A Sermon about Opting Out and Standing Up
St. Philip Lutheran Church
15 November 2020 + Lectionary 33A
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
#2020. It’s become a bit of a trope for the past year. Something bad happens? Pin it on 2020. The year that always makes us wonder, “What will happen next?” 2020 has certainly kept us on our toes, hasn’t it?
Maybe 2020 has been preparing us for Advent, just two weeks away: Keep alert! Stay awake! Be prepared! Advent’s themes of endings and judgment seep out into the Sundays following All Saints, too.
In our world, we’re standing on the verge of what feels like endings - when everything around us seems to be falling apart. Living in the political uncertainty following a divisive election, facing an ever more serious global climate crisis, and experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19 loom large in our daily lives.
We’re also on the verge of an ending in Matthew’s gospel - the end of Jesus’s public ministry and teachings, on the cusp of his betrayal, arrest, and death. Jesus stood on the verge of endings, and I suspect he knew it, too. I suspect he also knew it going into his final parables.
When I was in seminary, one of my professors always urged us to ask the question: Who is being left out? We’ve had a string of parables lately that beg just that question. A wedding guest is violently booted from the party for wearing the wrong clothes. Half a group of bridesmaids have the door slammed in their faces when they come back just too late from getting more oil. Then today, the slave who actually safeguards his master’s money is harshly reprimanded and punished for seemingly no good reason.
These parables are puzzling and problematic, to say the least. I think the root of the problem is that we’re so accustomed to putting God in the place of authority in parables - the king, the bridegroom, the master. And so we’re shocked when “God” behaves in a way that seems so un-God-like.
Why would God throw someone out or slam the door in someone’s face? Don’t we believe in a God who welcomes all and a God who expects the same of us? Isn’t that why we’re a Reconciling in Christ congregation? If God is love and calls us to love one another, then those characters we assume are God don’t seem like God at all.
But...what if this parable shows us what the kingdom of heaven is not like? After all, parables exist to reveal some spiritual truth to us. What if they can also expose a falsehood about what we’ve come to expect the kingdom of heaven is like? That changes where we place God in this story, doesn’t it?
The third slave had every reason to be afraid. He knew the economic system he was trapped in. The wealthy elite built their wealth at the expense of the working poor. They would loan them money at exorbitant interest rates, and when those in their debt inevitably couldn’t make their payments, their masters would swoop up their land and everything they owned.
The slaves in this story are likely their master’s middle-men - entrusted to oversee the land and workers, collect on their master’s debts, and turn a profit. In fact, it was even expected these middle-men would cheat the system and exploit those who were in debt - turn a bigger profit, earn a little extra for themselves, and make their master even richer.
Which is exactly what the first two slaves did. One talent was an incredible amount of wealth - as much as twenty years’ wages for the common laborer. The first two slaves amassed a combined fourteen talents - or 280 years’ worth of wages - for their master.
But the third slave opts out. He knew full well the consequences of his actions. Profit was the bottom line. Anything less was failure. But burying the talent was an “act of resistance” (Christa Compton, Currents). The third slave refused to participate any longer in a system that exploited the poor… and it cost him.
It’s not the “traditional” interpretation of this parable, but it’s the one I think we need this year. #2020. The year of pandemic. The year of racial injustice. The election year.
The third slave risked his standing (and lost it) for the sake of standing up for what was just. And that’s exactly where Jesus stands.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Matthew puts this parable and the related ones before it up against his passion account. The work of the gospel and proclaiming good news for the poor and oppressed is risky business. It got the third slave thrown out into the outer darkness. It got Jesus killed - on a cross in the outer darkness beyond the security of the city walls.
Matthew shows us where Jesus is. In the outer darkness. In the midst of suffering. In solidarity with all who are thrown out and discarded for daring to stand up to injustice. For daring to proclaim another way. For daring to love.
I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Matthew’s gospel ends where it began. The yet-to-be-born Messiah who is to be named Emmanuel - God-with-us - is the resurrected Jesus who promises to be with his disciples always, to the end of the age.
The God who is with us shows up again and again in the places we’d least expect...but most need it. In the outer darkness. In the despair at the foot of the cross. In the weeping in the garden outside the empty tomb.
So: Keep alert! Stay awake! Be prepared! Not necessarily for what #2020 will throw at us next. Keep alert to the power of God’s Spirit within you. Stay awake to resist injustice and to speak out against oppression. Be prepared for the advent of God’s reign.
And remember: Even if the work wears you down, even if it gets you thrown out and cast aside...Jesus has been there already, and Jesus is with us still.
Thanks be to God.