Theme: Distraction (Sunday 22 November, 2020)
Series: Trip Hazards 10:45am
Bible Reading: Matthew 25:14-30
Preacher: Phil Swain
We’ve been working through this series on Trip Hazards … and people, like our Church Treasurer Rob, really seem to be getting into the theme.
I had some really encouraging feedback after last’s week’s sermon on distraction … especially the idea that Spiritual growth might require us to be aware of what can trip us up, to work on our self-control and to make the commitment to do whatever it takes to be in the best position to grow. I have been encouraged to see God at work in people’s lives.
So far we have explored the trip hazards of hypocrisy and distractions … today we are looking at fear … although you might be wondering why I am zooming in on fear given the Bible reading that Nigel read out for us.
Well, let’s jump into the Bible reading from Matthew. This reading comes straight after the 10 bridesmaids reading from last week and still in the section where Jesus is talking about the coming kingdom.
Without thinking too much … what was the teaching that you received on this passage growing up. What did you Sunday School teacher or your minister when you were a teenager … what was their message from this parable. Write it in the comment section. Does someone want to race up the front and share…
For many of us, I am assuming that the main teaching was something like this … God is the master who has given us talents – time, skills, finances – and encourages us to use those talents in a way which is most fruitful for God. So the challenge is … which servant are we like, the one who doubles the investment or the lazy servant who doesn’t use it at all.
We might say that this is the “blue picture” interpretation of the passage … but the more we look at the passage, we begin to see that there are some problems with this interpretation. Let’s step through the passage and look more closely at a few things.
Verse 14 starts with Jesus saying “Again it will be like…” pointing back the previous parable when Jesus said “The kingdom of Heaven is like” – so this parable is talking about the Kingdom … which is why we were taught that the master is representing God. But when we reach verse 24 we find the third servant describing the master like this:
‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.
That description sort of clashes with our understanding of God? It is unlike the God who tells harvesters to harvest badly, leaving the edges of the wheat, or not stripping the vines or shaking the olive trees, so that those who have nothing to sow can reap anyway. It is equally unlike Jesus’ sower who goes out and throws seed wastefully all over the place, knowing that whatever lands on the good soil will produce beyond one’s wildest dream. And the thirds servant’s description is not challenged by anyone but rather the master himself agrees that yes … he is a hard man.
Likewise, the assumed moral of the story is also problematic: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” This goes against the broad teaching of scripture about sharing our blessings with others. Jesus himself issued warnings against greed and openly preached good news to the poor.
And theologically there is also a problem with the masters actions … leaving the servants alone and expecting them to go to work alone. We don’t believe that God leaves us alone, but rather in the words of the Great Commission – God will be with us always.
So … if the master’s description doesn’t fit our image of God, if the master’s moral of the story goes against the broader teaching of scripture and the master actions goes against the promises of Jesus … then maybe viewing this parable with the glasses that God is the master is not the best way to approach this. Maybe we need to reassess and look for another way of exploring this passage … and I would like to share another perspective on this passage that you may have heard, but I think is helpful in our broader theme.
During the series on “reading the Bible” I said that sometimes the context of which a passage is written or spoken into is important or insightful. You see, the culture of first century Israel where Jesus was speaking was not a capitalistic culture where the accumulation of money and stuff was the goal. Rather it was a honour/shame culture were the goal was to have great honour. Having lots of money did not mean that people liked or respected you (think of Zacchaeus who was very rich but not well liked at all).
Actually, in an honour-shame culture, people typically believe that wealth and possessions are in limited supply. They believe in a zero-sum economy. So if one person gained wealth, it was seen as coming at the expense of someone else … usually the poor, which, in an honour-shame culture, was an extremely shameful way to live. This is one reason why honour-shame cultures had so many “Patrons.” As the rich accumulated wealth, they saw it as their duty and responsibility to give this wealth back to society in the form of humanitarian works … and thus bring honour to themselves.
So when we re-read this passage with this honour/shame lens, it gives us a different perspective. In an honour/shame culture, the people who accumulate stuff are seen as the villains. The servants who double their investment are not “good and faithful servants” but rather people who are unjustly ripping off the poor for the sake of the rich. The master literally is advocating stealing from the poor and making the rich, richer … and getting rid of anyone who does not go along with it. This behaviour is shameful and no-one in 1st Century Israel would have equated this character with the one true God.
So in this light, what is an interpretation of what Jesus meant by this parable? Maybe the master is the god of this age, a representation of the world’s thinking that we are number one and others don’t matter – that it is ok to do moralistically questionable things as long as it benefits you.
And maybe the first two servants represent the people who get swept up into this thinking, who go along with this way of thinking … not because they believe it is right but … because they get some benefit out of it. Or they find it too hard to swim against the current.
And maybe the “lazy” servant is not lazy at all, but the hero who stands against the injustice of the system and refuses to participate in any actions that will hurt the poor or marginalised; who is not willing to even make interest for such a dishonourable man … even if it means that he gets punished and exiled for it. Maybe Jesus is encouraging us to be more like the third servant?
How does this tie in with Trip Hazards? And how does this relate to fear?
In Verse 25, when the third servant is brought before the master, he says that the master has a reputation of being hard and taking what is not his … and then added, “So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground” So I was afraid. What was he afraid of?
Any ideas? Comment in the chat section? What was he afraid of?
In the original understanding of God investing in us to do God’s work … was he scared of failing? But by not doing anything he failed anyway? Or in the alternative interpretation of standing against the unjust system … what was he afraid of? Afraid of being punished by the harsh master … by doing nothing he basically guaranteed that he would be punished. If he feared the master … would not he have just done what the master was asking?
I will come back to this, but lets just go out on a tangent for a moment… is fear a good thing or a bad thing? In life in general … but also in a spiritual growth? Is fear a good thing or a bad thing … or both?
At the basic level fear guides our fight or flight responses and helps to keep us safe and alive. Fear can heighten our senses and awareness; it keeps us alert and can drive us to be better prepared or even respond better. But fear can also hold us back from doing something positive; fear can weigh us down or distort our thinking.
I don’t think fear is bad, but as one writer put it … fear can be a bit like trying to take off in a plane with too much luggage. You might need to let some of it go to soar into the sky. I know from hearing some of your stories that for some people, this issue of fear is real.
The Bible seems to suggest that if we live by faith, we don’t need to be afraid.
- Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with, I am your God … I will help you and uphold you”
- 1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your fears upon the Lord, because he cares for you”
- Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid”
And we are just about at Christmas were every angel seems to begins their speech with the words, “Do not be afraid”.
And I want to affirm this. 2 Timothy 1:7 talks about God not giving us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and self-control. (There is that word again). 1 John 4:8 says that when we focus on love, on God’s perfect love, it drives out all fear.
But in the Bible reading today, if the hero is the third servant … then was his fear a bad thing? No … I want to suggest that this servant actually used his fear for the greater good.
If I was answering the question, “What was the servant afraid of” in verse 25 … I would suggest that maybe the servant was scared of what the world would become if those in power just kept getting richer. Maybe the servant was in fearful that this type of injustice – the rich taking money from those who had none and giving to those with abundance – maybe the fear of this becoming the norm drove the servant to rebel against what was happening. Maybe he was scared of what would happen if he didn’t speak out … and that fear was the motivation for his actions.
I would suggest that the fear of the third servant was not the fear of the master but the fear of what might happened if good people don’t stand up against injustice.
Look I want to suggest that if fear – fear of the unknown, fear of letting go, fear of trusting God – if fear is holding you back in your spiritual journey, if that fear is tripping you up, then lean into the promises of God and try to let place some of that fear aside. God is trustworthy. Fear not, for God is with you.
But I also want to suggest that if fear is stirring you into action … that the fear of what this world is becoming, what our communities are becoming, the fear that injustice will become the norm … if you are feeling that fear, then I want to encourage you to use that fear to drive you forward. Don’t be tripped up by inaction. Be like the servant who could not and did not participate in the injustice but spoke against it … even when it cost him. That God can use that fear stirring to bring more light into the dark places … and in doing so bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.
I know this sounds hard – and as ironic as it sounds, the very thought of making a stand like the third servant and making a strong stand against the unjust economic systems … makes me scared. But I go back to the verse I quoted earlier of the power of love over fear.
I think that it is on purpose that in Luke’s gospel, Luke puts this parable just after the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus – almost implying that these two stories go together. Here is Zacchaeus, the unjust, dishonourable tax-collector who was exactly like the master … unjustly taking from the poor to make himself rich. If people tried to stand against Zacchaeus and demand he change his ways, Zacchaeus had the power (and the backing of Rome) to make their life a misery.
Jesus comes along and Jesus did indeed take a stand against the unjust practices of Zacchaeus. How does Jesus do this? By showering him with love and acceptance and grace, so much so that Zacchaeus was transformed and stopped the injustice. Love made a way.
Once again … I am not sure what God is saying to you in this passage … but if God is stirring something within you, please listen and respond.