"How Do You See God?"

November 17, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Matthew 25:14-30

To be grasped by this story from Jesus, we need to comprehend the incomprehensible. These three servants were each entrusted with a huge amount of money. We’re not talking pocket change here, folks. Though no one knows the exact amount, I’ve read estimates that a talent was the equivalent of any where from 15-20 years of wages. For the sake of comparison, if you’re good with math, take your income this year and multiply it by, say, 75. That’s how much the first slave received. Now multiply it by 30. That’s how much the second slave received. Be aware that I’m using the lower figures here. It might be much more. Finally, taxing your calculating skills one more time, multiply your yearly income by 15. That’s how much money the departing master placed into the hands of the third servant. Even this figure is more than most of us can comprehend, especially in one pile.

When Jesus told this story, those who heard it would’ve been shocked out of their gourds, and so should we. I imagine our Lord with a smile on his face as his spoke this parable, fully aware of what he was suggesting. The figures are just so totally absurd that ... well, sometimes absurdity opens a door for truth to enter.

Imagine, if you will, what you would do with all that money. Now, the money doesn’t actually belong to you. Rather, it is entrusted into your hands. What would you do with it? Let your imagination run wild. After all, that’s what parables are supposed to accomplish. Jesus told his stories to open up our all-too-limited imaginations to the unimaginable, the Kingdom of God. Let’s say your income is $25,000 (which may be under or over your yearly pay). 15 times that would be $375,000. As I said, that’s a conservative figure. Such is what the third servant received. Can you begin to place yourself in his shoes?

Now, listen to all the absurdities of this story. These three individuals were not exactly trustees by our way of judging. They didn’t sit on the board of directors of their Master’s company. They weren’t even relatives of his. No, they were his slaves. Who, in their own right mind, would entrust so much capital in the hands of such lowly workers? It just doesn’t happen, does it? Get ready for another preposterous fact. When the Master entrusted his property to these 3 servants, he laid down no stipulations, at least not any that Jesus shares. There were no instructions given. Sounds like a pretty dumb idea to me. A recipe for disaster. But, then, where is my sense of adventure. At age 41, my imagination leaves much to be desired.

Okay, let me try an idea, in an attempt to break through a glass ceiling. Hopefully the Stewards won’t wring my neck after the service. Many of you are aware that last week our Church Council passed an ambitious budget for next year, $9,500 (or 8.5%) more than this year’s. While giving is up this year, this budget is still $8,000 more than this year’s giving, as our treasurer, Chris Breidenbaugh, clearly pointed out. A part of that increase is in the category of giving beyond ourselves to the ministries of our denomination and district. Another chunk is earmarked for paying a seminary student to come next summer while I am on sabbatical. I have long felt that this congregation would make an excellent teaching church. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some of the increase comes my way, also - most significantly in the area of health insurance. All told it is an ambitious budget. We need to challenge ourselves next year.

Now, I’m aware that many of us are living on fixed incomes. It is easier for some to increase giving than others. Let me run my idea past those of you who are struggling just to keep up with your promises. Why not take a week or a month off? ... Now, before you start pocketing your offerings for those Sundays, or earmark it for other bills, how about treating it like the talents entrusted into the hands of these servants? What could you do with that money? Could you double it, somehow, like the first two servants? How would you treat that amount? Think about it, at least. There are a lot more options available to us in life, if only we have the audacity to imagine them, and live into our imagination. Our income is not as "fixed" as what we think, and I’m not referring only to money here.

A basic understanding of our life in Christ is that it is a trust from God. That is, all that we are, as well as all that we possess does not ultimately belong to us. Rather, we belong to God. All that we have belongs to God: our finances, our families, our very lives. What God entrusts into our hands is a fantastic wealth, when you think about it, far greater than any discussion of how much a "talent" might’ve been worth long ago. After all, multiply our yearly income by 75? Can that amount purchase the love of a child? Maybe it can buy a stupefied smile, but real love? We have so much treasure placed in our hands by our God that, even with all the garbage which comes our way in life, the amount is still beyond our comprehension. Add to that what we receive from knowing Christ Jesus. We are billionaires, when we figure our wealth in light of the Kingdom of God. Remember that when you struggle to make ends meet.

We are those servants. God places into our hands great wealth. The major starting point, though, is that this wealth is but a trust. It belongs to God, all of it. Not just the portion we earmark to return his way. One of the dangers of Tithing, when not done with this understanding, is that we come believe that what we have is ours, with just 10% belonging to our Maker, sort of like an Eternal Security tax paid to an Eternal Revenue Service we call the church. NO! A thousand times NO! All that we have, all that we are belongs to God in the first place. The setting aside of our tithes and offerings is really a discipline through which we seek to keep our lives in eternal perspective. Without this discipline, our lives become entrenched, protective of what we possess. We grow in upon ourselves. Our lives are lived like a clenched fist, rather than open hands. Is it any wonder that this present age is known for its high stress? How much more energy does it take to tighten a fist, to grit your teeth, to close in upon yourself? When we believe that all we have is ours, that’s what happens. Our life in Christ involves the freedom of realizing that God possesses us, and all that we have, all that we are, belongs to him.

The real gist of this parable comes from how we then see God, to whom we belong. In a sense, we are slaves. That is, we do not belong to ourselves (which is the definition of a slave). How do we view this One to whom we belong? Well, this story of Jesus presents a couple options. It should not be our intent to critically examine the character of the third servant, for we are not given enough information to make such a judgement. Furthermore, when we focus too negatively upon his character, we can avoid making the connections with our own. For, in so many ways, we are this third servant.

Now, we don’t know much about the first two servants, other than what they did. They received all that money, with very little instruction, and went off at once and traded and doubled the money, though we’re not told how. They must have felt free enough to risk. Obviously, they weren’t doubled over and incapacitated by the fear of losing it all in the process. What would’ve happened had they made a wrong investment and lost everything? With that much money, that’s a frightening prospect. Think back to the stock market collapse of 1929 which sent our nation into a decade of depression. How many investors lost their shirts? How many, then, took their own lives (as if their lives were theirs to take)? It’s enough to make you want to dig a hole and hide. Fear. A whole generation in our society grew up with such fear, something those of us of younger years can’t quite imagine; something we also have no right to judge.

Life is a risk. We don’t know what would’ve happened to those first two servants had they traded and lost. The story doesn’t go that far. We are, however, given a door through which to step with the third servant. If this door doesn’t open upon a mirror, then this story has not done its duty. Jesus’ parables are intended to disturb, to break open some of our assumptions about God and ourselves, that the Kingdom of Heaven might gain a foothold in our lives.

The third slave dug a hole and hid his master’s money. Why? Well, when he looked at his Master, he saw a harsh man. He saw someone who didn’t do much work, but who made a bundle at the expense of others. This is theology, folks, a word about God. Is it right theology, that is, is this really a true picture of God. After all, we’re not just talking an abstract story here. The challenge is to how we view God, the One to whom we belong, our Master. What do you see when you look at God? Is your Master a harsh man, perhaps even a con man, or like a boss who cracks the whip and makes his minions labor long and hard, then steals the profit? Is this your theology of God? Be honest, now. Look long and hard in that mirror. Actually, much of our theology is a mirror. We often see ourselves instead of God. In psychological terms it’s called "transference." We transfer upon another how we feel about ourselves.

You know, sometimes we are our own worst taskmasters. And then, we dump that picture upon God. But is that picture the truth? Is this God? Well, in Jesus’ story, the Master’s wrath is addressed toward this picture. The servant did not abuse that money. He returned it intact. He couldn’t be charged with embezzlement. The punishment he received was not for something wrong he did. His punishment was for what he didn’t do. He was afraid and did nothing with what he had been given. Why? Because when he thought of his Master he saw a mean, ruthless man. "Is that how you see me?" The Master replied. "Well, then, I shouldn’t have entrusted that money in your hands to start with. Get out!"

You know what. I’d be willing to bet (if I were a wagering man) that as the thrid servant walked out into the darkness where everybody’s teeth are always gritted, and fists always clenched, and arms always folded; I bet that third slave felt he had judged his Master rightly. His boss was a mean, vindictive, profiteering, con man.... What a shame! What a shame! In spite of the great wealth that had been earlier entrusted into his hands, the third servant was left with nothing but his own fear.

Let me be the first to admit that, all too often, I am that man. Are you honest enough to say the same? Ultimately, this story is not about money ( is it?), though it has definite applications to how we use what we have been given - our finances, our resources, even the abilities with which God has endowed each of us. We are called to risk it all for the sake of the Kingdom, to stop playing it safe. That doesn’t mean we are called to be stupid. Consider well the parable just before this in Matthew’s gospel, about the wise and foolish bridesmaids. We need to be prepared. On the other hand, since these parables need each other, God requires of us a willingness to risk, trusting that if we fail, God will pick us up, brush us off, and get us back on our feet. That’s what forgiveness is. "Forgive us our debts," we pray, realizing that we are indebted to God for everything. "I will," God replies. "My Son has vouched for you."

Ultimately, this story isn’t about money, it’s about how we picture God. Do you see a God whose Love is so reckless that he is willing to entrust in your hands a fortune beyond imagination; who, like a Father, encourages you ride that bike and not just sit on it, who is able to let go and let you fly? Do you see a God who, like a Mother, is there to pick you up when you fall, embrace you and set you going again? The crazy thing about this Heavenly "Master" of ours is that he does not treat us like slaves, even though we belong to him. He treats us like family, like family really should be - not just a reflection of what our earthly families often are. Is this how you see God? I hope so! If not, I challenge you to look again.

May we live our lives, individually and together, with this picture of God in mind, willing to set aside our fears and risk what we are and what we have for him. And may, when our days on this earth are done, may we hear him say, "Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter my joy."

1996Peter L. Haynes

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