by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 25:14-30
If you participated earlier this year in our discussions of Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, you were not surprised by the harsh behavior of the master toward the third slave in today’s Gospel reading. You know that parables are not simplistic stories that end with a moral to live by, nor are they allegories that tell one story on the surface in order to tell a deeper truth indirectly and with one-to-one correspondence. You also know that the authority figure in Jesus’s parables—-the judge or bridegroom or father or, in this case, the master of slaves–does not necessarily represent God. Jesus used parables to provoke thought and discussion, though few of his audience’s responses to the stories and Jesus’s explications of them were passed down. These short stories were not intended as morality tales. They were supposed to make hearers uncomfortable as they examined their culture’s values. Levine urges not to “foreclose the meaning” of a parable but rather to “allow the parable to open into multiple interpretations,” as her book models and as our class tried to practice (1).
For this reason, parables are better taught than preached, better discussed than declaimed. Sermons generally take a scripture and offer a single interpretation that relates to an issue or situation a particular audience may find spiritually and socially instructive and uplifting. But parables, which are multi-faceted and often confounding, work best as discussion starters. So we’ll take some time in our 11:00 Zoom meeting to hear some of your reactions to this parable, especially to consider what about this story makes you uncomfortable and calls you to see afresh yourself or our culture. Remember, parables usually provoke and describe rather than prescribe.
What most stimulates me at this point in time is the parable’s bias toward risk-taking behavior. As Fred Craddock pointed out about this story, we should take account of “the high risk activity of the first two servants. They doubled the money entrusted to them, hardly a possibility without running the risk of losing the original investment. . . . The major themes of the Christian faith–caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving, hoping–cannot be understood or lived without risk” (2).
To tackle this topic at this particular time is itself a risk. As the spread of COVID-19 is accelerating dangerously, I beg you NOT to take health risks because in doing so you are betting on other people’s lives. I plead with you to wear masks around others and maintain safe distances. Taking risks with this virus is selfish. We owe it to medical personnel and our most vulnerable community members not to spread the virus and not to overtax the healthcare system. We owe it to friends and family and strangers not to expose them. Risky behavior that puts others at risk is careless, dangerous, and selfish.
But sometimes risky behavior may be just what Jesus would do in our setting. And as I think about particular members of Open Table, past and present, I realize we have attracted quite a few risk-takers: people like David Underhill and Jerry Pogue, leaders in Mobile for civil rights who risked their personal safety in the fight for justice. Jerry Pogue, in fact, was jailed for marching after the death of MLK and was bayonetted by a police officer for doing nothing more than holding an American flag and leading the march. They got into “good trouble,” to quote the late Congressman John Lewis.
And in general we have collectively risked condemnation with our public stances in support of LGBTQ rights and marriage equality and, by taking this and other unpopular positions, we have probably limited our ability to attract as church members. By merely being a participant in Open Table’s ministry, you have taken a risk.
Of course, just by being an authentic Jesus follower puts you at risk. Not likely the life-and-death risk that the first apostles took, not the risk that Jesus squarely faced into and that resulted in his torture and death. But there is risk when we live for others and challenge the powers that be, so Jesus urged us to count the cost.
Lately the cost for some has been strained relationships if they’ve spoken out respectfully, perhaps through social media or in person, to expose falsehoods or lift up Christian values that protect those on the margins. The cost for others has been the loss of precious time and of convenience when they’ve increased their efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle out of their Christian commitment to care for God’s good earth. Maybe these kinds of efforts won’t pay off, to borrow the economic metaphor from today’s parable. But these Jesus followers are risking time and effort and perhaps social capital in hopes that there will be a payoff for the good of all. They are perhaps hoping to hear a “well done, good and trustworthy servant” from “the Master” or are simply wanting to do all they can to help usher in God’s now and coming Kin*dom.
It’s a gamble, of course, sticking our necks out and prioritizing kindness when we know it may not be returned. This whole church thing is risky. We may get disappointed in these other imperfect people we get attached to so easily and in whose friendships we invest our lives. We may get discouraged when we get attached to people in this particular faith community and then some of those folks–including pastor, no less–move on to other places. I think Jesus would say to you now, dear church, “Risk your hearts to your next pastor.”
Is this kind of risk-taking worth our efforts and the possibility of future disappointments?
Apparently Jesus thought so. He gave himself fully, bestowing his love on one person after another, inexhaustibly, in pursuit of God’s vision.
“But I’m certainly not Jesus,” you protest. “I am NOT Jesus.”
Here is wisdom from Nelson Mandela that might serve as a response:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking, so that others won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us: it’s in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others (3).
The enslaved person who buried the master’s property to play it safe was living fearfully and curtailing his own flourishing. Yes, there are times to play it safe. Yes, this is, in fact, a time to guard your health and avoid actions that put others’ health at risk.
But there is never a time when Jesus would urge you to guard your hearts against the possibility of heartache.
Never is there a time when Jesus would advise you to bury God’s bright dreams for this world in a hole in the ground.
Take the risk. Place the bet. Let’s bet on love.
(1) Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014, p. 3.
(2) Craddock, Fred. Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B: A Comprehensive Commentary of the Lectionary. (Valley Forge, Pa: Trinity Press International, 1993, 515.
(3) Mandela, Nelson. 1994 Inaugural Speech.