Saturday, November 15, 2014

Shaped by Perception (Nov 16 2014)

Homily.  Yr A P33   Nov 16 2014, St. Albans
Readings:  Judges 4.1-7; Ps123; 1 Thess 5.1-11;Mt 25.14-30

Shaped by Perception

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”

And with that we enter once more into the world of one of Jesus’ parables, told during the final week of Jesus’ life, in response to questions about ultimate things, in the language of the day, the end times and the return of the Son of Man.

In this parable, there is a man who is going on a journey, there are his 3 slaves and there is the man’s property, large sums of money which are entrusted to the slaves.  Eventually we’re going to want to ask the allegorical questions, who is the man, who are the slaves and what is the property, what do all of these represent or correspond to.  But for now let’s start in the world of the parable.

The man is going on a journey, so he summons his slaves and entrusts his property to them.  Two of the slaves receive a large sum of money and go off immediately and trade with it, doubling the return.  But the third slave takes the talent, gold worth several hundred thousand dollars in today’s currency, and buries it in the ground.  Two very different responses.  And so a first question is, why do the slaves respond differently to the master’s entrusting them with the talents?

As far as we know from the story, there is no difference between the first two and the third slave except for this one thing:  the third slave believes the master to be a harsh man, and because of this he is afraid.  And as a result he goes and hides the talent in the ground for safekeeping.

So the first lesson that I draw out of the parable is this:  what we believe about someone, whether it’s true or not, shapes how we respond to that person.  And I think that most of us know this from experience.  If we believe someone to be dangerous, we will be cautious around them.  If we believe them to be trustworthy, we will be more inclined to trust, to be less guarded.  What we believe about someone shapes how we respond to that person.  And that in turn will also shape how we experience the person.  Perception shapes our reality. The slave believes the man is harsh, and he is afraid and he acts out of fear and buries the talent instead of investing it.  And as a result, when the man returns, he does respond to the slave harshly!  It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The third slave experiences the master as harsh because he believed the master was harsh.  Whereas the first two slaves, who didn’t believe the master to be harsh and were not afraid, when the master returns, their experience is one of being praised, not of rebuke.  What we believe about someone impacts not just how we will respond to that person, but will also shape how we experience him or her.

Now let’s look at the story again and this time let’s take it up a level.

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”

Who could the man going on a journey be?  Here we are, in Jerusalem, a few days before the day we call Good Friday.  Who could the man about to go on a journey be?  Well, Jesus was on a journey, a journey that would take him into a garden to be arrested, put him on trial for blasphemy and insurrection and lead him to a hill outside the city where he would be put to death. 

Jesus is the man going on a journey, a journey to and through death.  For me this is a particularly poignant reading of the parable.  In a few days he would summon his disciples to an upper room and share a final meal with them.  And at that meal he would entrust to them his life’s work.  His teaching, his ministry, his proclamation of the kingdom of God, even his death and its significance.  And then again, when he was raised from the dead, he would gather them once more, one final time and say to them, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And so if we read the story in this way, the man going on a journey becomes Jesus, the slaves become his disciples, and the treasure is not longer simply money, but it becomes the gospel which has been entrusted to the disciples, the mission and ministry of Jesus which is now theirs to carry out.  And if that’s the treasure that’s been entrusted to you, woe to you if you simply take it and bury it in the ground.  That would be entirely the wrong response.

And now, let’s look at the story again, and take it up another level.  For this could be a story not just about a man and his slaves, not just about Jesus and his disciples, but just maybe it is also a story about God and us.

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”

The gospel has been entrusted to us by God, through Jesus.  We are God’s servants in building of the kingdom of God.  This is a great treasure that has been entrusted to us.  How do we respond?  Are we like the first two slaves who respond with excitement, energy and enthusiasm, who get out there and do business?  Or are we more like the third slave, the one who is afraid, and buries the treasure he’s been given?

I think at least part of the answer lies back in the first lesson that we drew out of the parable:  how we respond depends upon how we imagine God, who we imagine God to be.  If we imagine God as harsh, demanding and punishing, we are more likely to be afraid, to be hesitant, to act defensively and with caution.  If we imagine God as loving, compassionate and forgiving, then I think that would empower us to take action, even to take risks for the sake of God’s kingdom.  What you believe about the master shapes your response to the master, and it will also shape your experience of the master.

And so I think that it’s important to stop for a moment, and think about the ways we imagine God.  Is God a judge?  A friend?  Remote?  Close?  When I was in seminary, I remember some organization did a survey on how people imagine God.  They asked people what images they had for God.  And you know what came back as the most commonly held image of God:  a border crossing guard.  Think about that.  A border crossing guard!  Someone who checks your passport and plugs your name into a database to figure out if you get to cross the border or not.  Someone who asks you how much shopping you’ve done in order to calculate the amount of tax you have to pay.  If that’s your image of God, well, you’d better play it safe.  Take that treasure and bury it in the ground.

So I want to stop here and turn things over to you.  Take a moment on your own and reflect on how you imagine God to be.  Don’t do this too quickly.  Often our images of God are lodged deep in our memories and even our subconscious and may take time to emerge.  Think, reflect, and pray.  And then if you’re comfortable, turn to your neighbour and talk about the way you imagine God.  You may find enough to talk about.  But if you want to move on, you can then start to think about how your image of God shapes your response to the treasure that God has entrusted to us.


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