In an online Christian discussion community I once saw a question about one of the parables of Jesus, the one about the dishonest servant. The story is from Matthew 18.21-35, and follows Peter’s question, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.” He then tells this story: Once upon a time there was a great king, and he wanted to settle his accounts. So he brought his accountant to him, and together they went through the books. He found that one slave owed him ten thousand talents – and, to put this into perspective, a single talent was more than fifteen years’ wages for the laborer, which makes you wonder how the slave racked up such a debt in the first place – but anyway, he wanted his ten thousand talents, so he brought the slave to him, and asked him to pay up. But he couldn’t pay, so the king decided to sell him and his wife and children. The slave begged for mercy, and said, “Have patience, and I will pay you eventually.” The king, surprisingly, had such compassion on the slave that he set him free and completely forgave the debt! But that same slave, when he was freed, went to someone who owed him one hundred denarii, about three months’ pay, and almost strangled him as he asked for his money back. But this second fellow begged the former slave, using the same words the slave had used to the king, “Have patience, and I will pay you eventually.” You can imagine Jesus leaving a pregnant pause here. And then the unthinkable – the former slave refused to wait, and had the man thrown in debtors’ prison! Well, the news gets back to the king, and he summons the former slave and says, “You wicked slave! I forgave you that huge debt because you begged me! How could you not have mercy on your fellow slave, when I had such mercy on you!” And the king handed the slave over to be tortured until he paid his entire debt. Jesus ends with this barb: “So my heavenly Father will do to you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
That’s the story. Here’s what the member of this discussion community wanted to know: assuming the torture bit refers to Hell, does this story indicate that Hell is not eternal? After all, the king stipulates that the slave is to be tortured until he can pay the debt, until being the operative word. Another community member wrote that the parables in the gospel of Matthew often follow up a good, positive point with an extreme application or demonstration of it, “lopping off body parts and tearing out eyeballs,” to use his words. My reaction was, “Since when did the parables become part of a systematic theology? There’s not necessarily a one-for-one substitution here, like King = God or torture = Hell. These are not strict allegories, these are stories, stories specifically designed to upset our preconceptions.”
A parable, specifically, is a story with a message, but the message is not necessarily obvious. And it’s generally not like a fable with a nice, neat “moral.” Rather, a parable is a story with ordinary characters – a king, a slave, some bridesmaids, a bridegroom – or ordinary happenings – cleaning house, looking for lost money, paying the bills, going to a wedding. We who listen are meant to identify with the characters, to understand the events. But in a parable, there is something a little “off” from the normal course of events. A supervisor pays the same wage to day-laborers whether they work for eight hours or for two. A bunch of bridesmaids don’t know when the wedding will start. A king forgives a massive debt. The parable pulls us into its logic and its world, makes us identify with the characters and then question their actions and, by extension, our own. That is how parables differ from fables. We learn from fables easy little morals, like “don’t underestimate someone just because they’re small,” or “slow and steady wins the race.” But the parable offers us not a moral, precisely, but an insight. In the story of the forgiven slave who does not, in turn, forgive, I can see myself in that slave, those times when someone has forgiven me and I’ve turned right around and grumbled about someone doing the exact same thing I did. I recognize that I, too, often forget the huge mercies, the incredible grace that has been shown me, and act out of a smallness of spirit that seems, sometimes, to deny the abundance of blessings in my life. This parable is not about God sending people to Hell; it’s about the Hell we make for ourselves when we refuse to be transformed by God’s mercy. Ultimately, I think, it’s about the potential to be transformed by God’s love into little Christs to each other: we have the opportunity to be like one of those many-tiered fountains: God pours the water of life to us from above, and we below are meant to catch it and then overflow with it, and send it on. The water never stops in one place, never gets stagnant; it moves and moves on, giving grace to everyone it touches.
It is the same with today’s parable of the talents. Contrary to what some preachers think, this parable does not exist for the sake of pledge drives. It is not advice on how to make money. It is certainly not about demonizing the poor. Instead, it is all about attitude and action.
Do you approach God with fear or with trust? Do you accept the gifts God gave you with faith and give thanks, or do you expect the worst? Because what we get out of life, out of our religious practice, and out of our relationships with God and neighbors often has a lot to do with what we put in.
The third slave “knows” that the Master is “a harsh man,” and he is justified in that belief: the Master throws him away. But the first two slaves don’t “know” about the Master’s harshness, they do their work while the Master is away, and they are rewarded for their faithful service. Perhaps they perceive the Master as gently and generous. They act out of faith and a sense of possibility, a sense that doors would open before them. The third slave acts as one imprisoned, sensible only of his limitations and his fear.
It comes down to the themes of scarcity and abundance. One can look at life and see only scarcity: there’s not enough to go around, so I have to hoard my love, my talents, my money, my time. My world shrinks to the four walls of my prison, as if I’m living in Ebenezer Scrooge’s counting-house. Or one can look at life as opportunity, possibility, promise: I am blessed with abundance and so full of joy that all I need is to share it. Do you remember that Sunday School song, “Love is like a lucky penny/Hold it tight and you won’t have any/But, give it away and you’ll have plenty/You’ll end up having more.”
The first two slaves do not need to be welcomed into the Master’s joy, for they are already there. They dwell in that joy daily, and the Master’s words only confirm their reality. The third slave, on the other hand, dwells in fear, loneliness, and sorrow. He does not need to be thrown out or cursed; he has already exiled himself. In Milton’s words, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make/A Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Or as the First Letter of John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
Now I’m reminded of the practical: How does one mature in love of God? How does one move beyond fear and into trust, learning to be more like the first and second slaves than like the third? I think one way is by practicing the presence of God, as the 17th century lay brother Lawrence advises. Brother Lawrence was an uneducated man, but one devoted to God and to the monastic life; he worked in the monastery as a cook and as a cobbler. But of all the brothers in the monastery, it is the humble Lawrence’s work that is remembered.
His practice of the presence of God at all times and in all situations is mostly a mental exercise, a constant reminder that everything done is done, ultimately, for God. Lawrence writes, “People invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?” For example, he writes, “For me, work time does not differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while various people are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in tranquility as great as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
In An Altar in the World, which is a sort of updating and expansion of this practice, Barbara Brown Taylor recommends the practice of blessing, for when we bless, we recognize the holy in all creation, and in the creator. (“Episcopalians are fools for blessing things,” she writes.) All that is needed is attention to the world around you: who are these human beings, these wild animals, these trees and rocks and rivers? You did not make them. They are not just a part of your story, but have their own stories. And God relates to them in different ways than God relates to us. When we bless something, we recognize its precious otherness, the way God’s face is revealed in a new way, maybe a challenging way, maybe a profoundly comforting way. Ultimately, whether blessing challenges us or comforts us, it expands our understanding of God, it makes every facet of creation a new and indispensible icon of the Creator. And it is this multiplicity of icons, this seeing God in others, that leads us out of fear and into wonder, hopefully into trust.
Practice the presence of God. Practice the blessings. Practice whatever you need to allow God to feed your soul. Usually this will be something done with no other humans around: spend a few minutes alone in prayer or in creative work. Spend a lunch break in the woods; watch the chickadees at the birdfeeder or your cat as she gives herself a bath. Something that shows you the blessed otherness that expands your view of the Holy. Whatever will lead you into God’s presence. Because if there is anything I am sure of, it is that life is too precious to be lived in the confines of the counting-house. There is a Spanish proverb: Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias: A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. Life must involve a continual deepening of our trust in God, the source of all blessing.
Let us pray:
O God our King, by the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ on the first day of the week, you conquered sin, put death to flight, and gave us the hope of everlasting life: Redeem all our days by this victory; forgive our sins, banish our fears, make us bold to praise you and to do your will; and steel us to wait for the consummation of your kingdom on the last great Day; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.