When to Dig a Hole in the Ground

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | November 15, 2020

Matthew 25: 14-30

There have been times in my work as a pastor that people have come to me with the golden opportunity. Golden to them, at least. 

One time at a Session meeting, one of the elders suggested that we establish a scholarship fund. Great idea. But there was a catch. The fund would be for the exclusive use of one of his children who was in graduate school. He would donate money to the fund (receiving the tax write off) and the church would give the money as a scholarship to his child. The Session decided that we did not want to be involved in a money laundering operation. 

It’s funny sometimes, how when we tell stories about Jesus upsetting the apple cart, it’s always some other person’s apples we expect to see rolling on the ground. We see our own apples as above reproach.  

One time a guy stopped by the church office to see me – my door was always open – and he wanted to offer me a “golden opportunity,” in the guise of a “business proposition.”

It was pointed out to me that I was in a position of authority and respect. If I were to take on this business opportunity, then surely the folks in my congregation would get on board too. The guy was selling a line of household products. Not the sort you could buy in the grocery store, but more expensive and of better quality. 

Now I am happy enough to buy someone’s product. If you want to sell something, come to me and I’m likely to buy it. I like to support folks who are trying to make ends meet. But the pitch wasn’t about me buying something. The pitch was that “the product basically sells itself.” All I needed to do was sign up as a distributor, sell to people in my church and then get them to be distributors and from all these sales on down the line I would get a percentage – just like the guy trying to sign me up would get a percentage off me and everyone else down my line. The idea is that after a while you have all these people out there frantically selling soap products so that one day all you have to do is sit back and collect the profits. 

But someone has to actually do the work of selling the product. 

“Sounds like a pyramid scheme to me,” I said. He insisted there was no pyramid in the scheme. He said God wants to bless us with wealth and this was one way to get the showers of blessing to pour.

“So how would that work for me?” I wanted to know. “Say I go talk to someone in my church because their mother just died. And while I’m there I say, ‘Now that the funeral is sorted, I’ve got just the thing that will remove that stubborn stain from your carpet over there.’

He went on to tell me that he got more Christian fellowship at his distributor meetings than he ever did in church. Didn’t I think God wanted us to prosper? Wasn’t it God’s will that we should have nice things in life? 

He got rather huffy when I ask about all the suffering people in the world – from war, famine and disease – were they just not praying hard enough? Are God’s blessings based on merit? 

As can happen in small town, word got around that I was not a fan of this particular scheme, and thus I was some sort of anti-American. My view on Christianity was criticized because I dared to point out that the our own cultural assumptions and the realm of life that Jesus described as the Kingdom of God were not always one and the same. 

When Jesus brings a truth to bear, one challenge we face is understanding that he might be talking about us. 

Typically, the “Parable of the Talents” story is told by saying how we all have God-given talents and if we put them to good use they will grow and multiply. Or we could be like the guy who buries his talent in the ground and gets in trouble for wasting an opportunity. 

Something about this angle on the story always bothered me. When Jesus told parables, it was his way of getting people to look at life from a different angle. His intent was to encourage his listeners to think beyond the status quo – the way things were always done – the accepted systems and power structures – and to imagine life as God makes possible. 

With that in mind I started thinking about how this story might be more than just a lesson in how hard work pays off. 

If we put this story into the context of the first century audience to whom this story was addressed in the early church – people who lived under an oppressive religious and political system – rather than a story about how God works I think Jesus is telling a story about the reality of the world in which they lived. A world which is not so different from our own. 

How might this story be heard by a person who lives within an unjust economic system – or someone who has to deal with systemic racism on a daily basis – someone who is bullied – who faces discrimination because of gender or sexual orientation – or any number of other ways that don’t fit into the pigeon hole often described by politicians as “hard working families?”

There was a slave owner – that right there tells you something – does God condone slavery? – who delegated to his slaves – being slaves they had no choice in the matter – some of his wealth. What are they supposed to do? If they want favor with their master, they will act according to his value system – employing his business practices to turning a profit. 

A talent was a big sum of money. One talent equalled the amount that a laborer could earn in fifteen years. Two of the slaves put the money to work and realized a profit.  

The third slave played it safe. He wasn’t going to risk losing the money, so he buried it. He acted out of fear. If we wonder what he feared, we can imagine that being a slave he was afraid of his master – someone who had the power of life and death over him. And maybe he also feared the consequences that his actions would bear upon his own soul.  

He could act according to the value system of his master and lie, cheat and steal his way to a profit. That would come at a cost to others. He chose instead to bear the cost himself. He dug a hole and buried the money. In one sense he was acting responsibly in disposing of toxic material; and at least returned what he had been given. But that wasn’t good enough. He was severely punished. The moral of the story is that the rich get richer by any means possible and those who don’t get with the program are tossed on the rubbish heap. 

If we take this as an example of what following Jesus is supposed to be then we end up with a prosperity gospel – the idea that God wants us to be wealthy and successful and that doing so is a sign of God’s blessing. 

And all those people who don’t achieve it – who starve or suffer from disaster or disease or who are variously abused and exploited – well they just aren’t with God’s program. If that’s our good news, then it’s a stretch to see the goodness of it. 

The challenge for us is to take a look at our own cultural reference points – how the assumptions we make about truth influence our values and actions. 

So, if anyone in the story serves as a positive example it’s the third slave who exposed the wickedness of the owner. He spoke truth to power and suffered for it. Just like Jesus spoke truth to power and suffered for it. 

Perhaps what the slave owner didn’t realize was that when he threw that “worthless servant” outside into the darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth, he also set him free. Amen.

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