Saturday, November 15, 2014

Images of God

Matthew 25: 14-30

Today, we have another of Matthew’s end-time parables. They all seem to tell us to shape up or ship out. But Jesus’ parables are not intended to be so easily understood, or understood as giving just one message, especially 2,000 years after the telling, and in print form without any oral storytelling clues to aid us in our interpretation of the story’s intent.
In today’s text, a master, who is about to be gone for a lengthy period, gives three of his servants some money. I’m intentionally using the word servant instead of slave, because we have in the US a different view of slaves than is intended in this parable. While not treated exactly as equals, the master respects them for their abilities, and trusts them with managing large amounts of his money.
For simplicity, let’s say he gave them $50,000, $20,000 and $10,000. The master does not give them any instructions, other than the sense that they were to take care of his property. The first two servants invested the money and doubled it by the time the master returned. The third servant had the perception that the master was a harsh man, who would punish him if he lost the money. So he buried it to be sure he could hand it all back to the master whenever he returned.
The master does eventually return and the first two servants are pleased to tell him that they have doubled his money. He invites them to enter into the joy of their master. In other words, they have made him very happy.
The third servant believed the master to be harsh, punishing. He meekly confesses that instead of risking the loss of the treasure entrusted to him, he buried it to keep it safe. The master is furious.
“You could have at least invested the money in the bank and I could have had the interest on it as income. But since you perceive of me as harsh and punishing, I will take from you the $10,000 I gave you and give it to the first servant as a reward for his faithfulness. You, on the other hand, will be cast out, so you can serve as an example to all who believe like you do.”
One of the things we have to resolve when we study a parable of Jesus is “Who is the God figure in the story?” We assume that the God figure in this parable is the master. He has the money, he has the power.
The next thing we can figure out is, “What is the image of God that is portrayed in the parable?” First, we see a master/God who is willing to share his property with the servants. He gave them the property according to their ability. He trusts the servants to not simply run away with his money, and he trusts their ability to get him some sort of increase.
We don’t know any more about the master until he returns and talks to the third servant. The third servant has an impression of the master as a harsh man, expecting his servants to produce more than is reasonable. We have no idea where he got this image of the master. It may be true; it may not be true. We all make judgments about other people that may or may not represent the truth about them.
I think that since the first two servants felt they could trust the master to treat them fairly, they felt they were free to risk investing the amount he gave them. I also feel that if they had invested the money and lost it all in a stock market crash, it would not have mattered to the master.
So the third servant was unnecessarily afraid. Then, if the image of God held by the first two servants is that of a trusting, forgiving, God, what does that say about the third servant? What has happened to him to lead him to not trust the master/ God?
And, what is our image of God? Is our image of God that of a loving, forgiving, trusting and trustworthy being? … Or is our image of God that of an angry, punishing, being, whom we should fear? … How does our image of God impact the way we live and serve?
Some people like the image of a God who makes sure that those who have hurt us get their due punishment. Some folks firmly believe that, “They should burn in hell for what they have done.” And we can assume that one aspect of these end-time parables at the end of Matthew is the desire for those who do not measure up to be “cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Our human sense of judgment requires an eye for an eye, even though our Jesus preached grace and forgiveness and love, and turning the other cheek. I much prefer a God who gives me wings, who makes me believe I can do all things, because Jesus has my back and will catch me when I fall.
Which master would you rather serve, one who gives you the freedom to try things and fail, or one who punishes your failures, making you fearful of trying new things? I know I’d prefer the first kind.
Here in Florida, and indeed in much of the US, the Bible-Belt mentality has power. I recognize that I am stereotyping and summarizing here, but I want to connect it to the image of God held by the third servant.
There is a strong belief in the Bible-Belt mentality that God punishes wrong-doing, so we should try to be perfect in our behaviors and activities. We should not drink alcohol, we should not dance, we should not doubt God’s existence. In order to protect ourselves from those who do not measure up to our standards of perfection, we should avoid contact with them. And, when we do come into contact with them, we should work hard to convince them to simply pray the prayer that changes lives, accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and never sin again.
Lutheranism provides a contrast to those aspects of Bible-Belt Christianity. Lutherans believe that God does not expect us to be perfect. Lutherans believe we are freed in Christ to make mistakes as we follow Jesus, because God will not punish us for making mistakes. We are sinners and saints in the same body, the same spirit. Lutherans believe that sin affects our lives, and causes us to make mistakes. We get divorced; our children are not perfect; money will not fall into our bank accounts just because we go to church three times a week and pray for it daily.
Lutherans believe that we should go where the not-so-perfect people are, because there are people who need Jesus in those places. Lutherans believe we can boldly share Jesus because the Holy Spirit will put words in our mouths and in the hearts of those we share him with. Lutherans believe that Jesus gives us the power to do anything he calls us to do, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
So, now, I ask you, what kind of a God do you believe in? Do you believe in a harsh God who will punish you and throw you into the outer darkness? Or do you believe in a God who will love you, forgive you, empower you, encourage you, praise you, and invite you to enter into the joy of the kingdom/reign of God?

Please pray with me: Joy-giving God, help us to see you as you really are. Forgiving God, lift us from our knees of confession and grant us your grace. Calling God, send us out to use the gifts and talents you gave us in service to you and to those you put in our life paths. Amen