The Man Who Feared the God He Imagined – November 15


A sermon based on Matthew 25:14-30 (KJV)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 15, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Last week in our lesson we heard the apostle Paul teaching that “Each . . . gives as [we] have made up [our] mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2Co 9:7 NRS). We talked about how God soaks creation and us and how blessings constantly drift down to us like beautiful snowflakes from heaven. And in all the busyness of life we don’t always notice the blessings and need to stop and examine how deeply and profoundly blessed we are with Awe and Wonder and Love in our lives. The point being that everyday there are abundant blessings! Some of it is material, much of it is talent, much more is creation itself– and all of it includes our time of having life on earth.

An amazing blessing we all have all the time is that we can add blessings to existence our existence and others’ existence. We can be a part of God’s blessings. We can multiple them– and should do so not reluctantly or under compulsion, but cheerfully. In today’s Lectionary lesson we heard Jesus telling a parable how heaven is like a lord who entrusted three servants with the stewardship of talents and how two of the servants multiplied those blessings–and one did not.

I like to point out puns in the Bible (there are a lot!). The lord in the story who represents heaven is “punny” since lord can be heard as not just a human lord with servants but the heavenly Lord our God. That pun is in the Greek too! Also, the word “talents” is the English translation of “talanta” a Greek word for an amount of money equaling about fifteen YEARS of wages but it is also a pun for “talent” in both languages. We can hear the talents to metaphorically mean the blessing of treasure or talents, treasure is the literal meaning in story.

As we heard two of the three servants entrusted with talents doubled the amount they were given based on their ability as determined by the lord, the person in charge (who represents heaven). One servant doubled five talents from heaven to ten. The other doubled two talents from heaven to four. As a consequence, they get to keep all the talents they were given and all the talents they earned. They also received the trust of their lord, and joyfully being by his side.

Perhaps best of all those two are considered and known as good and faithful servants of the lord. The parable surprisingly does not focus so much on these good and faith servants, it mostly focuses on the servant who did not fare so well– the one NOT considered good and faithful. He does nothing with his talents and blames God for it. While this story is known as “The Parable of the Talents” it might better be called “The Man Who Feared the God He Imagined.”

In the context of Matthew, the parable appears among a string of parables teaching the effects of our actions and inactions, that they have consequences. Simply put, the third servant does not do good because he did not act good. To state the obvious, inaction is not action! That servant hid the one talent he was entrusted with – an amount based on his ability. So, we know he was capable of doing good with it. But he did nothing with it. He hid it because he claimed to know the lord was mean and ruthless. Instead of describing the generous trusting God encountered in the story up to this point he steps forward in front of the lord and other servants and excuses his inaction. And he does so very disrespectfully. He publicly condemns and blame the lord: “Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth . . .”

After excusing his lack luster efforts based on his perception of the lord, the servant handed back the talent snidely saying “lo, there thou hast there is thine.” Notably it is not until the man describes the lord in harsh terms that the lord in the story mirrors the man’s take. Indeed, Jesus has the lord flip the imagined misbehavior of the lord against the man, basically saying, if you really thought I was like that you should have increased the value of that talent.

Here’s the actual translation of Jesus’ wording of the lord’s response:
“Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. . .”

The Greek word translated as “wicked” is ponerous. It actually means bad or bad natured, so we can understand that the lord is calling the third servant the opposite of good and faithful. The lord does not consider him like the other two because in his sloth he did nothing and blamed God for it. Bad theology is not a valid excuse for failing to do good.

As Jesus tells it, the bad idea of god haunts the bad behaving man. The “god” he imagined, acts as he imagined. One result was being cast into outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is often misunderstood to be heard of as punishment to eternal hell, but it’s not. It is the consequence of the servant’s bad behavior and understanding of the lord. His inaction and actions – and bad theology– result in not being in the light of lord, which causes himself inflicted sorrow and anger – thus the darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. 1

If we choose to imagine God in ways that allow us to be lazy and not do the good work needed to take action on heaven’s behalf, and move ourselves away from the light of God, that’s not God’s fault. Nor are the consequences. We create and impose them on ourselves in the here and now.

How we imagine God matters, it influences what we do here on earth, and has consequences for others, for heaven on earth, and for self. Jesus tells this parable to get his followers to ask themselves a number of questions. Are my actions like those of the good and faithful servants? Are my actions or inactions like those of the bad and slothful servant? Do I have a misunderstanding of God that keeps me from using my God-given talents? Am I maligning God as mean and one to fear? Am I excusing my lack of good and faithful work on a falsely imagined God?

Had the third servant viewed God differently and used his talent without excusing it on bad theology HIS life and the lives of those around him would have been better for sure. But notably the lord in the story, the one who represents heaven, does not chastise the man for being fearful, but for being wicked (not good) and for being slothful. It is the end result that matters.
See the man did not do well because he tried and failed. He did not do well because he failed to try. He finds an excuse to hide his talent and do no work whatsoever with it. This was not because God was to blame as the man so very disrespectfully and publicly claimed. It was because the man was to blame and was disrespectful in his whole approach to God and the blessing of a God-given talent. He was, in a word, blasphemous.

Jesus tells this parable to hold people responsible, not God, for their poor theology and lackluster efforts with talents. Jesus tells the story to lift up the stark contrast between action and inaction with talents given by the Lord. It is the difference between good and faithful and wicked and slothful. While the lack of light– the darkness, and sorrow– the servant experiences are his own fault, nothing in the story indicates he cannot change his way and return to the light and to joy with the lord.

The point is, that our mission – if we accept it– is do good and work to multiple our God given gifts and be good and faithful servants . . . and to not blame God if we don’t. AMEN.