A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid.”
The gospel lesson today is another of Jesus’ parables. I have said before that Jesus’ parables are not allegories about God—they are stories. In this parable, it would be a particularly bad mistake to think of the man with all the property as God, because this is a story about slavery, and the relationship of human masters and slaves.
Why is there so much about slavery in the New Testament and why is it stated in such a matter-of-fact fashion? Because the economy of the Roman Empire was completely dependent on slavery, at least 10 percent of the population of the empire, and 30-to-40 percent in some areas. Ignoring slaves would be as unreasonable as ignoring the existence of people who make their living at fast food chains or as laborers working for close to minimum wage. Some people did ignore slaves, treating them as though they were invisible, but for Jesus and the early Christians, slaves were fully human; what happened to them mattered.
This parable takes the form of a folk tale, in which two characters are used to set up the story, while the third character is used for the punchline. So, I want to just look at the third slave’s situation. He was afraid. Slavery was quite common, but it was also common for slave-owners to beat, abuse or humiliate their slaves. This was a slave-owner known to be harsh, perhaps even proud of it. We can be sympathetic with this enslaved man; the consequences of his master’s wrath might be very harsh indeed.
The slave was entrusted with a lot of money, basically a cubic foot of silver or gold (and at that time, silver was rarer than now, almost as precious as gold). The amounts might be exaggerated for effect, but it wasn’t unusual for some slaves to be entrusted with important responsibilities, including handling their master’s money. When a story in the New Testament refers to a steward, it’s almost always about a senior slave entrusted with administration of the master’s property. So it was a big responsibility: a bucket of precious metal belonging to an unforgiving owner. And the slave focused on that beating and his fear of it. And in his fear, he thought of nothing except avoiding the risk of punishment and all he could think of was not losing that treasure. He thought the safest thing was to bury it, I suppose in a place where no one would look.
If you look at the top of the story, it says that the master entrusted his property to the three slaves—in other words, he gave it to them to manage. That was certainly how the first two understood it. In any kind of management, it is important to balance various kinds of risks, to use good judgement, make plans and use your resources prudently. Excessive risk is not good—the 100% return on investment that the first two delivered seems large, probably exaggerated, but we can assume that it was wise and not reckless trading—things would not have gone well for the slave who lost two or five talents of his master’s money. But anyone who works professionally in risk management will tell you that there is no way to eliminate 100% of risk, indeed if all your energy and resources goes into eliminating one risk, you are certain to fall victim to another risk … or simply cease to function. The third slave, in seeking to eliminate his risk, was left with only his fear … and his worst fears were realized. There were all sorts of possibilities for him, clearly the climate for trading was good for the others, he had plenty of resources, there were safe investments to make. Yet his fear took him in the direction of what he feared, and he lived in misery and without hope.
I’ve been asked to talk about stewardship this morning. As stewards of God’s bounty, we are called to a life that is free of fear. We live in the blessing of God’s mercy, and our lives are filled with hope, with realistic hope. Hope is not about wanting resources without limits—that is the province of what our psalm today calls “the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” Christian hope is based on a community of generosity emerging from God’s mercy and love, generosity right now, in whatever situation of plenty or privation we might find ourselves. We have God’s mercy, and in this community we have more than enough; we have more than enough because God’s love binds us together, we can live and have no need to fear. We live in Christ’s love and in that we have the imagination to be able to help and care for others—we don’t focus on fearfulness and put our resources in the ground out of reach and out of use.
On this consecration Sunday, I encourage you all to consider your whole lives, all of the ways in which you are interconnected with others, all of your responsibilities. Spiritually we are called to love God in every sector of our lives, and to be good managers of the abundance of mercy that God has entrusted to us. Remember that we are all accountable to one another—it is in becoming trustworthy companions to one another that we discover the joy of God’s generosity and live in God’s hope.
St. Paul put it this way, in this letter to Thessalonica, one of the very earliest of Christian writings:
Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.