Proper 28 (33), Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
15 November 2020
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
One of our favourite hymns is Marty Haugen’s All Are Welcome.
We like it so much that we commissioned a banner stating just that for everyone to see who walks into our building. And if you don’t walk into our building because of the pandemic, you can still see the banner through the glass windows of the narthex.
I can imagine how the banner was commissioned, because, no matter the outcome of a difficult conversation, all agreed that in God’s house all are welcome.
Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.
In the gospels we see Jesus eating with sinners, we see Jesus regularly reach out to those shunned by society, and even though the religious establishment does not look good in the Gospels, there is no one Jesus excludes. In John 3, in his encounter with Nicodemus, a pharisee, Jesus says that God did not send him to condemn but to redeem. (v.17)
It is true, that not everyone follows Jesus, and that those who do may find it difficult. Think of the wealthy man we usually call the rich young ruler. Or those who opposed Jesus because they saw him as a threat. But Jesus did not exclude them, even when he had harsh words for them.
And it is true that chapter 18 in Matthew’s gospel deals with conflict in the community that eventually leads to exclusion, but even here Jesus’ advice regarding unrepentant individuals is to treat such like a sinner or a tax collector, both people Jesus would have table fellowship with, and toward whom the disciples were commanded to show love, for they were to love neighbours as well as enemies.
It is also true that there are people we may not want to welcome here. We don’t want the church to be a fig leaf for people whose behaviour we consider unethical. Not that we’re not all sinners, and the one thing Jesus unequivocally condemned was assuming the place of God by judging others, but we might agree that some conditions apply and that arms dealers, abusers, and racists don’t belong here.
And yet, I don’t know how my retirement funds are invested. Anger is not a foreign emotion to me, and sometimes I feel like an imposter.
Last week’s parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, ended with a closed door for half of them. The ratio in this week’s parable is better, but there is still a locked door, as well as darkness and the gnashing of teeth.
I worked hard last week to show that the point of the parable was to transmit a sense of urgency, that how we live our lives matters. And I believe that that is correct.
This week’s parable is more difficult.
The traditional interpretation is to say that the man going on a journey is Jesus and that the third servant who had buried the talent entrusted to him (which is a vast sum of money) failed to understand Jesus by a) suggesting that he is a harsh man and b) by being afraid of him. However, the master does nothing to prove otherwise, for he takes away from the servant what he has, calls him worthless, and sends him into the outer darkness. It has been pointed out that the law forbade usury1 and this makes it hard to imagine that the master is to be Jesus, if for no other reason.
We have heard this interpretation in stewardship sermons in which we are encouraged to make much of the talents God has given us. Someone I know once visited a wealthy church where people prayed that God would make them rich so they could give back to God.
We may also have heard this interpretation preached such that it suggests that the action (or inaction) of the third servant is what gets the servant excluded. Thus, it is not God who excludes, but we may exclude ourselves. And while I think that this is generally true, I don’t think that this works with this parable.
I would like to suggest a different way to understand the parable.
The man who goes on a journey and summons his slaves is not God.
He is not God because taking away from those who have nothing (v.29) is not the way of the One who gave us the Beatitudes and who a few verses later says, ‘What you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me.’ (v.40)
The man who goes away is a person who benefits from the unequal distribution of wealth and power and who does not even bother to argue the accusation of being a harsh man who reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he does not scatter seed.
Talents in this story are a large sum of money. We are talking 26 to 36 kg of coins per talent, perhaps 20 years of wages.
The first two servants play the master’s game, remain part of the system that oppresses the general population, and multiply the master’s fortune. The third servant refuses to be a part of it and buries the talent entrusted to him.
I suggest that it is not the first two servants but the third servant who is the hero of the story because he has the courage to stand up to the master, to name what is wrong, and he is willing to pay the price for his refusal. The master considers him wicket because he refuses to take part in an economy that helps the rich amass more wealth while it keeps the poor in poverty.
We live in an age when the income gap in western societies has dramatically widened. Perhaps that makes it easier for us to question whether the master in the story could be God.
But we are not the first to do so.
The church father Eusebius (260 to 339 AD) gives us a third variation of the parable (besides Matthew 25 and Luke 19), found in a text we no longer possess. This version of the parable has the first servant squander the money, the second multiply it, but it is the third who had buried the talent who is accepted with joy.2
If Eusebius is right, and I believe that he is, this means that it is not God’s will for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. It means that the poor are blessed and the rich are sent away empty, and the powerful are brought down from their thrones as Mary sings in the Magnificat. (Luke 1)
It means that Christians are not tied to the economic and political status quo but are freed to live into the kingdom where possessions are shared and where the poor are lifted up, empowered by the Holy Spirit to resist not only injustice but to imagine a different way.
And while such an understanding of the parable imposes judgment on the one who hoards riches and seeks to multiply them, the door is not locked and the poor are not thrown in the outer darkness, because the master in the story is not God.
Instead, all are welcome into a house in which we can live together, not in our economy but in God’s.
1Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:36-37, Deuteronomy 23:29
2Barbara E. Reid, Parables for Preachers, 2001 Collegeville, MN: The Liturgucal Press, pp: 208-209