Preached November 16, 2008 at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, SC
Readings: Matthew 25:14-30 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Take these shoes
Click clacking down some dead end street
Take these shoes, And make them fit
Take this shirt, Polyester white trash made in nowhere
Take this shirt, And make it clean, clean
Take this soul, Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul, And make it sing
Always pain before a child is born
Still I’m waiting for the dawn “Yahweh” by U2
The story we read from Jesus this morning is a familiar one. It’s often called the Parable of the Talents and I’m willing to make a bet that if you’ve been attending church most of your life you’ve heard this passage preached on many times. I’m also willing to bet that most often you’ve head that the moral of this story is “be the best you can be for God by using the talents God has given you – whether it’s a little or a lot.” How many have heard it preached that way. You won’t be hearing any of that today, because the “be all you can be” message completely misses the point of this passage. I think most pastors fall back on the allegory of a “talent” as some innate gift given to people by God to avoid talking about the reality behind the passage – because they think the passage is portraying God as the master, but I don’t think it does.
There are many ways to learn about God’s nature. One way, called the “via positiva,” is to talk about God in terms of who God is. God is love. God is a mother hen. God is a rock. But, in this passage, when Jesus is talking about the kingdom, I believe he’s teaching us about God through what is known as the “via negativa.” Instead of telling us what God is like, Jesus is telling us what God is not like, so we can better understand God’s nature. In this passage, Jesus is telling us that God is not like the master in this story. It would be more fitting to call this the Parable of the Ruthless Master, because what is presented here is not how God operates.
It reminds me of the Oldsmobile commercials that ran in the 1980s that ended with the slogan, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Jesus’ point in this story is to say, “This is not your father’s kingdom” – instead it’s a story of how the world works.
This ruthless master gave his servants some talents – which is not a gift of ability, but a real measure of money. In Israel, a talent of gold – or talanton – weighs 200 pounds. One servant is given 1,000 pounds, another 400 pounds and the last 200 pounds.
The first servant doubles his money to 2,000 pounds – so he literally makes a ton of money. The second doubled his money to 400 pounds. The last one dug a hole and hid his 200 pounds of money. When the ruthless master returns he asks his servants to give an account of the money he’s given them. He’s pleased with the first two – who have doubled what he invested in them. The third one, though, comes in for some rough treatment. The master calls him lazy and wicked and takes away the money he has given him and gives it to the guy who already has a ton of money. Then, he’s given the same fate as they guy who wore the wrong clothes to the wedding banquet – tossed out into the outer darkness.
If this were a story about God’s nature, what strange God we would serve – one who rewards greed and expects his servants to get all they can while they can – to reap where they do not sow. But, this is not your father’s kingdom. Instead, this story describes the world where those with the least lose what they have and those with the most get more and more. In short, in this world, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is not your father’s kingdom.
Take these hands, Teach them what to carry
Take these hands, Don’t make a fist no
Take this mouth, So quick to criticize
Take this mouth, Give it a kiss
Always pain before a child is born
Still I’m waiting for the dawn
My oldest sister and I voted for different candidates for president. I fully believe that there was some sort of labeling accident at the hospital where I was born and I went home with the wrong family. I can’t understand how I grew up in the same family with my oldest sister and I am so different from her – and most of my other siblings – in almost every respect. I imagine somewhere in this world there is a nice liberal family wondering how they got saddled with some rabidly conservative daughter. She, too, is probably thinking she was switched at birth.
Given our differences, my oldest sister and I don’t talk about politics because we know we can’t convince one another of our positions, so instead of arguing we simply avoid the subject. However, we spoke a few days after the election and she simply couldn’t help herself. She said, “Well, I’m just afraid that my tax dollars are going to be taken from me and given to people who don’t work.”
In other words, she’s afraid some of her abundance will be taken and given to the lazy, wicked servant who only has a little bit of worldly wealth. She’s someone who would serve the ruthless master well – doubling his investment and gladly accepting what little those at the bottom of the heap are stripped of by the unfair economic system in our country. For the past 8 years – and even longer – what little the poor have has been taken from them and given to those who already have a ton of money.
The gap between the rich and the poor has steadily grown. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Economic Policy Institute, census figures show that since the late 1990s, average incomes have declined 2.5% for families on the bottom fifth of the country’s economic ladder, while incomes have increased 9.1% for families on the top fifth.
That means that the average incomes of the top 5% of families are 12 times the average incomes of the bottom 20%. In this example we can clearly see the ruthless master of the world taking from the one with the least and redistributing the wealth up the ladder to the one who already has a ton of money. This how the world operates but this is not your father’s kingdom.
Many are hopeful that those numbers and that practice of making the rich richer – will turn around now that there is a new administration in Washington. But, here is where we can learn a lesson from this parable: no one in power will balance the scales between rich and poor. With the new administration, the gap may become narrower, but the gap will always be there, simply because this world is not your father’s kingdom.
The simple fact is that the poor have no one to represent them in the government. There are no poor people running our system because only rich people can afford to run for office. Sure, they’ll talk about the plight of the poor, and they may even implement some programs that make life marginally better for the poor – but overall, the poor will be what they’ve always been – poor. What they have will be taken away from them and given to the ones who have a ton of money. The poor are cast into the outer darkness of poverty and despair. The world is ruled by a ruthless master because this is not your father’s kingdom.
Still waiting for the dawn, the sun is coming up
The sun is coming up on the ocean
His love is like a drop in the ocean
His love is like a drop in the ocean
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, tell me now
Why the dark before the dawn?
The moral of this parable is this: God is not like the ruthless master, and we should not be either. We must buck the world’s system if we are to help bring even the tiniest shard of God’s realm into this greedy and ruthless world. This story is meant to open our eyes to our role in the world. Paul assured the Thessalonians – just as he assures us – that we are not cast into the outer darkness. God has not destined us for wrath, but for salvation. Instead of following the example of the ruthless master, we are to encourage one another and build up each other, as Paul says. We are to reach into the outer darkness and bring God’s light of love and compassion to those stranded in poverty and despair. The world conspires to keep those people in darkness and rewards ruthless profiteering. We must resist the world’s call to get all we can get and trample anyone who gets between us and the world’s wealth and approval. That is not your father’s kingdom.
Instead the kingdom is like a mustard seed, small but mighty. The kingdom is like yeast – just a little bit goes a long way. The kingdom of heaven is like sowing good seeds that grow in the fertile hearts of those who also seek God’s realm. The kingdom is not about the power and might of the world’s leaders – but about the small, seemingly insignificant and futile efforts of people like you and me.
God came into the world in the form of one man to show us that God’s realm is not realized in the power structure of our world – no matter how benevolent the current government might be. Instead, God’s realm is realized in you and me. God’s realm is realized when we see the world for what it is – a ruthless master that takes from the least of these and gives to those who already have more than enough. God’s realm is realized when we pray for God to take our soul and make it sing, to take our hands and teach them what to carry, to teach us not to make a fist. God’s realm is realized when we pray that our mouths, so quick to criticize, begin to speak in words of love, compassion, grace and mercy. These are treasures that cannot be taken from us but can multiply and grow and bring about God’s realm.
Nothing we do, even the smallest action, is too little. When we seek to end poverty or find a cure of AIDS or work for justice and equality for anyone who has been cast out of the world’s care, we are doing work for the realm of God. Whenever we serve in a soup kitchen, give clothes to the needy, visit the sick in the hospital or visit the prisoner, we are doing kingdom work. When we link our small actions to others doing small actions, we can grow our reach in the world. Already, 2.4 million people have joined the ONE Campaign that is fighting to end AIDS and poverty in the world. The campaign urges people to sign up and volunteer right where they are, doing what they can for those around them. They also want people to contact Congress and urge those in power to embrace their own role in bringing about God’s realm – even as they serve the world.
One of the leading spokesmen for the ONE Campaign is U2 lead singer, Bono, who wrote this song. He said, “the one thing we can all agree, all faiths, all ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”
He also said, “The final mark of greatness, I think, is emptiness. That is true of music, painting, of anything. The less you can do it with, the more powerful you are.” So don’t think that anything you do for the least of these, no matter how small, is wasted. Sometimes the least you can do is the most powerful. As Margaret Mead once said, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The government, no matter how good or bad, is not your father’s kingdom – we are the kingdom of God and working together, in small and large ways, we can overcome the ruthless master of the world and bring about God’s realm.
Take this city, A city should be shining on a hill
Take this city, If it be your will
What no man can own, no man can take
Take this heart, Take this heart
Take this heart, And make it break
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.