I speak to you in the name of One God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen
When was the last time you trusted someone with something you consider to be priceless? Something or someone that you love and means more to you than anything else in the world? Since COVID has basically cancelled all plans for months now, it might take you a moment to think of the last time, but try and think when you last entrusted the things you hold most dear to someone else. Was it leaving your house keys to a neighbor so they could watch over things while you were away on business? Maybe it was having a babysitter watch the kids while you and your loved one went out on a date night? For me, it was having a trusted friend take care of our two cats, Franklin and Lucy, while we were away on the last, real, vacation we had over two years. Leaving something, or someone precious in another’s care requires a lot of preparation. If you’re anything like me, before I leave, I write out detailed instructions on how to care for our precious cats, just as we would, and I make my expectations crystal clear. The note normally reads something like this: “Feed the cats two cans of wet food a day—one in the morning and one in the evening. Scoop the litter twice a day, make sure to keep their water fountain full, and most importantly, be sure to sit on the couch for a minimum of two hours a day—this is when they expect to be petted and talked to and loved. I will be back on this date, at this time. I’m counting on you! Thank you very much!” Now, I know these instructions are a little ridiculous, but I know my friend will do an amazing job in my absence; not just because she is perfectly capable, but because of the relationship that has been fostered between us in the past.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus telling a parable about a master entrusting his property to three different slaves before going on a journey. The property he gives is not a house, child or even cats, but is in the form of “talents”, which is basically a measure of money equating to immense wealth. The first two slaves double their master’s money, but third slave hid the talent they were given out of fear. When the master returned, he rewarded the first two for continuing his work, while he was disappointed and punished the third slave for doing nothing with his treasure.
Matthew uses some harsh words here, and without knowing some of the historical and literary context of Matthew’s time, it is easy to misinterpret this text. For example, if read literally, one could come to the conclusion that in this parable, God is the master and comes across as the ultimate judge—the “good” are shown God’s favor, and the “bad” are cast away into the “outer darkness.” Shocker, I don’t agree with this interpretation.
Instead, it could be argued that the desperation and use of such graphic language and imagery, like the gnashing of teeth and “outer darkness,” is written as a product of a time when Jesus’ return seemed imminent. Matthew knows the ultimate ending to the bigger story and is creating a sense of urgency for his audience so they can change their behaviors and follow the ways of Jesus. As one commentator puts it, his writing is used to evoke action and not stagnation. With this in mind, and the reality that in 2020 Jesus has not yet “come again,” to better understand this parable, it is more important to remember the placement of this passage in the wider context of Jesus’ ministry. Here, Jesus is speaking to his disciples right before they arrive in Jerusalem. Jesus knows his death is near and he tells this parable to begin preparing the disciples for his departure. Knowing that difficult times await the disciples, times in which their faith will be tested, he is telling this story to remind them of his ministry, and that he has given them everything they need to continue it.
Similar to the how we leave our notes of detailed instructions when we go away, Jesus leaves his own life as an example of how the disciples should live. These instructions consisted of healing the sick, caring for the poor, standing up for the marginalized, nurturing the abused, and simply loving others. As the parable goes, it was this lived example of Jesus’ life that he was talking about when speaking of the “talents” that the master gave to his slaves. And like the relationship of the master to his slaves in the story, Jesus knows his disciples intimately. In the same way we know the person caring for a house, or child, or cats, Jesus trusts them with what he holds most valuable. He had a personal relationship with each one of them, knowing their varying abilities—strengths and weaknesses—and he still had confidence in them.
In the same way, Jesus also knows us. Even with our doubts and insecurities, Jesus is confident and has no question of us being able and trustworthy to continue his ministry. Like the disciples, we know how Jesus lived. We know him as a source of strength. We recognize that through him, our lives are a continuation of his ministry. And, we know that if there is even a minute chance of Heaven existing in this earthly world, we must use the gifts that Jesus has given us.
But what about the 3rd slave? What about Jesus’ return? Do the answers of these questions still have meaning for today’s world?
I don’t know why the 3rd slave felt the need to bury what the master had given him, but I do know that Jesus viewed the slave in the same way as he viewed his disciples and the way he sees us—as someone who is capable and worthy of such of a wonderful gift. Maybe the 3rd slave doubted his ability, and thought his ability was linked to the presence of the master…before the master left, maybe he praised the slave for his good work and gave helpful guidance…but once the master left, maybe the world seemed like too difficult of a place to even try to continue his master’s work.
I think the 3rd slave has been or will be all of us at some time or another. Especially with what is happening in our world today, it is easy to think of Jesus as absent—COVID infections rising rapidly, a deep divide between what is fake and what is real—a divide that grows deeper every day, and the loss of the life that once was normal and now live in uncertainty of what life will look like in the future…it is perfectly natural for us to feel fearful, alone, and helpless. Doubt, fear, and unworthiness creep into our minds and we convince ourselves that Jesus made a mistake—that his gift is wasted on us, because we don’t have the ability to make a difference. We perpetuate the lie that in this scary world, we only have the ability to save and protect ourselves—to bury and hide what we have—all in an effort to cling to what we perceive as safe. I believe the existence of this type of fear acts as proof that we don’t have to wait for the master’s return, or the so-called “second coming” to experience the 3rd slave’s “outer darkness”. This parable shows us that lack of faith is directly linked with the darkness we experience when overcome with fear. But thankfully, hope is not lost. Just like how the darkness can exist, so too can Jesus’ life-giving presence.
With Christmas just around the corner, with the coming of Christ in human form, we are still are left with the reality that the time and place of Jesus’ ultimate return is still unknown. But as Christians, as people of faith, we know we have been adequately prepared by the example of Jesus’ life to make God’s reign come here on earth right now—all the time! When we push fear aside, when we raise our gifts instead of burying them, we enable Jesus to be present among us.
The presence of Christ is in you and others recognize it when you do good works. By exhibiting Christ’s love, we are turning 5 talents into 10, and we are following Jesus’ detailed instructions. Jesus’ instructions may not be as specific and clear as sitting on the couch for two hours with the cats, but Jesus’ instructions tell us all we need to know. God’s continual presence is with us, and with the confidence that he loves us so much to entrust us with something so valuable, by following Jesus’ example, we are able to push forward with faith and not sit back in fear. AMEN.