Sermon for All Saints in St Ives - preaching on Matthew 25: 14-30 On the 19th of November 2023
I remember the first time I heard this parable. It was preached in my homechurch, and the preacher was talking about using our gifts, and multiplying them. I was so confused. How did that translate to a mean slave owner who gets angry that his slave does not multiply the gifts? When the only one who benefits from the proceedings, was the mean slave owner. If someone I do not particularly like told me to use my gifts, only to have to give the fruits of those gifts back to them, I would not do it either. I have a strong sense of justice and this clearly is not fair.
However, it has been a few years since I have heard that sermon. And returning to this parable now gave me the chance to review my stance. As I am sure it does for you as well, for some of you must have heard this parable so many times now that I will not be able to tell you anything new. However, context matters. The fact that I was new to that particular church when I first heard that preacher’s sermon meant that I might not have understood the fact that he focussed on using our gifts, because the Church was focussing on a new direction where it wanted to empower every member of the congregation and invite them to use their gifts. Similarly, now that I am studying theology, training to be a vicar, my focus is not simply on this one passage, but also how it fits in the wider context of the gospel. Context matters.
For example, in preparation for this sermon I read a book from scholar Craig L Blomberg. He claims that Jesus used this parable as an illustration for a greater message. Where we all identify as the slaves, and God is symbolised by the slave owner. God gives us, His people, the resources. And if we faithfully do what God expects of us, we get rewarded. Those who fail, will be punished by seperation from God and everything that is good and just. That would not make a hopeful sermon. If we, like the slave, don’t do something, maybe because we don’t know where God calls us, or are scared, or maybe because we don’t think it makes a difference, does that mean we get rejected? Would God really set us up to fail? The same God who also says that we have been made perfectly in His image, the God who is a loving Father and gives us chance after chance?
And then I read another scholar, Schottroff, she is German, and her trackrecord revolves around liberation, peace, feminist, interreligious and contextual theology. She starts by saying that she struggled with this passage, because did the 3d slave not act similarly to how Jesus sometimes act? By speaking up against unjust practices?
She looks at this passage from a slaves point of view. In those days, a slave was owned, property of its master. If the slave was disobedient, they would be punished. Yet, while the slave owner passes judgement over the disobedient slave, who passes judgement over the slave owner? Could this be a story of hope, spoken in a time where many were disadvantaged and faced with unfair practices? Was the unspoken meaning that even though the slave was punished by his owner, he would be saved by the same God who would judge the actions of the slaveowner?
Context matters. Two theologians looking at the same passage end up with very different viewpoints and outcomes, if that is the case with only two people and a scripture passage of 419 words. How does that work for us and all the things we encounter in the world on a daily basis?
For example: if you see some young people in the neighbourhood loudly screaming with their friends, what would you think? And can we put that into context?
The neighbourhood children are very loud and it is getting on my nerves, but I have also not slept very well and it is time for lunch.
The neighbourhood children are very loud and it frightens me because I had a bad experience where I felt intimidated by a group.
The neighbourhood children are very loud, I remember when I was that age and playing outside with my friends, my child only wants to play on their laptop.
Context matters, a wider perspective matters. Both to understand our own thoughts, as to understand others. And we might not always know where someone comes from, what experiences they have had in life that affects their view on a situation or inspired their action. But we can try to step in their shoes, to see things from a different perspective. Whilst being aware of our own experiences that influence us.
However, in the end, God oversees it all. He sees what we sometimes can not.
Sometimes we won’t know what the right action is, we might not be able to see where God is leading us or why He works in a certain way.
But, if we try to take an example from Jesus, we can’t go wrong. If we aspire to judge fairly and justly, to live truthfully and lovingly, to call out injustice and unfairness, then we know that we are trying our best.
I believe that we are watched over by a loving God, a just God, a God who understands that we make mistakes, that we are human. A God who ultimately is the only one who knows the greater context of our lives and the world around us. A God who loves us, even those who don’t know Him. A God who appreciates us and our gifts, because he sees that day after day we try our best, and that is all He wants from us.