Sunday 15 December 2020
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 & Matthew 25: 14-30
Reflection by Andrew
“For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation… so encourage one another.”
I’m glad Paul ends with these words, because without them these two readings, both the first reading and the Gospel, sound more than a bit threatening. The lord is coming like a thief in the night so watch out. The Master is coming back so make sure you can give a good account of how you’ve used your talent, because there’s a reckoning coming.
And to be sure there is something of approaching judgement about these readings. These are the first echoes of Advent: “Lo he comes with clouds descending; every eye at last shall see him.” So, get ready, be ready.
But I don’t think that the purpose of these readings is to scare us into being “good Christians.” I was remembering that when I was at Corstorphine Primary School we had a music teacher who warned us not to misbehave when she turned her back to us to write on the blackboard, because “I have eyes in the back of my head, you know!” And being six or seven years old we genuinely peered at the back of her head to see if there were eyes concealed under her hair. It was like a warning that you were always being watched, so you’d be caught out and punished if you did anything wrong, and I think I almost certainly transferred some of that thinking to how I felt about God. The all-seeing eye, God as some great celestial headmaster just poised to slap you down if you stepped out of line.
But along comes Jesus who puts children on his knee and tells jokes about taking the plank out of that eye of yours, and banters with Samaritan women he shouldn’t even be seen with, and hangs out in bad company and is often the object of other people’s judgement, rather than judging anyone (he actually says: I haven’t come into the world to condemn the world) and it’s hard to make sense of passages like today’s.
Because it looks like we’re being told a cautionary tale about investment. It’s a bit like the wise bridesmaids and the foolish ones and the foolish ones don’t take enough oil for their lamps and when the bridegroom comes those sanctimonious wise bridesmaids who did bring enough won’t give them any. So, everyone else goes into the banquet and – as the Gospel resoundingly puts it – the door was shut. Tough luck, foolish bridesmaids. You’re on the outside. And the bridegroom just says: Who are you? I don’t know you.
So, this is another of those times when Jesus exaggerates the situation to make a point. God is coming among you. You’ve been praying for that all your lives and here he is standing right in front of you and are you ready? Is your heart ready?
But I think the hope in both these readings is that they remind us what we really know. God is not the teacher with eyes in the back of his head, waiting to pounce on you. Paul says: None of this should surprise you, you shouldn’t be taken unawares, because you are beloved (he calls them that) and you are children of the light and children of the day. So, don’t fall asleep and forget what you know and who you are and who God is.
Because of all the sins committed by the foolish servant with the one talent, the most serious and the one on which the whole story turns is not his being a rubbish investor, but his getting who his master is completely, hopelessly wrong. He mischaracterises his master, he mischaracterises God if you like. “Master, I knew you were a harsh man… so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Oh dear, that’s torn it. This whole story pivots on these words. And you almost hold your breath before the Master replies. “So, 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…”
More than any other failing, this failure to really know the nature of the Master is what condemns this servant. He’s trapped himself in a situation that his Master never intended. He’s perceived his Master as a harsh judge, stuck that label on him, so he almost makes a harsh judgement inevitable. His biggest failure was a failure to trust in who God is and not be afraid.
So, Jesus is saying to the Jews to whom everything has been given – the Covenant, the Law, the Prophets – don’t forget what you know and what you’ve been given. You should be on the tiptoe of readiness for God when he comes. And guess what? He’s already come, he’s here, he’s speaking to you.
And I think the message is the same for us. Are we remembering, am I remembering, what I know about God? That he isn’t the headmaster in the sky waiting for me to fail, that he isn’t the harsh Master checking up on me? Instead he’s the one, to use Paul’s words, who calls me “beloved”, has already made us children of light, not leaving us in darkness. The readiness he wants is a readiness in love and trust. The God who is coming to me – and he comes every day – loves me. There is no need to hide, there is no need to bury my talent in the ground. This Master loves me enough to share my life and die for me. There’s no need to be afraid.