The Rev. Noah Van Niel
Church of the Good Shepherd Waban, MA
November 19th, 2017
Pentecost (Proper 28 A): Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thess 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
In search of spectacular inspiration this week, I went for a walk in the woods. I was expecting it to be a nice quiet walk, a time to stretch my mind and my legs so I could prepare for this morning. But as I left the road behind I found a woods as distracting as the civilization I sought to escape. My meditative silence was ruined by the continual explosion of rustling leaves. And as I trained my eyes on the ground, through the brown decay, I caught sight of dozens of squirrels furiously digging, rustling, jumping, running, climbing their way all around the forest. They were not here for a contemplative constitutional. They were too busy frantically trying to store up as many acorns as possible for the winter–that it finally feels like is around the corner–settles in. And as I watched them collecting, digging, burying, it made me think about our poor little third servant in our parable this morning.
I’ve heard this parable jokingly called the “Money Manager’s” parable because of the seeming glorification of the financial market system. After all, it is through making advantageous trades that the first two servants double their money. Even the unjust master, when confronting the third, timider servant, says, “Well if you didn’t want to trade with it you could at least have put it in a bank where it could collect interest rather than stuff it under your mattress.” There it is, Jesus’ argument for a market based economic order. However, we’re mistaken if we think this parable is actually about the money. Jesus didn’t need a parable or metaphor to talk about what to do with your money—he’s pretty clear about what he thinks you should do with it, and here’s a hint, it’s neither double it nor sit on it.
Jesus uses parables to talk about things that are harder to grasp, less concrete. He uses them to engage the imagination so as to unlock the unseen workings of our hearts and minds more directly. And that is the case here. For here, as in so many of his parables in Matthew, Jesus is trying to help his disciples understand the enigma that is the Kingdom of Heaven. And in this particular parable, the message I see is, “Fear is not allowed in this Kingdom.”
Have you ever had to carry a bowl of soup, or a cup of coffee filled to the brim from the kitchen to the table? Or perhaps you’ve spent a season waiting tables and had to carry a huge tray of drinks to thirsty diners? The instinct is to move very slowly, fixated on the cup or bowl in front of you, carefully calibrating each step, adjusting your body weight so as not to spill a drop, though, invariably, you do. But a friend of mine who was a seasoned waitress told me that, as it turns out if you actually don’t look at the cup, and just walk normally you spill a lot less frequently. Jesus is trying to teach us something similar: if you walk in fear of spilling, you probably will. But if you walk normally, you probably won’t. Ostensibly the first two servants in this parable knew that their master was a harsh man but they didn’t let that stop them from taking a risk with his money. It is precisely because the third servant wanted to avoid the harshness of his master that he ended up suffering it. When it comes to the things which have been entrusted to our safe keeping, boldness in this instance, seems a heavenly virtue. Because if you are ruled by fear you will inevitably become a victim of it.
If this morning’s Old Testament lesson left you scratching your heads a little bit, it’s not your fault. It’s a relatively obscure passage from a relatively obscure book of the Bible and doesn’t seem to have much point out of context. But it too shows us the virtues of being bold. Here’s what you need to know: after Joshua, with Moses’ blessing, rode in and conquered the Promised Land, it was anything but a happily ever after for the people of Israel. Through decades of disobedience and deliverance, they eventually fell into the hands of the Canaanites who oppressed them for twenty years. At which point we come to Deborah, the only female judge mentioned in the Bible. In order to free her people from this oppression, she calls for Barak, the warrior and says, in essence, “Be Bold. Ride out with your troops, and even though you are outnumbered, you will overthrow our oppressor.” To which Barak says (and unfortunately this comes right after our selection cuts off this morning), “Um, well, if you go with me I’ll do it, but if you don’t come, I’m not going.” Timid. Afraid. And had he had his way, they would have remained an oppressed people. But in this case Deborah agrees to go with him and they do in fact conquer the Canaanites and what results is 40 years of peace in the land.
I imagine Jesus felt the need to share the message that the Kingdom of heaven is not a timid kingdom, because he recognized that by and large, despite our best efforts, we are governed by fear. We are more often Barak than Deborah, more often the third servant than the first two. And not without reason. There’s a lot to fear out there, and maybe in here. I’m not just talking about things like terrorism, or nuclear war, or climate change, terrifying though those are. I’m talking about more personal fears too: fear of loss, fear of shame or ridicule, fear of failure, fear of being exposed for not being who we work so hard to make everyone think we are; fear of pain; fear of death. Our daily lives are a minefield of fears and so, naturally, we proceed with caution.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t recognize that we are beset upon by many causes for fear in this life. The parable is not as simple as, “don’t be afraid,” that’s not terribly helpful advice. Nor is the message, “be bold and everything will be alright,” for that’s not true. We’ve all been around long enough to know that not every bold risk we take will succeed; not every idea we have is a good one; and not every courageous act lands us on the victor’s side. In other words, not every investment doubles your money. What we need, if the Kingdom of Heaven truly is a place without fear, is a way to escape from the hold our fears have on us. And so long as we live timidly, cautiously, fearfully we remain locked in the fetters of fear that hold us back from the abundant life God calls each and every one of us to. The only way, Jesus is telling us, to actually not be afraid is to risk those fears coming true. But there’s still something missing here. If we are going to take the risk that our fears will come true, I need some sort of assurance that even if they do, everything is going to be alright. And for that missing piece we need to look not at the message of this parable, but at the messenger. For by virtue of Jesus having faced down all our deepest fears and overcome them that we are free to face our own. That’s the real reward here: freedom; freedom that comes from faith. Freedom, finally, from being governed by fear, even fears that we all genuinely and justifiably hold, by faith in Jesus Christ.
I don’t know if squirrels feel fear, but they certainly do appear to be anxious creatures. I imagine it could be pretty scary living your life one slip away from a precipitous drop out of the tree tops, or one half inch from a car tire. And I can understand why they were so furiously storing up acorns, even if that ruined my peaceful walk. Because when winter approaches and you know your food supply is disappearing, you better have enough nuts stored up or this winter will be your last. In that sense they live year to year, fear to fear. But—and this may be the most bizarre bit of theological wisdom I’ve ever tried to impart from a pulpit—you are not a squirrel. So why do we so often act like them? As a people of faith, as people who know and love a Lord who overcame anything we could ever be afraid of, we don’t have to be ruled by our fears but instead we can be freed from them by trusting him to reward our courage with his unshakeable peace and presence.
The truth is we do often live out of fear. But if the Kingdom of Heaven is a place without fear we need a way to be rid of our fears to make that Kingdom a reality. And the best way for that to happen is to boldly risk them coming true. But if we’re going to have the courage to do that, we need something that will assure us that even if they do come true, we’re going to be alright. And the best thing I have found to play that role is a belief in and relationship with Jesus Christ, who is so acquainted with humankind’s deepest dreads that he walked fearlessly through the gates of death and came out the other side. For he has promised to be with us and help us do the same. So yes, be bold. Be not afraid. Be like Deborah, not like Barak. But do so by donning that breastplate of faith and love, and that helmet of hope that St. Paul talks about. Cast yourself upon the hands of our loving Lord whose reward to us is not success, but freedom. For the Kingdom of heaven is one built on faith not fear; it’s a kingdom where we have been given the key to the chains of anxiety that keep us from living fully the life to which God calls us; a kingdom where, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can finally be free to enter into the joy of our master. Amen.