I Was Afraid
November 15, 2020
Proper 28 A
Homily preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
10:00 a.m. Sung Morning Prayer Live-streamed from the Chancel
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
God, take away our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh. Amen
When I was growing up, my dear mother and father often quoted from today’s Gospel to me. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I came to hate that phrase. Whenever I boasted of some accomplishment, desperate for parental and sibling approval, my mom quoted it to set a higher standard. Whenever I failed in the slightest degree, perhaps a B on test, or a slight scuffle on the playground that sent me to the principal’s office, my dad quoted it to bring me up short. They wanted to make me feel how grievous for me were failings that might pass in any other, less gifted child. At least that’s how it felt to me. In fairness, I should note that my parents were trying to gently break down some of the arrogance and prissiness they saw developing in their third child. They applied the principle to themselves and my other siblings as well.
Today’s Parable of the Entrusted Money is called the parable of the talents in Matthew and of the pounds in Luke. Despite some differences, the underlying parable seems to almost certainly go back to the historical Jesus.
When he told it, like many of his parables, it was a non-too-subtle indictment of the unfair political and economic systems of the time. That it is a story of the careless rich is seen in the astronomical sums involved: five, two, and one talents of silver, respectively approximately worth in today’s money two million, 650,000, and 350,000 dollars. Thus Jesus is being highly ironic when he has the master say to the servant who has doubled his million “you have done so well with a trifling sum, I intend to start giving you real money!” The servants here are retainers of a great holder of lands and property—wealth gained through extortionate lending to poor peasants who end up losing their surety, the land. He expects the servants to use such means to further grow his money. When the third man simply buries his “paltry” $250,000, afraid of losing the principal, the land owner’s response is guaranteed: anger, abuse at the “lazy” and “unprofitable” servant for not having the sense of at least putting the money into low yield, risk free ventures akin to today savings accounts. At least then some interest would have been gained! On the lips of Jesus, this was the parable of the extortionists. The third man, while perhaps not a hero, represents the values of Jesus’ audience. He alone represents solid peasant virtues, and the common sense to bury money rather than risk losing it or engage in immoral business practices. By refusing to go along with the extortionate system, he is a sort of whistle-blower. And the story tells what happens to whistle-blowers: they get burned.
On Jesus’ lips, the story is not only a critique of the system of land grabbing and exploitation. It also might be a dig at his religious competitors’ cautious efforts at keeping God’s commands by building of a fence around the law and trying to maintain the ultimate in purity. Again and again Jesus criticizes this approach to faith taken by the Pharisees and Scribes: he tells of a fruitless fig tree, a barren olive tree, a gate closed to others by those who refuse themselves to enter it. Such a fearful approach to faith prevents us taking the risks necessary to do really great things in God’s name, says Jesus.
The Church, especially when it began to wait longer and longer for Jesus to return, turned the parable into a moral exhortation of those waiting for his return. “Lazy and unprofitable servant” lost its irony: now it meant overly cautious Christians whose fear at going all out in following the Gospel limited their success in ministry and “producing fruit.” It was in this setting that the Gospel writers appended to Jesus’ parable the phrase that bothered me so much in my childhood, the moralistic commonplace of the ancient world about those who have received much being expected to turn a bigger profit.
No matter how you read the parable—a crooked master punishing an uppity employee for siding with the exploited peasants or a righteous master Jesus returning to earth with judgment rather than healing in his wings—they both agree that the third servant, the one who buried the money, did so out of fear.
And therein lies the point.
Fear of scarcity means not feeling God’s abundance. It means we stop or reduce our sharing. Fear of rejection prevents some from ever truly loving, and making themselves vulnerable to the beloved and running the risk of having their heart broken. Fear of death means some people never fully live.
The opposite of love is not merely hate, it is fear of vulnerability. The opposite of generosity is not just stinginess, it is fear of loss. The opposite of wisdom and knowledge is not just foolishness and ignorance, but it is fear of the truth.
FDR said it well: the only thing we truly have to fear is fear itself.
Many of us, in receiving spiritual direction or doing what is called a moral inventory have had a similar experience: we find that at the heart of most of our negative emotions and unproductive or harmful acts lies some kind of fear: fear of loss of self-esteem, of money, of pleasure, of family, or of social standing.
Fear separates us from ourselves and others. It divides us from God. It makes us sterile, unfruitful branches, lazy, unprofitable servants by any standard.
Please note: we are pausing face-to-face church during these two weeks not out of fear of the spike in Corona virus infections and deaths. We are pausing out of a hope to bring the spike under control and save each other from illness and early death.
I invite us this week to look at the things of which we are afraid: name them, reflect on how fear colors our various emotions and actions.
And let us pray for boldness, and confidence, and trust. Jesus will give us such gifts. He has promised us he will.
In the name of Christ, Amen