Riverside United

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In Jeopardy?

Preacher: Rev. David Exley
Scripture: Matthew 25:14-30

The world lost a legend this week—a Canadian legend. We knew the day would come—and it would be sometime soon—but when the news of Alex Trebek’s passing (the longtime host of Jeopardy) emerged, it still came as a shock. When news of his passing came it was amazing to see all these stories that began to emerge on social media and through the news channels; Wonderful stories of touching moments from years past and hilarious bloopers from the shows many years of being on the air. My favourite story that emerged out of all these was one that surfaced the very day that Trebek passed. In one of last week’s episodes, a man named Burt Thakur had a dramatic win on Jeopardy. In a post-show interview, the audience found out why the win was so special to Thakur. He shared that as a child immigrant to America he would sit on his grandfather’s knee every night to watch the show. That’s how they learned to speak the language. A few days later, in an interview with CBC News here in Canada, Thakur talked about the power of Jeopardy. He spoke about the fact that the show prompts its viewers to be curious about this world that we live in. 

Over the years, Jeopardy has succeeded in expanding our world. It has helped us grasp not simply trivial things, but has helped us to understand some of the truths related to our world. In a lot of ways it has humbled us when it comes to our limited understanding of our world. In fact, I don’t think there has been a moment where I haven’t thought, “Wow! There is so much more to this world that I have yet to learn!” while watching the show. What a gift to have this simple, yet profound, gameshow that has helped us grasp some of the deeper truths of our world and of humanity. Sadly, we seem to be moving more deeply into what some would call a “post-truth” world; a world where we can simply create our own reality and reject anything that challenges our thoughts and opinions. It’s as if the game show of life has gone from people accepting that they may get an answer wrong from time to time to one where people are challenging the judges and refusing to accept the answers.

The game of Jeopardy has challenged us. It’s helped to expand our thinking and our understanding of the world. And so, when I turn to this passage from Matthew’s gospel (the parable of the valuable coins OR the parable of the talents) I can’t help but wonder—What’s the lesson we must learn from this passage of scripture? How might it expand our understanding of the world and, more relevantly, how might it deepen our understanding of God?

At first glance, this appears to be a parable that portrays God as a “bookkeeper looking for productive results”. It appears to be a parable that paints a less than kind portrait of God. I suppose any passage that ends with “weeping and grinding” of teeth is a passage that we may struggle to connect with as progressive people of faith. You might be prompted to ask the question—If God is love, then what on earth is this doing in the pages of scripture?

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip”, we’re told. The man calls in his servants and hands his possessions over to them. To one he gives five coins (or talents), to another he gives two, and to another he gives one. 

It’s helpful to note that a “talent” (each one of the coins in the story) represents about twenty years worth of wages. It’s a fortune! Jesus is not simply speaking about a few shiny collectable coins being passed on to these servants—He’s speaking about a fortune. And it’s a heavy fortune at that, requiring substantial effort to excavate a hole deep enough to keep it safe. As one commentator puts it, “No wonder the third servant is afraid. This money does not belong to him. If he fails to protect such a large sum, he’ll be in the hole for the entire amount. But if he does not increase its value by taking a risk, the wealthy man will bury him. It (appears to be) a lose-lose predicament.”

When the master comes back the first and second servants are greeted with responses like, “Excellent!” and “Well done!” when the master hears that they’ve multiplied the fortune for which they were entrusted. The third servant (the one who buries his fortune) is greeted in a different way. 

Before we even look at the master’s response, it’s important to examine what the third man says. Even before the master can say anything the servant says, “I knew that you are a hard man” and “I was afraid”. The third one presumes to know what the master wants and he acts accordingly. Jesus doesn’t describe the master in this way. He doesn’t say that he was indeed a “hard man”, that is simply how the third man describes him. And while the ending seems to confirm the accusations that the last servant lays upon the master, it’s almost as if the third man determines his own fate. Fear prompts him to dig a hole and that same fear places him deep inside that hole. In some ways, I suppose, he digs his own grave. 

The good news for us is that we know, according to the good news of Jesus, that the grave will never be the final word. As with every parable Jesus shares, we must not simply interpret it in isolation. We must always take his words and pair it with the wider message of his life and teachings. 

This text doesn’t represent an ending… it offers a beginning—a place to begin as we learn to follow in the way of Jesus. God, through Jesus, does not operate like the “masters” of this world. Case in point… what happens when Jesus finds himself in a hole? What happens when he is cast into “the outer darkness”? —He breaks through to the other side. Darkness does not have the final word. There is no hole big enough to hold him. Therefore, as members of the Body of Christ, there is no hole big enough to hold us back—to keep us down. Death and darkness will never have the final word. 

You may remember that the very next parable Jesus shares in chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. That story seems to suggest that in the end we will find ourselves either on the good or bad side of some cosmic divide—either condemned for all eternity or welcomed and embraced. 

We need to remember, however, that (as I’ve shared before) Jesus is the only one who can truly exist on the good side of that divide. But, through his life, he makes the choice FOR humanity. From his place (as the lamb of God) on the sheep side of the divide, he calls us all over and we get to claim that space where God welcomes and embraces us—even when (and I can’t stress this enough) when we don’t deserve it… because none of us do deserve it. 

The mistake that the third servant makes is that he fails to understand the character of God. God, as Jesus reminds us is a God who is “slow to anger”. God is not a God who tests us and scolds us when we make mistakes in life. The good news that Jesus came to proclaim reinforces the idea that if we understand the character of God we will not fear. We can only operate with love. We will only be generous with one another. The good news is that the hole that the third man digs is nothing in comparison to the size of God’s kin-dom. We need not fear. 

Biblical commentator, Robert Capon offers one of the best reflections on this parable of Jesus. Listen to what he says about this scripture and how it might inform our thinking and our living. He writes,  

“We spend our lives invoking upon ourselves imagined necessities, creating God in the image of our own fears—and all the while, (God) is beating us over the head with a balloon of grace and the styrofoam baseball bat of vindicating judgement. The history of salvation is slapstick all the way, right up to and including the end. It’s The Three Stooges working only for laughs. God isn’t trying to hurt anyone; (God’s) not even mad at anyone. There are no lengths to which God won’t go to prove there are no restrictions to the joy God want to share with us.”*

What a beautifully hilarious (but also, incredibly profound) meditation on the parable of the valuable coins. 

And so, with that in mind, let us do what we’re called to do. Let’s sit in God’s lap and begin to learn a new language. Let’s do what we can to expand our world. Let’s put down our shovels (those tools of fear and exclusion) and take the gifts we’ve been given and love… and love… and love. LOVE like we have nothing to lose for the riches we have do not belong to us alone but are gifts that are simply meant to be passed from us to others. Amen.

*From: "Kingdom, Grace, Judgement" by Robert Farrar Capon (©2002 Eerdmans)

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