November 16, 2014
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
“Which Picture Is In Your Wallet?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Before we hear the scripture passage, I’m going to ask you to pay particular attention, because I’m going to ask you to participate in this morning’s message with a question. In fact, to give you a better shot, I’ll suggest that you grab a Bible and turn to page 1540. As you are turning to that page, I’ll mention that the question, while being a bit of a set-up, helps in the hearing and reading. The question is, “What bothers you in this parable? As Robin comes up, I will set the scene that this parable sits between two other parables, all about the kingdom of heaven, the day when the Messiah returns.
The Parable of the Bags of Gold
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Thank you, Robin. I know this is not within everyone’s comfort zone, but what bothers you about this parable? violence, “to all those who have, more will be given” followed by “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” the man is a “harsh” judge, slave owning, intimidation
Thank you all - not just those who verbalized their thoughts, but for all of you, really putting your mind to the scripture. I admit that I don’t do that often enough either, when reading a passage the first time. One of the commentators I read this week suggested that this passage would raise questions among those who hear it. He upped the ante by following that sentence with the thought that courageous preachers would address those questions head on. So here we are.
The traditional reading of this parable encourages people like us to use our resources effectively for the sake of the gospel, and that we’d better get right on it, or we will not pass go, collect $200, go to heaven but to where the nasty things are. More often than not, historically, this passage has been used to browbeat, guilt or scare people into giving money to the church. Even so, there is a sliver of good with this first layer, because maybe there are folks that need the reminder to think about or re-evaluate what we do with the treasure God gives us, and what better time to do so than during the Thanksgiving season?
Another layer of this passage could focus on the Greek word for the “bags of gold,” “talanton,” which sounds a lot like the word “talent.” In fact, the old King James Version of the Bible uses the word talent instead of bag of gold. One single talent was 71 pounds of gold, a lifetime’s worth of wages. Some have estimated that the entire sum was something like 5 million dollars - back then. And this “man” gave that sum of money over to his servants without instruction - that we know of. How would a servant back then know how to invest money, much less to get such great returns?
Actually, the Old Testament forbade charging interest when lending money to fellow Jews. It was okay to lend the money; they just couldn’t charge interest. In one sense, the third servant did the most logical thing with his bag of gold. So then, is this parable promoting the idea of “making” interest, and wouldn’t that go against the law that was held so dear to the Jewish people?
It’s an unfortunate coincidence that that Greek word sounds so much like our word talent, because our talents can work just as well as money. If I went back over the years, I’d probably discover that I’m guilty of misusing the meaning of this parable - in encouraging the use of our gifts and talents so that we are “richer.” Much as we all need to hear encouragements, unless we are careful in dealing with this parable, and dare I say, all parables, we can easily misunderstand grace and works, God’s gifts and our response to those gifts.
Another layer of this parable may be connected to the richness, but in terms of the Bible. The Torah - the first five books of the Bible - was, and still is, the most precious gift to the Hebrew people from God. It was such a gift, that a special ark was built to protect it, and it was carried from camp to camp until it found a home in the Temple built by King Solomon and his father, David’s, plans. In keeping such a treasure, it became a burden, a yoke around their necks, because they felt they had to protect it and guard it, to make sure it wasn’t defiled, watered down or compromised.
So this parable could be about giving away the Good News, that it becomes a gift to other people. Some ancient rabbis believed that the more the Torah is read, the more of God’s mercy is brought into the world. God blesses them so that they may bless others. In this parable, it would follow that Jesus is discouraging the hiding away, protecting and limiting of the Bible, and is encouraging giving it away - with all the love and mercy and forgiveness and relationship contained in this holy book.
When we begin to understand that this holy book is the record of how God has been reaching out to head-strong, free-willed people over the centuries, we begin to see that all that God has set up for us - is for us as treasure. The more we appreciate what has been given us, the more we can risk giving it away, offering not just joy, not just love, not just grace, but all of it - and more - to people who can then invest all of that, in giving it away to the next folks.
When we look at the contents of the gold bags, we begin to see the magnitude of the one who is giving the blessing, and we begin to see Jesus giving us a picture of what such a God is like: giving to each one - freely - making no stipulations or suggestions on how to use what each one had been given.
David Lose, over there at workingpreacher.org suggested that another layer of meaning to this parable lies with the preconceived notion about the master. Mr. Lose pointed out, that although we don’t know the feelings or opinions of the first two servants, we know that the third one was driven by his fear of repercussion. What the three servants “saw” changed how they reacted. Yet, might the master be reacting as much to the servant’s characterization of him - revealing his own true character? Perceptions and misperceptions - still - very much determine our experiences.
What we expect is most often what we see. Do we see conflict as something awful and to avoid at all costs? Is a crisis a threat or an opportunity? Is a challenge a problem to overcome or a mystery to be embraced? Is someone who disagrees with us an opponent or colleague? Again and again, our experience of life is so very deeply shaped by our expectations.
When it comes to expectations about God, well, there’s a topic that could keep us talking for days. For some God is loving and kind, like a benevolent grandparent. For others God is stern and judgmental. For some God is protective, for others God is always on the verge of anger. For some God is patient and long-suffering, while for others God is impatient and dour. These pictures shape not just how we think about God but how we actually experience so many events in our day-to-day life that we connect - often unconsciously - to God and our life of faith.
So David Lose asked, So what is your picture of God, Working Preacher? Just as importantly, what are the pictures your people hold of God? We'll never know, of course, unless we ask them. So which picture is in your wallet?
As much as I’d love to know each of your answers, keep this in the back of your mind. Ours is a God who loves us so much that God came in the person of Jesus and took on our lot and our life, sharing our hopes and dreams, fears and failures. Ours is a God who wants us to know of God's love - enough that Christ would finally die on the cross that we might have life and have it abundantly. Ours is a God that takes our picture out of God’s own wallet every time we pray - just to look at it. So shall we take a group photo?
Gracious, loving God, thank you that you are not like other gods in the world. Thank you for loving, caring, hoping, having compassion and all else that we often take for granted. Thank you for the life that you give us, that gives us opportunities to invest in your grace and forgiveness and mercy and joy, that we can pass on what you have given us. Help us to help others with good pictures of you, including action shots of what it looks like to follow you. For all you are, and for all we are to you, all your people say, Amen.