St. John’s Lutheran Church
19 November 2023 + Lect. 33a (25 Pentecost)
Second Sunday before Advent
Rev. Josh Evans
There’s no doubt that this parable, like the one before it, is challenging.
In the first place, we’re confronted with the language of slavery – which, while different from the history of slavery in this country, is still problematic. And the slave who actually safeguards his master’s money – out of fear – is harshly reprimanded and punished anyway, and called “wicked,” “lazy,” and “worthless.”
Meanwhile, in the parable that immediately precedes this one, we encountered a group of bridesmaids – half “wise” and half “foolish.” And the first half, despite their wisdom, are characterized by their incredible lack of generosity, refusing to share their oil with their fellow bridesmaids – who in turn have the door abruptly slammed in their faces when they return from buying more oil for themselves.
Taken together, these parables are challenging and problematic. If “the kingdom of heaven will be like this,” as Jesus prefaces these parables, then I’m out.
The God I know and preach doesn’t slam the door in someone’s face or have them thrown into the “outer darkness.” The God I know and preach welcomes all, sits with “tax collectors and sinners” and shares a meal with them, and goes to the places where “respectable” people dare not go.
The God I know and preach takes risks for the sake of love so that all might experience the promise of divine joy.
So what to make of this challenging and problematic parable?
First things first: The master in this parable is not God. Despite what some of us, myself included, have been taught to believe, parables are not strict allegories. Characters in parables are not meant to represent people in real life. That’s not the point.
Instead, parables are like “little gymnasiums for thinking.” They help us to work through difficult-to-describe concepts and come to a better understanding of them. In a phrase, parables seek to describe the indescribable. In this case: the kingdom of heaven.
If it were only so easy to describe so as to be reduced to a simple one-for-one allegory, we wouldn’t need the parable. But as it is, the kingdom of heaven as Jesus proclaims it is so much bigger and more complex.
It’s also clear that these two parables – last week’s and today’s – are connected, as one immediately follows the other.
“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” Jesus wraps up the parable of the ten bridesmaids, and in the very next breath, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey…”
If last week’s parable calls us to action, to “keep awake,” to stock up on oil, to keep our lamps lit, to be ever watchful and always ready, to be poised, with the wise bridesmaids, “to take part in God’s mission and celebration” …
… then this week’s parable builds on that call to action.
This is no time to sit around helplessly or wait passively. A celebration is coming — get ready!
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning! Be mindful and ready to celebrate …
… and: While you wait, be daring and courageous. Invest what you have been given. Use your imagination. Take some risks! For the sake of mission, for the sake of love, for the sake of joy.
There’s a stewardship sermon in there somewhere. This isn’t a parable about individualistic economic prosperity, as some televangelists would have us believe. This is a parable about generosity – and using our resources for the sake of the world. That’s why St. John’s – and even the local NPR station – have annual pledge drives. We recognize the resources that have been entrusted to us – and we don’t sit on those resources, hoarding them all to ourselves, but we offer them to the community, toward building a future with hope.
That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be an element of uncertainty, nervousness, or even fear, in the risk-taking.
Surely, Jesus too knew where his risk-taking for the sake of sharing the good news of the kingdom of heaven would lead him. For all of his subversive teachings and acts of compassionate healing and solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, Jesus is about to get himself killed.
It’s not exactly a surprise either. Already Jesus has predicted his own suffering and death three times, and by the time these last three parables conclude, Jesus will be arrested in the very next chapter.
But that doesn’t stop him. The message of the good news of the kingdom of heaven is too important to go untold. For Jesus, no risk is too great.
Jesus himself is daring and courageous and takes risks for the sake of love so that all might experience the promise of divine joy.
And so he tells this parable …
… a way of describing the indescribable joy of the kingdom of heaven and the incomprehensible daring risks he calls his disciples to take, as he himself has modeled, so that all might experience that joy, even as he is about to leave them.
Just as important, this parable also reminds us that discipleship – being a follower of Jesus – does not imply perfection, but a work in progress.
The extreme example of the third servant is not so much meant to scare us with fear of retribution – that misses the point entirely – but it acknowledges the fear and other emotions that come along with taking risks.
Instead, this parable invites us to recalibrate our focus – to pay attention to the first two servants and their daring and fruitful investments – to anticipate the joy of the celebration that is coming and to actively do everything we can to make sure no one misses out.
In these Advent days of waiting, watching, and hoping, God calls us to action:
To be mindful – Keep your lamps trimmed and burning! For none of us knows the day or hour when we might encounter Christ among us, here and now.
And to be daring – to be bold, imaginative, and even risky in sharing the love made known to us, and inviting all to take part in the celebration that is to come.