Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Church of the Resurrection

November 12, 2011

 

(Based on Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30)

 

By now, we all know that on most Sundays the first reading from the Old Testament and the Gospel reading for the day focus on the same theme. They reinforce one another; each one helps us to interpret and find deeper meaning in the other.

 

I have to admit, though, that todayís readings present a problem in that regard. Itís hard to see any connection between the praiseworthy wife in the reading from Proverbs and the three servants invited to manage their masterís money in the reading from Matthewís Gospel.

 

Maybe itís suggesting that wives are more talented than their husbands? The feminists in our congregation would like that. Or is it trying to teach us that although the husband is to be considered the head of the family, the wife should manage the money of the household?

 

Then again, once you go down the route of exploring interpretations like those, youíd have to consider at least the possibility that itís the wife who is symbolized by the servant who buried the money.

 

I ainít gonna go there. . .

 

Maybe the best thing we can do is to save the reading from Proverbs for Motherís Day. Todayís Gospel offers food enough for our spirits all by itself.

 

Letís consider some different ways we might approach the Gospel story.

 

The easiest would be to turn the parable into a simple moral exhortation. Itís been done by many preachers over the years. Then the simple message is to Ďuse your talents to the fullest.í It could be found in a column by Ann Landers. Or on a Chinese fortune cookie, for that matter, with no reference to Jesus at all. The U.S. army even uses the idea in its recruitment advertisements: ďBe all that you can be!Ē It reduces the message of Jesus to Rotary Club spirituality.

 

In the face of that kind of reduction we need to remind ourselves, again and again, that the parables of Jesus are not primarily about us. They are his way of revealing to us the kind of God we have. They may end by challenging our attitudes, or making us think about our behavior, but those forms of conversion arise from who God is for us, not from some abstract moral ideal.

 

So we need to read the parable from that perspective. How do the servants in the story view the master (who obviously represents God)?

 

Letís start with the servant who is rejected by the master at the end of the story. He reveals his idea of the master very overtly. He sees the owner as a demanding master. One translation puts it in terms we use in daily colloquial speech: ďYouíre a hard man.Ē The master is grasping, even criminal in his actions. He simply takes over the fields of others and plants them for his own gain.

 

Because he views his master in that way, the rejected servant is controlled by fear. He tells us explicitly: ďI was afraid and so I buried your money.Ē He reveals himself as someone cramped and defensive and constricted. You wonít see him take any risks. That would open him to losing, and heís got to save his own skin above all.

 

How often on these Sundays have we heard Jesus, in one way or another, reveal that the biggest obstacle he had to overcome in getting us to understand his Fatherís kingdom was fear? I believe it must be our primeval response to the presence of the transcendence of God, the most difficult obstacle to our growth in holiness.

 

Then how do the first two servants view the master?

 

By contrast to the third fellowís story we donít have any words that might reveal their attitude. But they do reveal it: it shows in their behavior, in deeds. Instead of being controlled by fear itís clear that they trust the master. They take the Lord at his word. He wants them to be creative and fertile and expansiveóbecause thatís the way he is. His gifts are just that: gifts, given away and put into our hands. He wants themóand usóto act and take risks.

 

Clearly they knew from experience the kind of master they had. They have experienced his trust before, and each time they acted on it they were rewarded with a deeper experience of intimacy and joy with him. He will eventually hold them accountable, to be sure. But what they will be held accountable for is not how much they made with his money, but how they used the trust he extended to them. The rejected servant is blamed for not going out into the risk of the market, not for failing to make money.

 

There is one more way of grasping what this parable is intended to convey. Itís very possible that itís about more than our attitudes and conduct as individuals. Solid biblical commentators read it from the context of the church of Matthewís day and suggest that itís really about different approaches to going about the churchís mission.

 

Matthew is writing his Gospel for a particular local church. Itís now some decades after Jesus has returned to the Father and poured out his Spirit on his followers. Matthew is writing to a community of mainly Jewish Christians. The Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans. The Jewish people have lost everything and there is a movement afoot to try to hold it all together by new emphasis on the Law, on a code. There is a struggle going on in the Matthean church. Will they pull in their horns and make every effort to hold on to their Jewish heritage, to prove that Ďweíre still Jewsí? Will they be controlled by fear and sound a timid message? Will they in effect bury the wealth of their heritage?

 

Or, as the other element in the community urges, will they rely on the gift of the Spirit and go for broke? Will they proclaim boldly that the resurrection of Jesus has really changed everything, even their identity as Jews?

 

In that reading itís clear what the answer must be. The promise proclaimed in Jeremiah and Ezechiel has been fulfilled. The Lord has given us a new heart not made of stone. The law is inscribed in our hearts, not just on tablets.

 

We are being called to believe in ourselves because our God believes in us. Itís true of us as individuals; itís true of us as a community of faith called to be bold in proclaiming the fulfillment of Godís promise in us.

 

God is not a hard and demanding master waiting to pounce on us. Our God is a lover, one who walks with us and is leading us into ever deeper intimacy and joy. We have sung it so often in this church:

 

♫ I have loved you

With an everlasting love;

I have called you

And you are mine;

I have loved you

With an everlasting love;

I have called you

And you are mine. ♫

 

And yes, lest we forget, that applies to husbands, too . . .

 

Amen?