row of shovels

Jesus is Coming – Look Busy

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Judges 4:1-7 OR Proverbs 31:10-31
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

With the attention demanded by All Saints, Christ the King, and the First Sunday of Advent this month, the preacher has little time to spend with this last so-called Ordinary Sunday of the Church year. In my own United Methodist tradition this also happens to be the time of year when Finance committees are urgently preparing 2012 budgets and pastors are nervously writing stewardship sermons in hopes of funding those budgets. This weekend’s gospel text seems to play right into this pattern with a pre-packaged message about stewardship lined up for the occasion. Investing our time, talents, and even money for the up-building of the Kingdom of God might well be a legitimate reading of this text, but could likely fall on deaf ears this time of year. Who, while readying themselves to enter the bustle of this season of the year, wants to be told they’re not already doing enough for the Kingdom of God?

Earlier this week I was reflecting with a group of pastors on a sidebar comment made by Eugene Peterson in his book The Contemplative Pastor. He writes: “How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?”

This comment plays into the worst of my pastoral tendencies and names the weariness I feel when reading this text alongside each of the other end-times parables of Matthew’s gospel. Will I ever work hard enough to satisfy the Master? I know that it is not pastors alone who feel this weariness. I see it in the eyes of many of the faithful saints in my pews each week who work relentlessly supporting our congregation and its ministries. Do we, in fact, encourage our church members into a sort of works righteousness with our insistence on giving more and more of themselves and miss the point altogether?

Upon further reflection, I would suggest a different sort of stewardship message out of this text of Matthew for this penultimate Sunday of the church calendar. It is to skip along past those two commended slaves—whose parallel stories are rather uninteresting—and listen awhile with the third slave as he answers to this demanding Master. The third slave was stalled in his investing not so much by inertia as fear. Fear of what? Fear of the Master? Fear of failure? Whatever drives this fear, it paralyzes him from taking any real risk with the Master’s gift. And risk seems to be exactly what the Master wanted from these trusted slaves. While this slave’s fear plays itself out in buried treasure, I am left wondering what fear looks like in 2011. Is it possible that the flurry of programs, ministries, and other events in the life of our congregations is nothing but fear playing itself out in activity? So fearful are we (of failure? Of denominational check-points? Of God?) that our lives and churches will not pass muster when we are called to account for our work that we can no longer take any real risks of discipleship.

Playing it safe makes us unable to take anything that resembles an unpopular stand. This is why it’s so easy to talk about charity and not justice in most churches. Playing it safe means that we direct our evangelism energy towards the new gated community down the street rather than the underserved neighborhood around the corner, knowing that they can’t bolster the bottom line of that budget and we wouldn’t want to risk losing anyone who would leave if “they” showed up. Even taking a Sabbath has become risky business for pastors and church members alike, having fallen into the trap of our capitalist society that fears that rest means lost profit, lost time for networking, or worse…

The struggle of preaching this text is that we are quite comfortable with running, not just our stewardship campaigns but the entire life of the church, like local businesses competing in a capitalist economy: demanding of folks that they must give more so that we can do more in order to get more people in here who will give more so that we can do more. The struggle of preaching this message is that, like the third slave, in doing so we are entirely motivated by fear.

I was intrigued by one remark by a commentator on Matthew’s telling of this story: “The God we face is the one we imagine.” Those first two slaves recognized in the graciousness of the gift, the graciousness of the Master. It was a grace that freed them to invest wildly and reap such grand profit. They lived out of trust and not fear. The third slave’s fear makes him unable to risk anything at all, though it turns out in the end that the greatest risk of all is playing it safe. What risks might we take if we no longer lived out of fear, but love—unquenchable love of God, undying love of our neighbors, passionate for justice and peace, and eyes wide open for opportunities to go all-in for the Master?

One Response to “Jesus is Coming – Look Busy”

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  1. Bo Grimes says:

    Those first two slaves recognized in the graciousness of the gift, the graciousness of the Master. It was a grace that freed them to invest wildly and reap such grand profit. They lived out of trust and not fear.

    The guest pastor who delivered our sermon on this text yesterday made a similar point, and I have been struggling with it since. I am not sure the text bears out this reading. It doesn’t exclude it by any means, but nor does it explicitly affirm it.

    It seems to me that it’s entirely possible the first two slaves could also have been motivated by fear: “I better make some money for the master or I’m going to be in big trouble when he gets back.”

    Some high achieving people are as driven by fear as low achievers are paralyzed by it. Some people have a stronger fight impulse and others a stronger flight impulse.

    I believe it is Parker Plamer who makes the point in Let Your Life Speak, that it is extremely difficult for us to hear the message of unconditional love because from our earliest days we learn that good behavior brings praise. We do something because we want to please our parents; they are pleased, and we learn that action brings love.

    In Luke’s version of this parable, the master is seeking more power for himself, and it sounds like he wants to make sure that while he’s away his money isn’t sitting around idle when he could be making more. There are people in the city who hate him badly enough they send a delegate to try and prevent him from receiving royal power. And in both versions, the master seems to confirm the third slave’s impression of him–though perhaps he is merely saying “Since that’s the kind of person you think I am…”

    In other words, the master seems to be saying, “Whether or not I am that kind of man, since you think I am why didn’t your fear of me motivate you to at least earn interest on what I gave you.”

    But there also seems to be other internal evidence that he was in fact a harsh man who takes what he does not deposit and reaps what he does not sow. If he was or wasn’t, the master seems to be suggesting that it wasn’t really fear that motivated him to inaction because if he really was afraid, rightly or wrongly, he should have been motivated by that fear.

    Had he truly been afraid, the master may have had compassion; I don’t know. Instead he calls him a “wicked and lazy” slave, which seems to me like the master is calling his bluff and letting him know it was not fear at all that motivated him but something else.

    This is a very perplexing parable for me. The one teaching I think I can be sure of in it is this: Invest your time, treasure, and talents in the Kingdom of God. However, the motivations of the slaves and the character of the master remain elusive to me.

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