Our Relationship with God

November 19, 2017

Bible Text: Matthew 25:14-30 |

Well – we’re at that happy place in the gospel of Matthew where it’s time to deal with the wailing and gnashing of teeth. But before we get there, let’s start with the context of this story.

Jesus tells it during the last week of his life - that stretch of several days when he knows what’s just around the corner. He knows the crucifixion is waiting for him. And although they don’t understand what he’s doing, Jesus is preparing his disciples for that rapidly approaching day when he will be with them no more. Or – to put it more accurately – when Jesus will leave and not return for a long, long time. Jesus is looking beyond the crucifixion and beyond the resurrection and anticipating that massive gap between his ascension to heaven and his return to earth. Quite plainly, he’s anticipating the time in which we are now living. Jesus has been gone a long time, so long in fact, that the only people anticipating his imminent return are the lunatics and fringe cult groups. All the sane people like us have gotten really used to Jesus not being here. So this story is about us – about how Jesus’ followers will live in his absence.

This parable is just one of four that he tells back-to-back that are all variations on the same theme. They each tell a similar story of people who were unprepared for the return of some authority figure who was late in coming:

In the first one a master goes out of town and leaves his estate in the charge of a steward. When the master is delayed the steward starts drinking and beating his fellow slaves, and when the master finally does return unexpectedly, he sees what a wretch this steward has become and cuts him into pieces. Lovely.

Last week we heard the story of the delayed bridegroom and the five bridesmaids who ran out of oil and were locked out of the banquet. They bang on the door to get in but the bridegroom says, “Sorry, I don’t know who you are.”

And then we get to this week. Same theme. In this story we have a master who gives varying amounts of money to three of his slaves, each according to his ability, and then takes off for a long journey. Two invest the money shrewdly and get a huge return. But the third is terrified of the master and simply buries it to keep it safe so that, whenever the master does return, he can pay it back in full.

The fourth story is explicit in describing the Son of Man coming in glory at the end of days, and he separates people like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. Those who were compassionate to the needy are rewarded; those who callous to the needs of the poor were punished.

In all of these stories the focus is principally on those who were unprepared, who got caught red-handed doing something they shouldn’t be doing. They aren’t nice stories. You might say they’re scare tactics. But you know what – there’s something to be said for scare tactics now and then.  It’s like parenting. You love your kids; you structure your whole world around their welfare; you sacrifice for them; you do everything in your power to provide for them. But every now and then you’ve just got to threaten ‘em with holy hell. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes a little fear is a parent’s best friend!

And that’s how it is here. Everything about the gospel is good news – it is about the character of a good and gracious God who calls for our participation in living out this good and holy life in good and holy ways. Everything Jesus has taught and modeled for us is consistent with this message. And here, at the very end of his ministry, like a parent leaving teenagers home alone for the weekend, his parting shot is, “Don’t screw up just because I’m gone. I guarantee it won’t be nice for you when I get back.” Do the parents love their kids and want their best? Of course. Are they going to hack them to pieces if there’s a problem? No. But there will be consequences.

But here’s the real tragedy. These parables Jesus tells have been twisted and contorted and told out of context for so long in the church, that countless generations have come to believe that God’s true inclination is to damn most of us – that God is angry and capricious, ready and eager to destroy us. So many Christians have lived their whole lives parroting some glib propaganda about God’s love, but truly believing in their hearts that God is simply disgusted with them. And how many more people have heard this contradiction from Christians and have simply denounced the faith as a thing worthy of ridicule?

I can’t tell you with any authority what the final judgment will entail, because it hasn’t happened yet. Nor can I speak of the specifics of what heaven will be like, because I’ve never been there. So the beliefs I hold in the afterlife must be held with great humility. But I do know about this life. I do know that so many people’s relationship with God (if you can even call it a relationship) is like that of the third slave in this story. They believe God is unloving and cruel and that becomes the only face of God they ever experience. And whether they stick it out in the church or give up on the faith all together, the result is the same, their distorted perception becomes the only reality they know of God.

There is (writes Thomas Long) a kind of theological economy at work. For those who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed alone, quivering in needless fear. “To all those who have, more will be given…but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”[1]

It reminds me of a guy in my neighborhood when I was growing up. He was driving his father’s Porsche, not far from my house, when he lost control of the car on a tight turn. He was okay, but the car was badly damaged. But he was so terrified of what his father would do when he found out, that he went home, found his father’s gun, and shot himself.

And so our fears of God become our reality of God.

Because the third slave was afraid of the master – afraid of what would happen if he lost the money in bad investments – he ended up doing nothing with what had been entrusted to him. And if we are afraid of God – afraid that God is waiting to penalize us for doing something wrong – then we become like this slave. We develop an anemic faith that says “being Christian” is about not doing bad things, like saying naughty words – as if something so insignificant could really be what this life is all about. And I can’t tell you how wearisome it is to listen to cocky people with virtually no faith assure me of their acceptability to God – not because of God’s great compassion and mercy – but because they haven’t done anything “bad,” by which they mean, they aren’t criminals.

Is this faith? No!

We were made to live and to love like God – a life of passion and commitment – like the first two slaves who risked everything the master gave them. What I love in this story is how the master leaves his slaves a mass of wealth and gives them no instructions at all on how to use it before he leaves! I find this to be rather exciting. God has given us so much and basically said, “Experiment. Risk. It’s okay. I’m not going to be a backseat driver. I trust you. Do what you want. Use your gifts however you see fit to love and serve this world.” This life is about engagement and giving and pouring ourselves out to love and bless one another. Of course that’s a risk. Of course we’ll be exposed and vulnerable and might end up hurt sometimes. John Buchanan writes,

Now for most of us, religion, our personal faith, has not seemed like a high-risk venture. In fact, it has seemed to be something like the opposite. Faith has seemed to be a personal comfort zone. Faith, many of us think, is about personal security, here and in the hereafter. Faith, we think, is no more risky than believing ideas in our heads about God and Jesus, a list of beliefs to which we more or less subscribe intellectually. Faith, we think… is getting our personal theology right and then living a good life by avoiding bad things. Religion, we think, is a pretty timid, non-risky venture.

Jesus [is inviting] us to be his disciples, to live our lives as fully as possible by investing them, by risking, by expanding the horizons of our responsibilities. To be his man or woman, he says, is not so much believing ideas about him as it is following him. It is to experience renewed responsibility for the use and investment of these precious lives of ours. It is to be bold and brave, to reach high and care deeply.[2]

If we only perceive our faith as a personal, “Me and God” kind of arrangement, we’re only halfway there. Yes, we do have an intimate, personal relationship with God that must be nurtured. But as much as we are individuals, we are also a body – a community. Like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in perpetual oneness, we must also choose to foster and nurture our corporate nature – to love our neighbor, to seek the other’s good, to take what we think is ours alone and see it is as God’s resource for blessing the other. And then we will be whole.

Three people are being baptized into the church today: a Father, his daughter, and another little girl from a second family. It is this risky life of faith that they are entering. And it will be our responsibility, as those already baptized, to love them with generosity and integrity, to “do all in [our] power to support [them] in their life in Christ.” Those are the exact words the congregation pledges at every baptism: “all in our power” to model for them the nature of God’s expansive, risking, costly love. They don’t need a church full of people who don’t do bad things. They need a church filled with people who are doing the holy things of the Kingdom of God.

And with the risk comes the reward, “Well done, good and trustworthy one…enter into the joy of your master.”

 

 

[1] Thomas Long, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 4. p. 283.

[2] John Buchanan, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 4. p. 312.