly, how our impressions of God affect us and shape our actions on a day to day basis. Perhaps, that is, Matthew is indeed offering a warning, a warning that, all too often, what you see is what you get.

That is, if we imagine God primarily as stern, even angry, and given to dispensing a terrifying and harsh justice, we will likely come to believe that everything bad in our lives is punishment from God. Similarly, if we see God as arbitrary and capricious, that’s what we experience, a fickle and unsympathetic God who meets our expectations. But if we view God primarily in terms of grace, one who empowers and entrusts and frees, then we will regularly be surprised and uplifted by the numerous gifts and moments of grace we experience all around us. For 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.

How many of our people, I wonder, are hamstrung or hurting by a deficient if not distorted picture of God. So perhaps this week provides us an opportunity, Dear Partner, to suggest a different picture: one shaped by the sacrificial love we see in Jesus. In this regard, it’s helpful to keep in mind that these “eschatological” parables are spoken by Jesus just before he is to be handed over to the religious authorities to be tried and crucified. Which means that any future eschatological import we may give them should be simultaneously tempered by the immediate, or realized, eschatological reality of Christ’s death on the cross… a death that does not make it possible for God to love and forgive us but that demonstrates that God loves and forgives us already. The God we see in Jesus is not, it turns out, “a harsh God, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” but rather always giving more than we expected or deserved and gathering what we offer back in joy.

Be prepared, though: reconsidering one’s picture of God can be difficult, and it may take some time. So perhaps we can make use of where we are not only in Matthew’s Gospel – on the eve of the Passion – but also where we are in the liturgical year — as we are on the verge of seeing God’s power and glory put aside that God might come to us as one of us, in the vulnerable and tender form of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and resting in a manger. One of Matthew’s chief metaphors and names for Christ is Emmanuel, “God with us,” the one who came in the flesh to promise to be always both with us and for us. And so we might invite our folks to spend this Advent and Christmas season checking our assumptions of Jesus against the image and promise of the Christ child. And we might also promise our people that no matter how long it takes or difficult it may seem to reshape images of God that may have been formed by difficult life experiences, we will keep announcing that God is a God of love, one who entrusts us with profound gifts and riches, eager for us to make the most of them, and inviting us always to enter the joy of our Lord.

Blessings on and gratitude for your proclamation, Dear Partner. It will touch many who need to hear a word of grace and good news.

Yours in Christ,