This morning’s parable troubles us in much the same way other parables have. This parable, with its dramatic casting out of the humble, cautious servant is deeply disturbing. If we take the parable to be an allegory about God, what sort of a god is this? Again, these troubling dimensions of the parable lead us to shy away from it. Too hot to touch.
But in fact, the parable invites its hearers to trust. And sometimes trust is the hard part.
So first: I believe that part of Jesus’ point here is to be jarring. Remember, the aim of wisdom is to help us to disengage from our expectations, and surrender to reality. Jarring can help this.
Again, Jesus uses exaggeration, paradox, contradiction, and stark alternatives because of their capacity to dislodge us from our assumptions. Sometimes in a humorous, dramatic, or other memorable way.
But let’s look more closely at the parable before us. This particular story comes at us from at least two directions that seem totally at odds with each other.
What might stand out to us is the ending, in which the one who had been given just one coin has that coin taken away. And not only that – he is thrown into the outer darkness. This piece of the text, taken on its own, might make us anxious.
After all, Jesus begins the parable by telling us that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. It is like a man who goes on a trip. This man who is going on a trip, we might well believe, is supposed to represent God. This rich man turns over valuable coins 5, 2, and 1 to servants who will remain, according to their abilities.
Upon his return and discovering that the servant who had only one coin had simply buried it, the rich man orders the servant cast out. This servant was trying to be cautious. This servant did not want to take a risk, but as it turns out, not taking the risk was the bigger risk. In fact, it was not even a risk, it brought the certainty of his condemnation. The servant thought he knew the rich man was a tough customer, but it was that very fear that caused his downfall!
And in that sense it seems that the rich man – a.k.a. God – is to be feared all the more, especially by those who have only a little. After all, we had already been told that the coins were initially distributed on the basis of the rich man’s assessment of the capacities of each of the servants.
So woe unto us who are the least capable, the least gifted, the least talented. We’re in trouble.
Now, I’ve kind of talked around this over the last couple of months as we’ve examined some of Jesus more challenging parables, but I don’t think that I have actually come right out and said it. So this morning, as we are in our second to the last Sunday of this series and to prepare us for next Sunday, I’ll say it clearly.
In this day and age, a lot of us are on guard against judgmentalism. We are put off by the images of divine retribution and fire and brimstone that we have heard mouthed by obnoxious preachers who draw a very small circle of those included in divine love. I share this sensitivity in large measure.
At the same time, this lean, that many of us have, can keep us from hearing wisdom that we need to hear.
There is a marvelous passage in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters in which a senior tempter is instructing a novice tempter about how temptation can more easily corrupt human beings. He says this about a piece of the devil’s tactics:
We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger …. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, … Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism;
These are the two conflicting trajectories for the timid: be cautious because God will throw you into the outer darkness if you are cautious. Be cautious because God will throw you into the outer darkness if you are cautious.
But to put it this way inadvertently reveals the message: with God, we are to throw caution to the winds.
As we’ve seen before in this series on the wisdom of Heaven, if we start from the presumption that somehow God is at odds with us, that God does not want us, that God is trying to trick us in to messing up, we’re going to mess up.
In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, in which all of the workers are paid the same no matter when they arrived we learned that God is not an accountant who rewards us based on our merits, instead, God wishes to be extravagant with mercy. If we mope about the supposed unfairness of God we will simply miss out on the breadth of God’s love.
In the parable of the landlord and the tenants, in which the tenants refuse to pay their rents and kill the landlord’s agents and finally kill the landlord’s son, we learned that God is not first and foremost interested in the rent, God is interested in the relationship.
In the parable of the wedding feast, we learned of the breadth, the universality, of God’s invitation, based not on deserving or undeserving, not on good or bad, but ultimately inviting everyone. The cost is simply to join in and be a part of the celebration, a.k.a. the kingdom of heaven!
In the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids we learned that Jesus urges us to cultivate our ongoing capacity to open our hearts – even in the face of the unexpected. Jesus tells us to be prepared for each moment – because in each moment we are invited to live into the often unexpected reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Hear this wisdom of heaven: Life in the Kingdom of Heaven is not about caution! This parable is again about making the most of each moment, trusting that the divine compassion, the divine assurance, the divine goodness and mercy is undergirding every moment of reality. That divine love is indeed the reality in the reality of every moment. We are being invited, called to open ourselves to it in trust.
The only risk is not to risk it!
The only risk is not to risk it!
And here is the jarring, paradoxical edge of Jesus wisdom teaching: it is directed particularly at those who think they have the most to be afraid about.
It is pointed directly at the one whom the rich ruler is skeptical about when he distributes the valuable coins. The one whose abilities are least. The one whose shakiness in the rough and tumble world of commerce is most in doubt.
And here’s the nub: You’ve got to be able to absorb the paradox to get this wisdom. We need to go to the fixed point and look from there. It should not be in doubt that Jesus is first and foremost the champion of the last and the least. How often the wisdom of heaven he proclaims is straightforward: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Don’t forget that in this parable.
And so the wisdom here is that this least and last servant is trying to be what he isn’t: namely shrewd. He’s trying to outgame the big gamer. Not smart.
He defends himself thusly: I knew you were hard man. You harvest where you don’t sow seed. You would kill me if I lost the valuable coin, so I hid it. To which the rich man replies, well if you thought that, then you should have at least got me some interest. You don’t even do safe well. Out with you! Don’t try to outgame me. I’m not playing a game here. My game is love, not fear.
So this is the message to us – especially those of us who are uncertain of our worth, uncertain of our capacity. This is the message to us who feel small and insignificant and feel like we don’t have much to contribute.
This is the message to us who feel inadequate or unworthy and so are anxious that we might face God’s condemnation. And that anxiety, that fear, paralyzes our generosity and our creativity. That message is DON’T! If anything is going to get us into trouble it is exactly that anxiety, that fear.
Live well. Live freely. Live wisely. Live with love.
Jesus shares with us the wisdom of Heaven that our expectations may fall to the reality that is taking shape before us, and so Jesus invites us to cultivate our ongoing capacity to open our hearts in trust. Jesus invites us to trust God into each moment – because in each moment we are invited to live into the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
We may have at some point been led to believe that when we die we either enter the kingdom of heaven or not.
But the fact of the matter is that we live into the kingdom of heaven or not in each moment. In each decision, each action, each habit we cultivate. Each habit we let go of.
In each moment, the doors to the kingdom of heaven open or close to us. We either live into the kingdom of heaven, or not.
In large part it is by trusting the eternal and constant availability of God’s love that allows us to live into the kingdom of heaven in the midst of each moment.
We can imagine that what is required are the large, heroic 5 valuable coin efforts. And surely, for some, that is the task before them. But to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven can take place as we simply pay attention and reflect back the wonders of the world.
A poem by Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?