19 Nov 2023
What is God like? Some folks imagine God is like us; others that we are like God. Others don’t think much of God at all. If God is where you put your loyalty, some folks think God is money or power.
Now in the time of the Judges, Israelites vacillated between putting their trust in themselves and putting it in God. You heard todaywhat happened when one judge died and the people predictably forgot what God had done for them and let their loyalties turn elsewhere. They fell under the yoke of the Canaanites and their King Jabin. But when hard times really hit them they decided that God was better than Jabin. I am a bit cynical about the degree of their repentance and metanoia, but, ok, they are once again worshipping God. In Judges this is a “rinse and repeat” storyline. This one has an unusual twist, one that we often overlook, in that salvation comes from the women. Baruch may have been the commander, but the head of the military was Deborah and she was not one to be messed with. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story is left out of our reading. Sisera is routed by Baruch’s troops, but the man himself escapes and hides with folks he believes are his allies. Bad move on his part; Jael, the wife of the supposed ally Heber, hides him but then drives a tent post through his head, revealing what was likely a pretty grizzly scene to Baruch when he arrives. While it is, as they say, beyond the scope of a short homily to ponder all the ramifications of that, it is clear that each person, regardless of gender, is called upon to carry out the work God has given to us.
So what is the image of God that you have? For as you imagine God to be, so will your life be shaped. Tribes, nations, whole civilizations, have imaged God in many ways; many times God looks like the people in the tribe/nation. Maybe God is imaged as an animal. I find it curious that many Native American religions or spiritual beliefs did not give a specific form to God. God was the benevolent creator. Some religions had entire pantheons, usually with one “head” god. The stories are fascinating and often surprisingly similar despite originating in different times and places.
Jesus takes the story of the nature of God further. This parablefrom Matthew is one with which you should struggle. The master, presumed by most to be God, is described by one servant as downright wicked and selfish. People are rewarded for making a lot of money, which has given rise to the notion of the prosperity Gospel where one is materially rewarded in this world according to their devotion and their deeds. Think Joel Osteen. If that is how you image God, then that is how you will live your life.
But suppose Jesus is showing us an entirely different image of God. How is it that you picture God? What is the nature of the God you worship? Do you see God as extravagantly generous, as one who bestows untold blessings on creation or do you see God is greedy or miserly, giving grudgingly to humans? The way you see God determines the way you live your life. I repeat: the way you see God is the way you will live your life. If God is full of limitless grace and love and we see it that way, our own lives will be lived out in the same way. If we see God as an angry avenger… You get the picture. What if God is greedy? The God you chose, and you do have a choice, will determine the kind of person you are.
Is the master described today an image of God? Is this story one where the characters substitute for God and humanity? That is a tough sell for me, for Jesus never describes God as being like the master. What if Jesus is not talking theology and morals, but rather addressing political and economic injustice? He is addressing an audience of folks living on the margins, folks who would know that the economic system in which they found themselves was perpetrated on taking advantage of others. Picture this: one servant is given 10 talents, which I read would be the equivalent of 20 years wages, if not more. By any standards that is a lot of money and he is told to make more money. Jesus’ listeners would know the only way to do that would be through economic coercion. Think along the lines of sharecroppers and of no minimum wage or labor laws. They made money off the backs of those who had little or nothing to begin with, leaving them in debt and perhaps forced into slavery to pay the bills. That is the system in play. Dishonest money, which I will point out was against the Biblical idea of justice, where the rulers and the wealthy took care of those who did not have anything. This is economic justice in Hebrew scripture!! If you were listening to Jesus that day you would know without a doubt the master was not God. Jesus was condemning the Roman occupiers and the Jews who were in collusion with them. How about the person who buried the talent? He did what was a common practice in his day to keep money safe, and that was to bury or hide it. He was the only one who did not cheat or steal or take advantage of others!! Do you really think Jesus would condone economic exploitation? Those who are have much, take heed. So where do you think Jesus is in this story? Is he with those who made all the money? Afterall they are called loyal servants and rewarded with more. What if Jesus is in the outer darkness with the one servant who refused to make money dishonestly? It is the only way I can make sense of the parable. I do not believe in a God who would reward exploitation of vulnerable people.
What comes next in Matthew? The parable of the sheep and the goats. That is the reading for next week. If Matthew says God blesses the poor and rewards those who look after the most vulnerable in a society, there are two goats and one sheep in this parable.
This is a story about how the kingdom will come and what we are called to do and to be. Yes we are to use the talents given us, be our gifts monetary or otherwise. But we are also to resist the all too easy temptation to make money at great human toll; the farther we are removed from seeing the exploitation the easier it is to justify. Matthew’s parables are not pleasant nor are they simple. That is both their strength and their frustration. If you know the character of your God, then that is how you will see these difficult readings.
Next week is the Reign of Christ, the last Sunday of Year A, where we hear, quite simply, what the final judgment will be, and then we come to the season of prepare and wait.