With all that is going on in the world right now, no one needs to hear about “outer darkness” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Not only would this be unhelpful, it would likely be unhealthy as well. Yes, the Gospel of Matthew has an intensity, an urgency, that is not present in the other gospels. Yes, the threat of being punished by God is woven throughout the gospel as a means of pushing people to choose their faith in Jesus even if it meant their death. This fear approach to Christianity is one that has been employed for centuries and is still in place today. It is, however, not helpful for today for a few reasons.
Let’s remember that when Matthew was writing his gospel, the only way to understand the way the world worked was that God was in charge of all things. This was the approach throughout biblical times. God was either rewarding God’s people with blessings and prosperity or God was punishing God’s people with sickness and oppression. The world view said that pleasing God would lead to heaven and displeasing God would lead to hell. It was either/or. There was no in between and no other way of explaining global, communal, or individual happenings. If God was pleased then good things were happening. If God was displeased then bad things were happening. There was no other way to understand weather patterns, human behavior, or illness. People acted and God responded. Everything was prescribed; if this…then that. God was in charge.
Of course, there are many people who continue to believe in this prescriptive understanding. However, there is another way of looking at things in the modern context. We know that there is a degree of chaos in the world. We know that human actions have had an impact on the planet in ways that have changed the climate to bring about global warming and in ways that have increased illnesses such as cancer. We know that God does not use weather and sickness and war to communicate with God’s people or to punish them. For example, we know that God did not cause the pandemic we are currently experiencing. I’m sure a scientist could explain just how this pandemic came about and it would not have anything to do with God. This is not to say that God is absent. God is fully present. God is not the causal factor. Pandemic is not a punishment for our sins.
With this understanding, we can look at Matthew’s Gospel and the parables contained from a descriptive point of view rather than prescriptive. Looking at the parable of the talents from this perspective, it would be our actions that land us in place far from God, rather than God putting us there. What follows is my take on the parable from a modern understanding of how God works in the world.
Once there was a business owner who had businesses in three places – in a city, in a suburb, and in a small town. The owner planned a long, international trip to explore establishing businesses in other countries. Before leaving on his trip, the owner called together the three managers. The owner wanted to leave them each funds to expand the business while they were away. To the city manger they gave $1,000,000. To the suburb manger they gave $100,000. To the small town manager they gave $10,000. The owner told the managers that they would be gone for at least a year and expected to find the businesses flourishing when they returned.
When the owner returned, they called together the three managers to find out how the businesses fared. The city manager reported earning an additional $1,000,000 which pleased the owner greatly. The owner promoted the city manager to regional manager. The suburb manager reported earning an additional $100,000 which pleased the owner. The owner promoted the suburb manager to the city manager position. The small town manager gave the owner back the $10,000 saying that they were afraid of making the wrong decisions, losing the money, cutting into the store’s profits, and disappointing the owner. Instead of investing the money, the small town manager just put it in the freezer in the store room so nothing would happen to it. The owner was disappointed and angry. They said, “Your fear made you act foolishly and you are far from what I had hoped for and envisioned. You should have at least put the money in the bank and earned a little interest. I cannot promote you until you are less fearful. You will be an assistant manager until you learn to use what you have been given. The small town manager was sad and angry and felt as though they were treated unfairly.
As you can see, in my version of this parable, the owner is generous and hopeful. The actions of the city manager and the suburb manager lead to their promotions. The actions of the small town manager lead to their demotion. The distance between what the managers do and the owner’s expectations is determined by the actions of the managers, not the owner. This is a descriptive way of looking at how God works in the world, rather than prescriptive. If, like the city manager and the suburb manager, we seek to use our gifts as God desires, we are more likely to experience the benefits found in doing what is pleasing to God. If we choose not to use the gifts we have been given, we are much more likely to feel as if God does not care about us or that God is punishing us.
No parable is perfect; they all break down at some point. There is no guarantee in this life that following God’s ways are going to bring only blessings. There is also no guarantee that those who fail to act in ways pleasing to God will experience only challenges. Using our gifts as God desires for us, to the best of our ability, opens us to God’s presence in the world or draws us nearer to God. Intentionally choosing not to use our gifts as God desires is much more likely to land us in a place like the outer darkness Matthew mentions and the weeping and gnashing of teeth is likely to come from us.
This is the long way of saying that if we choose to follow Jesus and use our gifts in service to God, neighbor, and Creation, then we are more likely to experience God’s presence, even if our endeavors are not successful. Conversely, if we choose not to use our gifts in service to God, neighbor, and Creation, then we are much more likely to experience distance from God, even if our endeavors are successful. Matthew’s parable of the talents is much more helpful read in this descriptive manor than if when it is read in a more prescriptive way.
May we all have the strength and the courage to use our gifts to build up the Body of Christ and draw people in from the “outer darkness.”
RCL: Year A Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost November 15, 2020 Judges 4:1-7 with Psalm 123 or
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 with Psalms 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11