So last Sunday evening I was at this folk concert in Wakefield over in Gatineau, and the guy performing, who claims he’s not a very religious person, starts telling this story about the time he was travelling in India and he went on this camel ride in the desert for a few days. The tour company had said that provisions like water and food would be provided. They weren’t. And so he and this Spanish guy muddled through the trip the best they could with whatever water and food they could find. By the time they got back to the city he must have been incredibly dehydrated, because he was walking down this alleyway at one point and there was this kid walking towards him and the sun was setting at the end of the alleyway right in the background and you can kind of imagine how photogenic a scene it might have been, and so he whipped out his camera and he snapped a photo and as the shutter closed the entire world around him went black and he passed out.
Now when he woke up a number of hours later he woke up in a strange room with this grizzled face staring down at him. It turned out he was in a doctor’s office. Someone had found him lying in the alley there. He’d picked him up, brought him to the doctor, paid for all of his fees and left without ever leaving his name. He never found out who this mysterious stranger was, or why he’d cared so anonymously and so profoundly for a tourist, without ever asking anything in return.
Now I hope this story reminds you of something, perhaps another story from the Bible involving a certain Samaritan who stopped to help a man along the side of the road… Life is full of these parallels, of these living parables that tell tales of altruism and absolutely selfless generosity and love. The scriptures are full of stories like that too: Think of the Hebrew commandment not to gather all of the grain in the field but to leave the gleanings for the poor and the widowed. Think of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go in search of the 1 lost sheep. Think of the wedding banquet that invites in the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Think of the early disciples who sold all of their possessions and gave to the common cup for the sake of their poorest members. Think of the obvious and ultimate example of Jesus, who went to the cross and rose again forgiving those who had abandoned and killed him.
With all of these examples we get this picture of God as this benevolent figure, who loves and cares for the weakest members of any society, who proclaims good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, who sets the oppressed free. We get this picture of God who loves and cares about the underdog, and then, all of a sudden, we’re faced with a parable like this.
A rich man goes away and he gives his slaves some money to look after. The first two make more money for him, but the third doesn’t do anything with it at all, and the master gets upset, and he calls him a wicked and lazy slave and takes the money away from him and gives it to the one with the most and then throws him out into outer darkness, where there will weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Traditional interpretations of this story kind of take the easy route, I think. They take the person in the story with all the power and they say he obviously represents God. God is the one who abandons us with talents and expects us to use them properly and if we don’t, when he comes back, he’ll be livid and will throw us out into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I find that rendering of God hard to square with the God we hear about in other parts of scripture. To begin with, I find it hard to understand a God who seems to throw these gifts at his people and then completely abandons them until the final judgement. The church has always understood that Pentecost is that moment when God sends the Holy Spirit to guide the world in its decisions. We are not, we have never been, abandoned by God. I find it hard to understand a God who goes against everything he’d taught the Israelites about accumulating wealth. When they were in the desert they were only allowed to gather enough manna for one day, when they were given the Levitical code the practice of usury, charging interest on a loan, was absolutely prohibited amongst the Israelites. And yet in this story the master is furious that the slave with little didn’t do at least that. I find it hard to understand a God who entrusts a small amount to someone and then turns around and whips it all away when he fails to do what the master expected of him. And so what do we do with this passage?
Now, I have a proposal, and this may seem like cheating but I swear it’s a legitimate move. In short, I think the lectionary messed up. I don’t think this parable was ever meant to stand on its own, because the verses that follow immediately afterwards tell the story of a very different sort of king who separates the sheep from the goats and says to those at his right hand:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just like you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he says to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he answers them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
What we have when we read these two stories together, as they actually appear in the Bible, is this incredible counterpoint between, on the one hand, this man who is merciless and who only values those who are useful to him, who can build up his own empire, and then on the other hand, we have the Son of Man, as Jesus calls him, who shows up, not in the wealthy, nor in the strategic, but in the poor and the hungry and the thirsty.
Friends, we are the church. And the church is called to serve God above all else. But we don’t serve God by meeting our own self interest. We don’t serve God by building up wealth and hoarding it for ourselves or whoever our modern day masters may be. We don’t serve God by stripping those who have little of what little they have.
We serve God by being irresponsibly generous, by taking that step of faith and throwing ourselves into the fray to love and to care for those who never repay us, who can never bring us wealth, or status, or power. We love God with the love of the Samaritan for the man broken and bloodied in the dirt, for the silly dehydrated kid lying passed out in the alleyway. We love God with all that we have, and all that we are and we do it by that completely irrational act of loving those who can’t love us back, or who can’t express it. And we trust, over and over again we trust, that it’s precisely in those moments that we come face to face with God.