"Praise to you, O Christ."
If you felt a little uneasy saying those words after today's gospel reading, you are entirely justified in your hesitancy. It feels strange, barbaric even, to respond to today's gospel with a word of acclamation and thanksgiving. Perhaps you wish that we could just keep silence, as we do after our first two readings. Or perhaps you wish that the lectionary didn't include texts like today's at all. Today's parable is not about an underdog mustard seed or an overenthusiastic gardener. This is a difficult parable. There's no way around it.
Today's gospel reading comes about halfway through a long exhortation Jesus makes to the disciples on the Mount of Olives. And at the end of that appeal, Matthew's Jesus will remark to his disciples that he knows he will be crucified. And sure enough, Matthew tells us that just then the plot to arrest Jesus began to take shape. Matthew's Jesus knows that these are the last chances he will have to change people's minds. The last chance he would have to proclaim his message. Once you get that scene, the aggressiveness, the urgency, the severity of gospel readings like today's start to feel a little
When we read a difficult parable like today's, there's always a temptation to treat it like an algebra problem. X are the Pharisees, Y are the disciples, Z is Jesus. So go ahead and solve for the kingdom of God. Of course, the motivation behind that is to make sure we don't end up in the wrong place. I want to be the first servant who was given five talents and earned five more. So, I think, I come to church every week, I sing in the choir, I volunteer, I work hard to raise my kids well, I take care of my parents. That has to count for at least five more talents. At the very least, I should be the one who earned two more talents. As long as I'm not that third servant.
But parables don't let us off that easy. Parables aren't meant to function like algebra problems where everything actually stands for something else. Parables are ambiguous stories that make us stop and think. To use Emily Dickinson's image, parables tell us about life by telling us the truth at a "slant." They make us reconsider how we think about ourselves. They make us step into different roles to try to get a sense for what the story is about. Jesus isn't just a good storyteller. He's a committed storyteller. Even in
this, the last major exhortation in Matthew's gospel, Jesus never says, "I'll tell you how it really is." Or, "Let me give it to you straight." No, Jesus says, "It is as if a manâ€¦" Jesus says, "Let me give it to you slant."
Part of reading today's parable, part of getting around that slant, means taking on the view of that third servant we want so badly to avoid. But try to understand the story from that third servant's point of view and you'll see that the third servant is actually all of us. All of us who choose the guarantee of stability over the possibility of new life. All of us who would rather live in quiet complacency than risk failing publicly.
There is one disciple in particular for whom today's parable is all too familiar: Peter. Of all the disciples, Peter will fare the worst in Jerusalem. Peter will deny knowing Jesus because he doesn't want to risk being seen as his disciple. This has to be one the saddest scenes in the New Testament. Peter, on whom Matthew's Jesus says he will build his church, has been given an immeasurable treasure. He has this wonderful message to proclaim to the world, about this man who healed the sick and
fed the hungry. He's one of only three disciples who Matthew's Jesus invites to the mountain for the Transfiguration. We don't use this language with the disciples much, but Jesus and Peter were probably good friends. But when someone asks him if he ever knew Jesus, Peter starts digging. Another person notices him and asks if he was with Jesus. And Peter puts his talent in the ground. Finally, someone else walks by and asks him if he was a follower of Jesus. And Peter covers up his talent with ashy dirt. And so Peter sits down and weeps.
One of the most misguided things we can do as a church is to say that there is no weeping and gnashing of teeth. To say that this is just an outdated way of thinking is to give up our ear for the prophetic. To give up the church's peripheral vision, that draws us to the margins. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth in Newark and Trenton. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth in Gaza and Jerusalem. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth that goes unseen in far too many homes around this city. There is so much weeping and gnashing of teeth that we have to put our prayers of the people on a rotation, because we literally could not pray for all of the places that
we need to pray for.
But this weeping is never what God intends for us. It is what we do to ourselves and one another. It is what happens when we settle for communities founded on skepticism and mistrust. It is what happens when we decide that we would rather live in resentment than extend a hand and risk being rejected. It is what happens when we decide it is easier to ignore those around us than be forced to see our shared humanity.
That sense of our shared humanity is what emerges when we use what the Apostle Paul called the "ministry of reconciliation." This gift is what Pastor Derr calls the "so that" of our faith. That common, public calling that we all share. To build homes, neighborhoods, and cities that are foretastes of the kingdom of God. Where the broken are made whole. Where the hungry are fed. Where the lonesome are taken in. To make life on earth as it is in heaven.
But how often do we get so scared of failing that we take this gift and put it in the ground? How often do we decide that the risk is too large? That we'd better hedge our bets? And maybe it
gives us a sense of security for a while. And maybe we feel a sense of relief in knowing that we won't make things any worse. But that feeling only lasts for so long. Because sooner or later those quiet regrets start creeping in. "I wonder what I could have doneâ€¦" "I wonder whose lives we could have touchedâ€¦" "I wonder what we could have done if we'd worked togetherâ€¦" And so we end up like Peter, wondering what that gift might have done. And here there is weeping too. There is always weeping over buried talents.
Matthew's gospel does not end with Peter sitting outside the courtyard, weeping over his buried talent. The next and final time we see Peter in Matthew's gospel is with the other disciples on a mountain in Galilee, receiving that Great Commission. That commission to proclaim the kingdom of God among the nations, to go off at once and use that ministry of reconciliation. To be God's "so that" in the world. And here we see Peter not weeping but receiving that gift again. The story ends not with weeping but with the servant receiving another talent. The story ends not with the gnashing of teeth but with the servant being forgiven.
Like the disciples who gather on that mountain,
we gather around this table. We gather not to show how many new talents we have earned but to receive that one, single talent again. To receive that same gift anew. To receive the gift of forgiveness and to be strengthened for that "ministry of reconciliation" we all share together. We gather not with pride but joy. Joy that Christ continues to turn our grief inside out.
Every week in worship we proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died and is risen. But perhaps we should proclaim the quiet mystery of our lives as well.
That even what you buried has been raised up. That even those among us whom we have buried have been raised up. Or that holiest realization of all, that even while you were weeping, you were still entering into the joy of your master.
Praise to you O Christ, indeed.
Joseph Schattauer PaillĂ©
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York