Blessed Lord, who have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
With those words setting the stage, we dive right in to the readings assigned for the Episcopal Lectionary for this Sunday. I'm sorry the diviners of our lessons decided NOT to tell "the rest of the story" from our Hebrew Scripture lesson out of Judges. They give us the basics: once again, the Israelites are screwing up... and this time Deborah is their judge. She's a prophetess who sits under her palm tree and tells Barak to go get ready for battle with Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army. And that's where they stopped the story.
Perhaps they felt that Sunday morning wasn't the time to let everyone know that another woman, Jael, gets Sisera into her tent and, as he's sleeping, she jams a tent peg through his head. Deborah, Barak and Jael then do a chorus line number to celebrate the victory.
Like I said, they didn't go there... and so we'll just leave it alone.
Out of Psalm 123... I found myself drawn to these verses:
"Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy,
for we have had more than enough contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich,
and of the derision of the proud."
I imagine that perhaps these are the words that the Israelites might have used to gain God's attention as they found themselves up against the Canaanite army of Sisera. They sound like words I could have used once or twice in my life!
Don't fret: the 1 Thessalonians reading goes on to talk about how those who have found themselves "in Christ" are children of light, live in the day, put on breastplates of faith and hope and helmets of salvation. And, one of the most critical lines of any of Paul's instructions: "Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing."
And here we arrive at the Gospel of Christ according to Matthew's 25th chapter... and the story of the man who gives three slaves a certain number of talents (talents were "sums of money" not the ability to swallow swords or twirl batons) and then leaves them for a very long time. When he comes back, he finds that the one who had the five talents wheeled and dealed his way to doubling the fortune. The one who he had given two talents did the same. Both of these slaves were praised and given even more responsibility as they became part of the kingdom. Slave number three, who had only had the one talent, is described as being afraid. So afraid that he didn't do anything with this pot of gold except bury it in the ground. When he faces up to the man, he can't admit that he did anything wrong. Instead, he says, "I buried it because I knew YOU (the master) were dishonest and you don't reap what you sow and you scatter your seeds everywhere... and... and... and...." This episode doesn't end well for slave number three. Upon hearing the excuses, the master has the talent taken from the slave and then orders him to be cast into the outer darkness where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Sitting with this story, especially after all the rest of the readings, I was thinking about this third slave and his motivation (or lack thereof) in handling this gift. Even one talent in those days of ancient Palestine was no chump change, so it's not like he couldn't have done a lot with it. But he had a choice of what to do: do I go wheel and deal like the others and increase the amount of this "seed money" or do I give in to my fear that if I part with any of it, I won't have enough? From the story we learn which choice he makes. And then there was the projection: the slave says he didn't do anything with the money because he knows the master to be this dishonest guy who just takes whatever and randomly scatters seeds all over the place. And then there is the master's response: "You knew that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest."
Aside from snickering that the money should be invested with "the bankers" to earn interest, we see that the one thing the third slave failed to do was the work of "building up" others. That's what happens when you take your money and put it into circulation. I think about the call in our community to "Shop Local." Buying goods from a local merchant as opposed to the Wal-Marts of the world means that you are helping a neighbors to earn the dough they'll need to make purchases, pay employees, etc. I consider this part of the "building up" of our community. I also think this particular slave is an example of one who hasn't put on the breastplate of faith and hope. Instead, he's afraid and sticks his money in a hole. But above all, I was struck by the way the third slave projects all this crap onto the master who'd given the talent to begin with. In my ears, this is the same thing I hear from those I know who are estranged from a faith tradition or just flat-out hostile toward any religious belief. What they say they know of God, or of Christianity, is often negative and punishing: hardly a God who will hear the cry to have mercy. So much of what they say they know about God or Christ or the Gospels is usually tainted by some terrible experience. And that experience is not coming from God... or Christ... or the Gospels. It's coming from those who claim to have the religious authority to speak for God who then commit the sin of taking God's good words and works in vain by twisting them into a club to smack people over the head.
What a person might know about God could be very, very badly off-base. I would venture a guess that God is always willing to have someone like this third slave say, "OK, so I was wrong. I screwed up, and buried the talent because I thought you were a mean ol' cur, but I see that you are not." That's the repentance and redemption piece of the story which happens again and again in Scripture and beyond to our current day. Too bad the third slave didn't understand that.
May we never forget it.