November 15, 2020; St. Stephen’s Maple Zoom Eucharist
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
This parable. Its interpretation has become more obscure as our cultural context has changed. I can think of two readings that, on the surface, seem diametrically opposed to each other.
There’s the conventional interpretation, which applauds the ingenuity and work ethic of the first two slaves, and critiques the third for his laziness and rebellious approach to authority. We’re meant to be satisfied with where all three of them end up: the first two in “the joy of their master” and the third in punishment “into the outer darkness…”
And then there’s a more progressive liberation reading, which starts with the third slave’s accusation that the master is “a harsh man” and applauds this slave with refusing to go along with the master’s business. This reading sees the third slave being persecuted for subverting the corrupt and exploitative practices of the master and the other two slaves, who profit off their complicity.
I’ll be honest with you: I find both interpretations compelling, for different reasons. The second reading is new and creative; it speaks to our hard-fought skepticism of the American dream and its false promise to reward every individual that just works hard. But the text itself seems to press the conventional reading; more convincingly, it points to the good work that we still have to do, and how we want to make good on the resources and creativity at-hand to do it.
Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that this parable occurs within Matthew’s version of the “Little Apocalypse”: that stunning prediction of tribulation and suffering that Jesus launches into before the narrative turns to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. The set of parables that we’ve been hearing over the past few Sundays entail Jesus’ call to endure through to the end of this tribulation, and pay attention to what God is doing in tumultuous times.
This apocalyptic setting helps us see is that the primary question we should ask isn’t “what is this parable telling us to do” but “what is this parable telling us about who God is and what God does?” As with all parables, Jesus is telling us, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” That then opens up the possibility that the two interpretations I suggested are not as different as we might think.
Is God a giver or a taker? Finding our way into this parable hinges on this question. Is God generous, compassionate, creative, patient and wise, or “harsh,” disrespectful of boundaries or unconcerned with the cares of human creatures? Do you feel like God is a giver, or a taker? And when he “takes,” or maybe withholds an answer or a solution, do you feel like he is taking for the sake of taking, or doing so to give us something else?
I think this parable wants us to see God as a giver. How does it do so? Well, the first thing to point out is, again, the apocalyptic context. Even without the analogy of a man going on and then returning from a journey, this and every apocalyptic text is all about God’s initiative to enter history and decisively bring it to its culmination. God determines when this happens, and logically, defines the length of time before this happens.
We’re often tempted to see the delay of God’s coming as his withholding of healing while many people suffer. But what if we’re able instead to see this delay as God’s generous gift of time. Which is why we pray, “give us today our daily bread.” Thanks to God, we have time, especially this year when things have had to move so much slower, but really all the time. We have time to learn about God, ourselves and the world. Time to discern who God is calling us to be as communities. Time to become, to grow and explore what it means for you and me to be alive. Time to invest in our families and our environment. And—again, especially this year—time to reflect on unjust systems of racial and gender inequality, to protest and subvert them. “For everything there is a season”: what season is this?
Second, and following that second interpretation of this parable, God has given us not just the time but the resources to creatively resist the powers of this world. He has offered us the means to endure the inconveniences and hardships that come with taking the slow route, which doesn’t cut corners but remains faithful to God’s call to uphold integrity, fairness and justice.
How has he given this? The secret of Christian apocalyptic is the Cross: the Crucifixion of Jesus is God’s work of bringing history to its end, his great word of “no” to the forces of violence and evil that seemed to dominate this history. The Cross is his ultimate act of binding himself to us for all time, even in our suffering and misery, and thereby redeeming the whole breadth of human experience. It’s no accident that the Gospel account shifts to the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion shortly after this parable.
Third, and taking the conventional interpretation quite literally, God has given us “talents,” creativity, intellectual clarity, passions and interests, material and above all spiritual and emotional resources with which we can invest in our families and relationships. Resources to plant a fruitful, productive witness to the Kingdom of Heaven in this suburban community, one that subverts corrupt exploitation, and instead pursues generosity and hospitality, and shines forth the enduring attraction of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Because our vocation as a community is defined by the enduring love of God shown to us in Christ: “we love because he first loved us.” If the Crucifixion is God’s decisive culmination of history, its because the Incarnation is God’s initiated intervention of his love into history. The Second Coming, when God limits the elapsed length of that history, is also the final outworking of God’s First Coming in Mary’s womb. The story that began with Israel’s vocation concludes with God’s perfect gift of himself.
In the meantime, that gift continues to flow through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit draws us into the Triune God’s life, and offers us the creativity, energy and wisdom this entails. The Holy Spirit draws us in as we continually drink from the well of prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments (including Spiritual Communion right now!), loving relationships with our neighbours and our commitment to justice and peace in the world. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is not simply a nice example to follow: we are indeed given the “mind of Christ,” who renews our hearts, our wills and our spirits. In the life of the Holy Spirit, we are welcomed to take part in the ongoing realization of Christ’s intervention in and culmination of history.
Another moment of honesty: I wish I always remembered that God is truly the great giver. None of us perfectly remember this, but I think we’re well on our way if we cast it in terms of remembering what is true, and simply forgetting sometimes. Indeed, we all gather every Sunday night, even on Zoom, to remember that “night that he was betrayed,” and to “remember the Lord’s death until he comes.” Let us take this time to learn how to remember more easily; to recall anew who our God is for us, what God has given us, how God loves us, and how God has called us to love our neighbour.
Thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.