November 16, 2014, Pentecost 23 – What Will It Be? Fear, or Faith?
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There are books of poetry and stories that are written to make you feel good, books like “Chicken Soup for the Soul” or little collections of devotional poetry, things you can pick up and know you’ll get that little heartwarming buzz you’re looking for. It’s not hard work to read that kind of writing, it doesn’t trouble you; it just soothes you, like quiet instrumental music that you put on in the background.
Well, the Bible is not that kind of book. The Bible has real power to comfort us, to lift our hearts, to strengthen us – but it is not a book to be “played in the background” – not something we just pick up to give us a warm fuzzy feeling. It isn’t light and fluffy and easy; and sometimes the word of God disturbs us.
And that is my gut reaction to this parable. I think it’s a hard one. It makes me wrestle with it to find the treasure within – because there is always treasure. There is always grace and life. The word of God is always Good News. And the Good News is always well worth the finding, if we are willing to look for it.
But to understand it, the first thing we need to do, the thing we always need to do, is to look at the context. The story began: “For it is just like a man who is going on a journey….” And so obviously our first question is WHAT is just like a man going on a journey? We have to look back at what came before, and when we do, we see that this story comes right after the story Carroll preached about last week, the story about those bridesmaids who were waiting and waiting for the bridegroom to come and get the party started. And if you remember, Jesus ended that story by saying – to us – you better be watching, then, because you don’t know the day or the hour. And Carroll reminded us, this wasn’t a terrifying warning to watch out for something awful; it was an encouragement to live every moment of every day in joyful hope, and to not get discouraged or lazy or fearful, because surely, sooner or later, our Bridegroom, Jesus, will be coming. “Watch, therefore, and be ready! for you don’t know the day or the hour!”
And then Jesus said, “For it is just like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.” And now we know – aha! – Jesus is talking about himself, about going away for a time and leaving us, and while he is away, entrusting us with his own property, each of us according to our own ability. Everything in our lives, the people we care about, our homes and our work, our talents and abilities, the things we collect and the pets we adopt and the ministries we do here at church: these are his property, entrusted into our care.
So first of all, this story reminds us that all of that, absolutely everything, comes from him, and furthermore, it all belongs to him. We know that instinctively, I think, with the people in our lives: with our children, and with our husbands or wives or friends, we call them our own, but we know that they are God’s own children, and that he has given them into our lives for a time, as a joy to us, and also as a responsibility to us, to care for and love and cherish and serve. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves that that is true of everything in our lives. Our car, our money, our musical ability, our home: there is nothing we have that is not from God; there is nothing we call our own that doesn’t actually belong to him. We are not owners of this creation, we are stewards of it, and that is the first lesson of this story. As we live in hope, waiting eagerly for the coming of the Bridegroom who loves us with the most unspeakably great love, we live as stewards of all the riches he has entrusted to us. Some people have more and some less, but that is really of no consequence ultimately, because it all belongs to the Master anyway.
But the thing that troubles me about this parable, the reason I find I have to wrestle with it, is the end, where the servant who hid his one talent in the dirt and dug it up when the Master came home, is thrown out in disgrace, and worse than disgrace, and then the Master declares, “Everyone who has, to him even more will be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away from him.” That is the part I wrestle with. I have to ask myself what does Jesus mean by that, because on the surface, that doesn’t sound very gracious and good-newsy at all?
It is a harsh word; it is a strong message that Jesus is giving us. And I think it would be easy to conclude that Jesus’s message is this: if we don’t do well enough with what God has given us in this life, then we lose everything. Unless we use our gifts, unless we practice stewardship of all of our blessings, we will find ourselves unacceptable in the end. But there are at least two reasons that this interpretation of the parable can’t be what Jesus means by it. The first is that our acceptance into the kingdom is not based on our good works; our acceptance into the kingdom is a gift, the greatest and most precious among all the good gifts we have received from the Father. It is true that our faith has to be expressed through the way we live our life; that’s why James wrote that faith without works is dead. But Paul made it very clear when he wrote “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
The other reason is that if we hear the parable right, the three servants were not being judged according to what they accomplished, or how successful their investments were. The first servant who ended up with ten talents of silver and the second who ended up with only four, they both received the same commendation and blessing of the Master, “Well done! Good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master!”
The essential difference, the difference between the third servant and the other two is his relationship with the Master. The first two servants went out at once, Jesus said, and put the Master’s silver to work. But the third didn’t, and the reason he didn’t was that he was too afraid to do anything. He considered the power and wealth of the Master and he was terrified of failing him, of displeasing him, and his fear paralyzed him, so that he dug a hole in the ground and hid the silver away out of sight, just dreading the day the Master would come back and demand it of him. What the wicked and lazy servant lacked wasn’t silver – it was trust, that relationship of trust that we call faith. The strong message of this parable is the contrast between a life of faith and a life of fear, because fear and faith are the two opposing forces that control how people live out their lives as they await the Master’s return. For each and every one of us, one or the other of those two guides the way we live and act.
If you remember the story of Jairus, who came to Jesus for help because his daughter was very ill: when Jairus and his wife stood in their little girl’s room between Jesus and the lifeless body of their daughter, Jesus told them, “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.” And when the disciples were out in the boat in the middle of the stormy sea, and they ran down to wake him up and tell him they were all about to die and didn’t he even care, Jesus rebuked them, saying, “Don’t be afraid! Where’s your faith?” It is faith or fear that guides how we live our lives. It is faith or fear that determines what kind of stewards we are of the riches that God has entrusted to us. And if we live in fear, our stewardship – and by stewardship I’m not talking about writing out our check to the church; I’m talking about stewardship with a capital S, our care for everything that God has entrusted to us – if we are guided by fear, our stewardship will always be fruitless; we won’t gain anything at all.
This story is just exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said that the person who is all about saving his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for the sake of the kingdom will gain his life. Because if we live by faith, putting our trust in God and his goodness, we can go ahead and do what we know is right and leave our own rights and our own security in his hands. But if we live by fear, we get so caught up in our self, in our rights and our reputation and our dignity and our safety, that we lose everything that is really important and valuable. Haven’t you seen that in the life of people you’ve known – the tragedy of being so fearful and unable to trust, so consumed with themselves, that they end up losing even those things and people that they love the most. Jesus tells this story in the strongest possible way, because this matter of how we live out our time of waiting is a matter of life and death to us.
What makes this story good news to us, is that we are not required to be successful or rich or dynamic or impressive. We are called to live in faith, putting those things that God has entrusted to us to good use, caring for the people in our lives, sharing the talents and property he has left in our hands, using the good skills and gifts he formed in us from the beginning, not fearfully and cautiously like the servant in the story who dug a hole in the dirt to hide his Master’s silver, cringing as if some great voice were always about to call us out for bad behavior or snatch everything away from us if we aren’t good enough, but confidently, trustingly, knowing that the Master it all belongs to is coming, and believing that he wants above all things for us to come and share in his joy.
It is true; Jesus’ words in this story are very harsh: “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And he means it to be harsh, because he doesn’t want any of us to live in the kind of fear and un-faith that keeps us from really living. The fruit of fear is death, and the fruit of faith is love and joy and life itself. We cannot live the abundant life Jesus came to give us if we live in fear – not the healthy fear that is awe and respect, but the terror and distrust that disables us and paralyzes us.
John wrote: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment…there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment” – because in the end, you know, the poor wicked servant in the story lost everything because he was so afraid of losing everything; he failed because he was so terrified of failing and facing the wrath of the Master.
The parable of the bridesmaids taught us that this world is passing away and we need to be looking forward always to the great and glorious day of our Lord’s return. But the parable of the talents warns us that it matters very much how we care for this world of his while we are waiting. It matters, because the creation is beloved of the Creator, who has numbered every hair on our head, and who notices even the fall of the tiniest sparrow. It matters, because if we are not faithful in the small things of this world, how can we be trusted with the great things of the kingdom of heaven. And it matters most of all, because the way we care for the Master’s household now, the kind of stewards we are of our lives in this world, reveals how we serve the Master – do we serve him in faith, or in fear?
We are servants of our Master, Jesus Christ, and when we have lived our life, when we have handed over all that was entrusted to our care, when we have come to the end of all our waiting and hoping, our commendation will rest entirely in trusting the one who is altogether trustworthy, the one who wants nothing more than to say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”