Entering into God’s Joy

Sermon notes for 11/16/14  Matthew 25:14-30


When we learn to use
whatever God has given us
so that it bears fruit,
then the gift we receive
is the joy of God’s presence.

It doesn’t seem fair. Those who have nothing, even what little they do have will be taken away.

We see this principle played out all the time, don’t we? Those who are strong and good looking and affluent seem to progress based on these advantages, while those who lack these resources, at least as measured by the prevailing culture, seem to fall behind or at least plateau. Perhaps one of the most absurd examples is all of the free swag given to famous singers, musicians, actors and athletes. Those who could pay 10x for these trinkets get them for nothing. Of course we quickly recognize that the producers and vendors of said products consider this a marketing expense – hoping that said entertainers will choose to wear/use the products and advertise such, these days on twitter or other social media platforms. Fair never really enters into it.

And let’s be honest, who among us wouldn’t want our product or service promoted by someone who could get us exposure? What author would say, “No thanks,” to Oprah’s book of the month club? What designer doesn’t want to “show up” on the red carpet being worn by the latest bombshell or her escort?

It’s the same on the other end. We see the poorest neighborhoods repeatedly losing basic services – like access to quality, affordable, healthy food. Developers conspire with government officials to claim eminent domain in the interest of “the public good” and displace the poor from what has been home for generations. You’ll never see them drop a football stadium in the middle of Highland Park, for instance.

Some have been inclined toward righteousness indignation directed at God for including this pronouncement in both Matthew 25 and Luke 19. As though God were saying, “Here is how I want things to work.” We need to remember a few things about this text:

  • It is not about the physical, temporal experiences of wealth and poverty in this life. It is about the Kingdom of God/Heaven and parable is a reference point.
  • Parables are not allegories with which we can extrapolate point by point referents for each element in the story. They typically illustrate one broad idea, or perhaps two.
  • Not everything in scripture is prescriptive. Not every word is God saying, “This is how I prefer things to be. This is how they will be at the consummation and final settling of accounts for all things.” At least some of scripture, including much of Jesus’ own teaching, is simply saying, “This is how things are. You’d better wake up.” For instance, when Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” we certainly would never conclude that Jesus intends, “I want there to always be some poor people.” He’s stating a simple fact. Much of the wisdom in Proverbs is of this sort – a father’s wisdom to his son: “You may not like it, but this is how the world works, and you need to be smart about things.”

Given all of this, what then is the parable about? Well, as Jesus says in the beginning of the chapter, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this .… (here he tells the parable of the wedding and the 10 brides maids, and then) .… For it is as if…” In other words, The Kingdom of Heaven is as if a man going on a journey summoned his servants…” Luke’s gospel frames the story slightly differently, but to the same effect: “As they were listening to this (Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus), he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.’” (LK 19:11-12)

In both versions we have an absent landlord/ruler who entrusts servants with resources during his absence. They had been entrusted with the resources to care for and lead the nation, and they had failed. Their resources will be taken away and given to others. Luke’s immediate context and Matthew’s broader context both make clear that a theopolitical statement is being made hear – against the rulers of the Jewish community. As with much of Jesus’ teaching regarding the religious leaders of his time, these stories remind us that we are responsible for and accountable as stewards of that which we have – resources, opportunities, relationships, even our faith and spiritual/religious understandings. All of this is we have so that we might be a blessing to others.

Whatever we have has within it the seeds of more – more life, more truth, more hope, more peace, more opportunity, more prosperity, more faith. When we

We also see in these stories the importance of taking a chance, taking a risk with our lives. This is encapsulated in the truisms: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” and “With great risk comes the opportunity for great reward.” Jesus says, “Unless a seed fall to the ground and die, it cannot bear much fruit” (John 12:24). True, that the primary point here is to reflect on his own death, and thus our following his example to release our own lives for the sake of the Gospel. A starting point in this journey is that we must step outside the door into the world. Unless we show up with our gifts, then we cannot bear fruit.

I think we err when we focus on the servant who buried the coin rather than investing it. The focus rather should be on those who were good stewards of the gift entrusted to them. Their reward was not the increase, which after all belonged to the master. Their reward was to “enter into the joy of the Master.”

This text undercuts any presumption toward a “prosperity gospel”, because the prosperity is not ours. The initial gift belonged to God, so any increase also belongs to God. What is ours is the joy of God which comes to us as we use that which has been entrusted to us.

The relationship between parent and child is a good example of this. Children are precious and fragile and vulnerable. Many a parent is tempted to harbor, shelter and protect their beloved from any and all threats. But as the prophet Dory said to Marlin:

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

Parents have to learn the process of releasing their children into the world, a gradual letting go and learning a delicate combination of hope and trust.

What Jesus is asking of us (requiring from us?) is that we show this same combination of hope and trust with our own lives. We need to learn to parent ourselves, to nurture and care for and finally to release and send ourselves forth into the world. We can be like the third servant who in fear simply held onto what had been given, planning to return it at the end.

Every spring a farmer takes risks by planting seeds that could be eaten now in the hope of reaping a 100 fold harvest later.

Every entrepreneur knows that you have to pour yourself heart and soul into your idea, your dream, your scheme, and believe that it can succeed. Otherwise, you’d never start.

Every business person knows that it takes money to make money.

Every newlywed couple enters into their covenant relationship with hope and trust, but without certainty except that there will undoubtedly be difficult times, and that one will eventually grieve the loss of the other.

If all we plan to do is hand Jesus back the faith that has been given to us, the spiritual gifts entrusted to us, the church and gospel of which we are stewards, then even what we have will be taken away. We enter into God’s joy when we take risks.

Again I’m reminded of the end of the Mary Oliver poem “A Summer Day”. What if the parable is at least in part about your life? Could it be that there is a suggestion embedded within the text that your experience in the afterlife depends at least in part on what you do in this life? That is certainly the overt message of the next parable, so perhaps this one at least hints in that direction. This life is the only one of its kind that you will be given, whatever can or cannot be said of the afterlife from a Christian perspective. Don’t waste it on fear or resentment of others or of God.

It is also, I believe, about The Church. The church does not exist as a memorial to those who have gone before. It is not a mausoleum or a museum. The church buildings and property and resources are not here to be a witness of those who came before, but of the kingdom that is coming. These things around us are of worth and value only if they help us live and share the hope of the Good News. Imagine that you are characters in the parable, and all your church resources are the talents given. Eventually, Jesus will ask for an accounting, “What did you do with what I gave you?” How will you be able to answer?

When the Master comes, may he find us ready and eager rather than fearful or unprepared. Then, if not before, we will realize that we have been living in God’s joy all along.

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