This past Sunday, instead of preaching a sermon on the Gospel assigned for the day I gave the Annual State of the Parish Address. There were quite a few people who told me they were disappointed that I had not used that time to address a part of Matthew’s Gospel that they have often struggled with. I would like to take a moment to respond to their concerns and to use this moment to talk about the way that we, as Episcopalians, read the Bible.
Here is the passage that had people so unsettled:
Jesus said, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ ” (Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV).
It was the last two sentences of this passage that had people upset. To all those who have more will be given? And to those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away? Outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth? Wow! Those are difficult words to hear. Jesus is using a metaphor to describe the Kingdom of Heaven and if the master in this story represents God, then this passage might be cause for some real concern. At least it would if this passage represented all that we knew about God. Fortunately for us it does not.
Episcopalians see the Bible through an interpretive lens that is formed from the broader scriptural witness. In other words, we don’t try to base our understanding of God on single passages of scripture but on the picture of God created by the whole of our canonical texts, from the two stories of creation contained in Genesis to the strange and poetic apocalyptic language of the Revelation to John. Bounding the story with the creation narratives and John’s treatise on the evils of empire make it clear that using the larger story, the broader narrative, to develop an understanding of God is by far the more difficult approach, but as Episcopalians, and as Anglicans, we understand that it is this larger narrative that provides the more comprehensive understanding of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
Using a single passage of scripture to interpret the rest of the book is called “proof texting.” Proof texting, using single or a few passages of scripture to paint a picture of God has allowed people to use the Bible to justify slavery, the war, the oppression of women, and the marginalization and a whole host of peoples whom we describer as “other.” The truth is, we can find individual passages of scripture that will allow us to make almost any point, to further any agenda, to advance almost any cause that we want. Episcopalians know that using the narrative created by the whole of our scriptural witness helps to prevent us from misusing our holy texts for our own purposes.
So back to the weeping and gnashing of teeth… I really don’t believe that the most shocking part of this passage is the whole bit about taking the one talent away and giving it to the slave who had ten talents. I think that the really shocking and scandalous part of this parable is when the slave says to his master, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid…” This is the moment in the story when we should be outraged. After all the master in this metaphor represents God and we know that what this slave has said is completely untrue… right?
Let’s go back and think some more about the big picture, the narrative description of God that is created by the totality of our scriptural witness. There may be some passages of scripture that seem to indicate that this slave has given an accurate account of God, but those passages are few and far between. And, when taken in the context of the larger story, the passages that describe God in the way that this slave describes God merit some further investigation and study because they just don’t make any sense.
There are lots of ways that people express the “big picture” narrative description of God as represented in the Bible. There are lots of themes and ideas that need to be covered in that description. But when I am asked to distill the message of the Bible into a clear concise statement I will say that God loves is so much that God came among us as one of us, allowed us to do our very worst, and continues to love us anyway, proving that nothing, not even the deepest darkest truth about what we are capable of, will ever separate us from the Love of God. This, I believe, is the message of the cross and the crucifixion. God knows exactly what evil we are capable of and despite that deep knowing God will never abandon us.
This narrative description of God has the power to change our lives. It is also this knowledge of God that should make us suck in our breath in shock and say to this slave, “No! You are wrong! Don’t you get it? You have been given a gift by a loving and generous master! How can you say such a thing?” Reading this text through the interpretive lens that is formed by the broader scriptural witness has the potential to change our response to this passage. It has the potential to redirect our questions. But there is still that whole business about weeping and gnashing of teeth…
The parable doesn’t really tell us what the three slaves did in the time between their master’s departure and return. It only tells us what each of them produced in that time. Here is how I picture the life of our “wicked and lazy slave” unfolding from the moment he received that fateful gift. He takes this immense fortune home and buries it in the back yard, in the bare spot under his kids swing set to that no one will know that the earth has been disturbed. Then every night, as he stands at the kitchen sink doing the dishes he looks out into the yard to make sure that the treasure is still there. Pretty soon he starts going home at lunch time to check on his buried talent. He is so worried that someone will discover it and that he might lose some of it that he finally leaves his job so that he can sit at the window and monitor it. His family gets so fed up with his behavior that they leave him. They even take the stray dog that sometimes kept him company during his long vigil! Throughout this whole ordeal he loses weight, his hair begins to thin and turn grey. He is tired all the time, can’t think straight, and always seems to be ill. He loses everything that he had. He didn’t have much to begin with, but even what little he had is lost. What had been intended as a gift turns into a curse and in the end, owns him. He spends his days alone, in the darkness, weeping and gnashing his teeth…
In the end his master didn’t have to punish him at all!
In the end, the parable was really a metaphor to describe something that is all too easy to imagine.