There’s a razor’s edge in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ tales. Occasional words of warning appear in the other gospels; In Matthew, they become an imago dei. And the image is of God the Judge, not so much merciful as approving or punishing. I shy away from this image of God. The image of don’t make mistakes. The image of don’t be foolish. The image of the locked door that will not open for foolish bridesmaids in the middle of the night. And especially the image of a God who roars: to those who have, more will be given, but for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.
I know some good-hearted folks who call themselves atheists, because this is the God they disbelieve. This unbending God, whose performance standards require you to work out your own salvation. Who says, it is up to you, whether you enter into paradise or not. Who says, You have choices to make – make the right ones.
Much of the world operates by these standards – and many blame Christianity for encouraging this behavior. This behavior in schools that strip immigrant children of their language and culture, and teach assimilation into mainstream culture in order to become haves instead of have nots. This calculating attitude that allows the Wolf of Wall Street and many others to believe they are better humans, Alpha males, if they get rich, and that all means to getting rich are OK.
A few weeks ago President Clinton came to New Hampshire and he cited statistics to say his new and dearly loved granddaughter will, by the time she is ready for school, have heard three million more words than other babies born in New York City this year, who went home to apartments in the South Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant, Harlem, and other poor sections of the city, with parents who love them but have few linguistic assets to offer in any language. It surely does seem that those who have, get more, and those who have nothing, are born to be losers in the game of life.
But there is another side to Matthew’s story, which is about our attitude, the way we use what we have been given. If it is our attitude that God, and life, are harsh and terrible masters, then like the servant with only one talent, we turn away from risk, and hide ourselves from the promise and prospect of divine glory as if it were a delusion, or worse, as if it were for other people: the lucky ones.
There is power that comes from the joy of receiving life as a gift, and from the confidence of being loved by God. This hope opens us readily to share with others the bounty we have — our bounty of ideas, welcome, the riches in the day itself, and our riches. All of this is a sure way to increase our bounty. Matthew says those who were given much went to others for help in increasing it. That expectant interaction, that can-do spirit, grows everything it touches.
Mary knew this when she used her own soul to magnify – to increase – God. Little David knew it when he went to battle with his slingshot. Doctors and nurses who take their skills to West Africa to fight ebola know this, and are confident that ebola can be controlled.
Nations that do not know this try to keep all their gifts to themselves, their gifts of good health, excellent medical care, and the money to beat back this disease. Throwing up barricades against people and countries most afflicted by ebola, they seek to wall up their own citizens who have gone there to help and now return, and in this they become the servant who buried his talent in distrust instead of the servants who invested their talents in confidence, in places where their talents could expand and grow.
Love and faith, like money, require the taking of risks in order to grow. And risks always require relationships, and relationships require opening ourselves to murky as well as mighty possibilities. Taking risks is not easy. Most of us hem, haw, get sweaty palms, have to beat off the shadowy what-ifs that swarm in. The aftermath of risk taking can be as uneasy as the steps that were taken, and this is largely due to the qualms of spirit that devoured the servant who buried his talent and, in the end, had nothing to show.
Right now, in these post-election days in the US, there is much gloating and blaming. You got nothin’ and Wait till next time are the tunes being sung. In two years the whole business will be replayed, and some will sing the God likes winners tune, and even more will sing God likes money. To me, both tunes are dreadful.
I believe Matthew is urging us to recognize that what we have has been given to us to meet the problems we face, problems we can see. And that what is rejected in the servant who hid what he had, is his suspicion, his ill-will toward God and others. When we do not shrink from spending on bombs but loathe money for aid to the poor and the sick, we are the suspicious servant. And when we invest ourselves in meeting the sufferings of this world and work to set the suffering free, we create a wealth which is a divine reward, as hope, peace, joy, and abundance increase.
1. Parable of the Talents, by Annette Gandy Fortt, American. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Parable of Talents. Moneybag. Google Images.
3. Parable of the Talents. from Speculum Humanae Salvationis, illustrated manuscripts. 1360. Darmstadt, Germany Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
4. U.S. One Million Dollar Bill. Google Images.
5. Risk. The God Who Gambles. Google Images.
6. Crossword Puzzle, Parable of Talents. Google Images.