Absence and Possibility
By Sam Laurent
Year A, Proper 28 (RCL), preached at the Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill
There are a lot of fun sentences in today’s readings, but here’s just one: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they
have will be taken away.” That’s from today’s reading, near the end of Matthew’s Gospel.
Here’s another sentence, from the same Gospel: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That one comes from the Beatitudes, which begin the Sermon on the Mount, another address
to Jesus’ close followers.
How can those two sentences both come from the same Gospel? How can they both be Good News? That’s what I want to at least try to sort out today.
What does this parable of the talents even mean? Well, it comes right after the parable of the virgins with their lamps, which we heard last week, and it continues the theme of attentiveness and discipline in
preparing for the kingdom of God. Traditionally the interpretation is that we are called to use our gifts and abilities to further the purposes of the one who gave them to us. Everything we have comes from
God’s grace, so we ought to use it to serve God.
I don’t have a problem with that interpretation. It’s really beautiful in a way, and it reflects the ongoing commission that we received in the story of creation, to be stewards of creation. But this text, this
parable that delivers that message, is difficult. It’s got slavery in it. Someone gets thrown into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. When the slave whom the master already trusted
the least buried the talent—which is an amount of silver it would take a laborer 15-20 years to earn– in the ground and told his master exactly why, I don’t think I’m alone in cheering for the slave. But there’s no happy ending there for him. Instead, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
My problem with the parable is not the message it delivers, but the fact that it feels a little like the police enforcing a rule. “Do this so you don’t get thrown in jail.” That’s not how the Gospel tends to work, and more selfishly, I just don’t think it’s very interesting.
There has to be more.
So how does this exist in the same Gospel as the Beatitudes? My suggestion today is that both of them show Jesus preparing his followers for the absurdity of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is preparing his disciples to be steadfast followers even as they encounter the world’s resistance to Jesus’ teachings. The absurdity they face is the idea that they can follow Jesus beyond the persecutions and ridicule they encounter. They can, by worldly standards, lose, and still win.
Jesus tells the disciples during the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” It’s a nicer way of conveying the same message we get in the parable of the talents. What you have been given is meant not for you to hoard, but for you to use to share in service to God.
I’m not trying to evade a difficult parable by talking about the Sermon on the Mount instead. I promise. But the fair question is: what comes from today’s parable that couldn’t be said better through other
texts? Today’s Gospel is, I suggest, about an absurdity, and it’s a deeper and more harrowing absurdity than persecution or mockery. The parable of the talents shows Jesus preparing his disciples for his
absence. Like the parable of the virgins last week, it’s about how to live as people who wait for Jesus.
Jesus, especially as told by Matthew, can understand the slave’s offense at the master’s behavior. The master goes away for a long time, leaving the slaves, the ones who do not luxuriate in his vast wealth, to do the work of tending to his fortune. The slave who was given one talent says “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Jesus, only a few days after this, and only a couple of pages later in the Gospel of Matthew, will be heard crying “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, himself feeling left to do the hard work and then suffer. In this Gospel, Jesus is supremely aware of his mission and yet feels forsaken on the cross, when God’s embrace cannot be felt. It is an experience of deep abandonment, and here the slave is levelling a similar charge at the master.
Jesus knows that, even after the resurrection, even with the promised presence of the Holy Spirit, his ascension into heaven is going to feel like abandonment. He’s preparing the people of God for the absence of God. It is the same absence that we live with.
But it is a holy and incomplete absence. After all, the absence of God is still of God. It is not a simple departure that Jesus made, but like the slaves in the parable, we expect a return. We are not sure when it will happen, not sure what form it will take, but we feel the absence of Jesus and also an expectation of return. That expectation colors every moment of the absence, infuses them with the energy of possibility. This is the divine absurdity Jesus is coaching his disciples toward; to carry on the work of a departed master, living in the possibility of an unknown return. In a sense, this is what the Holy Spirit, which is the presence of God in the world, offers us: possibility, an opening to something beyond what seems inevitable.
So the absence of God, the time during which the master is away, takes on a new character. We are not biding our time until Jesus returns, at which point we will set to work on the things he says to do. In this
time of holy possibility, the moments can take on extra meaning, as each one can bring forth the revelation of God. In this way of understanding the parable, the slave who buried his talent committed
The first was devaluing the time when the master was away, assuming that because he was gone, his work ought not continue. Let’s pause and acknowledge that to our 21st century ears, this lesson in the context
of slavery makes our skin crawl. But the metaphorical nature of a parable lets it operate on several levels, so we can recoil at the slavery and still see that the absent master was present as the possibility of return.
The second offense the slave commits against the master in this parable is in assuming that, because he was not personally making the trades that grew his fortune, he had no claim to the fortune. Again, we in the era of Wall Street crashes and shareholder meetings will raise an eyebrow at the economics here, but if the story is about our relationship to God in the time between the ascension and Christ’s return, which is to say the time in which anyone anywhere has read the Bible, then it starts to make sense.
God is present in our lives, in this space, as holy possibility, as the Holy Spirit. God is not present in a way that overrides everything and enforces a divine edict on every detail of the world, but instead as that possibility that each moment, each event can manifest something of the kingdom of God, might be the moment of presence. We live in relationship with a God who stays mostly out of sight, calling us into mystery and wonder. Our sacraments are markers of that mystery, openings for the sacred possibility to punctuate the mundane.
So there’s some deeply poetic stuff going on here, but what strange God would operate like this? Surely some constant and clear presence, some unambiguous directions, some reliable office hours would be more characteristic of the God we think we want. The slave buried the talent because the master wasn’t there to notice. What kind of management philosophy is that?
It’s one in which our freedom matters. From the first moment of creation, on through the covenants and generations of prophets, humanity’s freedom has mattered deeply. And since the opening chapters of Genesis, that freedom has always meant an obligation to the one who gave it to us. An obligation to tend to the earth, to live into covenant, to share God’s good news with one another and to create circumstances in which God’s love can be readily felt. An obligation to—even when God cannot be seen or felt—carry on the work we have been given with the resources we have been given, that they may increasingly become signs of God’s possibility in the world.
What kind of God would operate like that? A God that is more concerned with having relationship with us than absolute control over us. A God who delights in seeing the beautiful things we can do with the
resources we have, and who mourns when we squander them. A God who, even when Jesus walked the earth, might best be described as calling us toward holy possibility.
That tricky sentence, “to all those who have, more will be given and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” isn’t talking about money or stuff, but
about freedom, which on our end entails faith. Faith not as a blind unquestioning affirmation of some set of propositions, but rather a commitment to the possibility of God’s presence, and to the seemingly impossible reality that presence enacts. Faith is holding open a space for the absurd possibility of the presence of an absent God.
To have faith is to be “poor in spirit,” as the beatitudes say, to know that we need grace and that we need to use our time to seek God, to try to cultivate the possibility of God in our lives. It’s a posture of poverty, rather than the arrogant assumption of completion. Those who “have” in the parable of the talents have faith and perspective, which makes them the poor in spirit from the Sermon on the Mount. They use their freedom, the resources trused to their decisions, to serve God’s vision, and in doing so are made freer,
endowed with more freedom. Those with no faith, like those who are not poor in spirit, are bound to their certainties, to the world as it most immediately appears. Without some absurd possibility, freedom
becomes slavery. “Those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” the parable says. I’m suggesting that it means that without a sense of possibility, without an investment in something unseen in your life, the gift of free will becomes moot.
So, to answer my original question, how is it that the parable of the talents is in the same book as the Sermon on the Mount? It works because both guide us toward an awareness of the beautiful absurdity
of God’s calling, and both teach us to use our freedom to seek relationship with the God that seeks us. The lessons of the talent that got buried are quite simple, then. Our resources come by grace. Even if our own cunning and intelligence shaped the processes by which we got them, intelligence and cunning are results of freedom, and so they too came by grace. We reap what we do not sow. And just as importantly, the absence of the incarnate Jesus from the earth, the lack of a full-fledged member of the Trinity walking among us, does not mean God has abandoned us. Everything we have is an opportunity to seek God, even if we cannot see God. The trick is to see the holy possibility.