We just read a very difficult Gospel text – one that’s, frankly, hard to reconcile with my understanding of God’s nature. This parable stands with others we’ve read recently from Matthew’s Gospel, especially with the one about the guy without the proper wedding garment (Remember him from a couple weeks ago?). He, too, ended up in the same predicament? Excluded and victimized, cast out into outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth. And these types of parables raise real problems for me, and, maybe, for you too.
You see, I believe that God in Christ is a God of mercy, and forgiveness, and saving love and power. That’s the nature of God as I understand it. So I have a very hard time with parables that don’t uphold that vision, and worse, that go in exactly the opposite direction, leading many to believe in a God of legalism and condemnation who exercises divine power to punish those who fall short of perfect obedience.
Still, I want to be careful here to not image God as some weak, wishy-washy kind of deity, and to not so domesticate God as to end up with a God who is apathetic, who simply doesn’t care if we sin or not, because apathy, not hatred, just not caring at all, not hatred, is the opposite of love. And God is above all a God of love.
The first commandment, you know it, right? – I Am the Lord your God. You shall have no other God’s beside me. – comes with several caveats, including God saying: I am a jealous God. But we need to be careful in how we define our terms. Jealousy and envy are often conflated. But they’re different. Envy is about coveting what belongs to your neighbor, while jealousy is about protecting what’s yours from your covetous neighbor. And in our first reading, in that final verse, verse 18 of Zephaniah 1, we read in the NRSV: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed.” And that’s a fine translation. But there’s another way to translate that word “passion.” The New American Bible, for example, reads: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of God’s wrath, when in the fire of his jealousy all the earth will be consumed.” And I like the use of the word jealousy here, more than the word passion, because it speaks to God’s ownership of God’s people, pointing us back to the language of the 1st Commandment.
We say it all the time, when we’re talking about Holy Baptism, “God named and claimed us as God’s own, and will never ever let us go.” As God’s Baptized people, we belong to God, and God is jealous over us –
God doesn’t want us going out whoring after other gods. That’s what got the Israelites sent into the Babylonian exile, after all, they went after other God’s rather than fearing, loving and trusting the one true God above all else. And so God’s jealousy burned like a fire, and they were consumed. Jerusalem fell, and the Temple was destroyed, and the Kingly line of David was broken. That’s how hot God’s passion runs for God’s people. That’s why it says in the 1st Commandment in Exodus 20: I am a jealous God!
Or to put it in the language of today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel, God is totally invested in God’s people.
Look, I’ve got to be honest, this parable, and the others like it in Matthew’s Gospel, gives me fits. I don’t like them. I have a hard time finding any kind of Gospel message in them. But you’ve heard me struggling with these texts for weeks now, and this is our second time through the three-year lectionary cycle together, as I’ve been preaching here for over 4 years now, so this really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. These parables are full of excluding, punishing, difficult to hear ways of picturing God, and God’s kingdom. But there’s a sense in which, if we can hear these as descriptive texts, rather than prescriptive texts, they’re a little easier to swallow. In other words, these parables describe what God’s up to, rather than prescribing how we ought to live, and it’s all presented with a more than healthy dose of hyperbole.
So we shouldn’t get caught up in the details, as is true any time we read a parable. (Remember, a parable is a story that teaches a central point, and the rest is just story-world, context, filler and set up.) And the central point of this parable is that, assuming that God is the master in the story, God is the giver who gives abundant gifts to all. I mean, even the slave who receives only one talent, is being entrusted with a huge sum of money and a huge level of responsibility. A talent was about 6,000 denarii, or roughly twenty years wages for an ordinary person. Based on the current median income in the US today it would be just shy of $643,000, or around $300,000 at the minimum wage. So, whether we’re talking about 5, or 2, or even 1 talent, we’re talking about a whole lot of money. We’re talking about God as a giver of great abundance. God is generous, even reckless, in giving abundant gifts to God’s people. And the problem’s not that the master needed more money, but that the master expected a certain level of risk-taking on the part of those slaves with whom he entrusted so much.
The slaves that are commended, are commended because they took risks that paid off in the end. But I wonder what the master would have said if one of the slaves had invested their talents, and ended up losing everything in the deal? Would they be condemned or commended? And I think the answer’s pretty clear for me. I think they would be commended, because the fact of the matter is that, as I said before, God is totally invested in God’s people, but God doesn’t always see the returns God expects. That’s why we come time after time, crawling back to the font in all our weakness and inability to fix ourselves, to confess our sin and to receive God’s saving word of forgiveness.
God keeps on investing in us, even though we’re not a very secure investment – in fact, we’re a very risky investment. And even though God loses his proverbial shirt every time, God keeps on giving. God keeps on investing in us, because, in the end, it’s true, God has not destined us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.
That’s the promise of the Gospel that God has entrusted to us, and it’s a word that is heard from no other source than from those who are named and claimed by God. This is why we’re here. This is why we exist at all as a congregation. This is why we challenge you, as members of this congregation, sure, but more importantly, as members of the whole Body of Christ, through the generous sharing and holy stewarding of the gifts of time, talent and treasure that God has given abundantly to each one of us, to support the mission and ministry we are doing together in this time and place. Because, look, there are lots of places people can go to hear lots of different messages, but there’s only one place to come to receive God’s saving grace through word and sacrament, and that’s the Church – the Body of Christ – in whom God has invested this treasure that’s beyond all measure, the saving word of the Gospel.
So what are we going to do with it? Bury it, or invest it?
God invested the life of Jesus the Son and lost it all when we killed him on a bloody Roman cross.
So, what are we to do with that final, hyperbolic pronouncement that Matthew so loves to tag on at the end of his versions of Jesus’ parables – that business about being cast out into outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth?
Well, knowing how faithless and fearful we humans really are it’s probably an important question, because, left to our own devices, outer darkness is where we’re headed, and there’s no sense pretending like that’s not the case.
So picture this. There we are in the darkness, and as described, we hear weeping and the gnashing of teeth. So we look around to find the source of it, and we realize that there’s someone else out there in the darkness with us, only, he’s hanging on a cross. Jesus is there in the darkness, hanging on the cross, weeping and gnashing his teeth.
God is that jealous for us! God is that invested in our salvation! God desires that deeply to not lose a single one of us! God in Christ meets us, even in the outer darkness, and restores our life with the light and power of God’s saving love. Amen!