Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our Gospel reading for today comes from Matt 25. Paired as it is with the passages from Zephaniah and 1Thessalonians, it seems to paint a rather stark and uncomfortable picture of judgment. This is the sort of thing that is easily caricatured by those throughout the ages who have thought of Christianity as little more than a religion whose adherents’ faith is based on the fearful desire to avoid some future judgment by God.
Although Christians have from time to time evangelized the world by calling people to believe in order to be saved from God’s coming judgment, these passages cannot easily be enlisted in such a project. Strikingly, the readings from Zephaniah and Matthew speak about God’s judgment of believers, not unbelievers.
In fact, the gospel reading for this Sunday is part of a series of parables that Jesus tells in quick succession. Each one builds upon the theme of God’s coming judgment of believers at the end of the ages. These three stories themselves build on Jesus’ response to a question from his followers about when God’s coming judgment will happen. Jesus’ answer takes up all of Matthew 24 and is filled with a wide variety of confusing images and symbols. These do little to answer the disciples’ question. In fact, they seem designed to short circuit this question of when all these things will happen. Instead they focus on being ready at all times.
Last week’s gospel further sharpens that focus as it relates a story about 10 bridesmaids, only some of whom were ready for the bridegroom’s arrival. Its emphasis on being prepared for what is to come, even when you don’t know when it is coming, is pretty clear.
Next week’s reading, the final one of the church’s liturgical year, is about believers from all nations being examined and divided as sheep from goats. That story describes a standard of judgment based on how believers respond to the sick, imprisoned, hungry and homeless. Our response to these weakest and most vulnerable people is supposed to mirror our response to Jesus himself because he is there with them. The text explains what sort of standard the Jesus will use in judging us, not when judgment will happen.
It is probably good to keep these parables in mind when looking at this week’s story about a master who distributes rather large sums of money to three of his slaves. Remembering that the standard of Christ’s judgment is based on our exchanges with the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless, and the hungry rather than our financial acumen, should keep us from reading the story of the talents as a straightforward story about increasing the master’s capital investments.
Of these three stories, the first is a reminder to be prepared for a coming judgment, the final one displays the standard of judgment that will be used. Today’s gospel, standing in the middle, touches on both the issue of preparation and the standard of judgment. Most importantly, though, it addresses the character of the relationship between the judge and those who are to be judged.
We see this in a couple of places in the story. First, we learn that the master distributes his money to each slave according to the slave’s capacities. If one thinks of God as rather parsimonious and arbitrary, this form of distribution can seem unfair. Such a person might be tempted to note that in Luke’s version of the story each slave gets the same amount (Lk 19:12-27). Alternatively, if one recognizes that one who distributes this money is the one who both knows us most fully and loves us without reservation, we might be more inclined to see each slave as receiving something lovingly tailored exactly to God’s compassionate knowledge of each one of them.
Although the master gives no specific instructions about what to do with his money, the first two slaves set to work and increase what they have been given. They do not seem to think of this as a test; they do not seem to feel as if their master is simply waiting for them to slip up so that he can punish them. Instead, they carry on working in the way they think their master would. They display the sort of unselfconscious fidelity that we also see among those who tend to the imprisoned, hungry, sick and homeless in the next parable. These two slaves who treat their master’s money appropriately, “enter into the joy” of the master. Their relationship with the master seems to be one of loving obedience and service. This response demonstrates the character of their relationship with the master. They and their master will share great joy.
We learn very little about the real motives and reasons for the third slave’s actions. My own speculation here, for what it is worth, is that this slave is very much like the characters mentioned in the reading from Zephaniah. These inhabitants of Jerusalem are “complacent” as the NRSV refers to them. The Hebrew is more colorful, indicating that these people are “congealing on their own dregs.” They are the last exhausted revelers at a party that has gone on too long. They think that God has become irrelevant and distant, “God will neither act to do good or to do evil.” This seems to be a much more likely account of the slave’s thinking than what he actually says.
It is important to recognize that this slave’s account of the master’s character is neither accepted nor denied. It is, however, used as the basis for the judgment against him. Indeed, if the slave really thought that his master reaped where he did not plant, then his hiding of the coin in the ground is completely unintelligible or simply foolish. This is what the master points out to him. Whatever his true motives were, this reason does not really stand up to scrutiny. Although he claims to “know” what sort of person the master is, it is clear he does not really know that master at all.
It does, however, raise a troubling prospect for us believers. If we have failed to know our master and our master’s hopes and desires for us, we may become inattentive to those things the master has lovingly entrusted to each of us according to our distinct capacities. Worse still, we run the risk of being judged not by the God who longs to show us mercy, but by a very different character of our own imagining.