Imaging Love

plato-300x254

Matthew 25:14-30

1.

It’s not lost on me that today’s Gospel falls on our Ingathering Sunday.

This parable involves talents. Talents are money. Lots of money!

And it’s Ingathering Sunday, the day where we collect all our pledge cards and offer them up to God in hopes that we will be blessed in the coming year. And by “we will be blessed,” you and I both know what I mean: that the church will make ends meet and then some!

Oh, the temptation!

“Don’t be like that third slave,” I could preach, “for he took his talent and suppressed it. He buried it in the dirt; and ended up in that dark place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. We don’t want to be like him, do we? Well, here’s your chance. Pledge!”

Or, I could exhort, “Be like the first and second slaves. They took huge economic risks with their master’s money. And these risks paid off! Don’t you see? God wants you to take huge economic risks in what you pledge this year. Do it! And God will reward you.”

I could preach these kinds of things, sure. And, sad to say, many preachers will in fact expound along these lines today.

But—at the risk of losing a sales-pitch opportunity—my conscience steers me in another direction. I don’t think that this parable is telling you and me to empty our pockets for Jesus (though, if you want to interpret it this way, I won’t stand in the way!).

2.

Rather, the point of today’s parable is about how we understand—how we image—God.

We touched on this a few weeks back. The religious leaders that Jesus confronted had imaged God as a king, largely removed from the lives of his people. God is often likened to a king in the scriptures, after all.

But there are many other words, other images, associated with God in the Bible: father; mother hen; fire; wind; word; lover; friend; etc.

Do you image God as king? as father? as fire?

Or how about harsh taskmaster? For you, does God reap where he doesn’t sow? Does God gather where he did not spread seed? Are you afraid of God?

That’s how the third slave saw his master.

And, after all, he’s the focal point of today’s parable.

The first and second slaves do what is right: they’re the ones who take their master’s resources and double them, riskily living out their calling, as Jesus teaches his disciples to do.

But the first and second slaves are nearly identical. Other than the difference in amounts of resources, both go out and double what they were given; both do it in the same way; and both are welcomed and received by their master with the same words.

These first two slaves, much as they might teach us about stewardship, are merely setting the stage for what is to follow.

And what does follow is a sharp contrast:

in the way the third slave stewards;

and, especially, in the way he views, or images, his master.

“I knew you were a harsh man,” he says, “reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

Unlike the first and second slaves, who feel absolute liberty in using their master’s resources, and are themselves received with similar liberty, the third slave is afraid, constrained by his image of his master.

It’s not that the master is harsh at all. Rather, everything about his actions demonstrates generosity. It’s all in how the third slave views his master.

This third slave is like the religious leaders Jesus has been confronting since he arrived in Jerusalem some days ago. Long had they imaged God as a distant, aloof king who rules by law and judgment, a deity to be feared. And thus, in accordance with their image of God, they had established a religious system that held its people under a cloud of fear.

3.

Which brings up a good point: a good way to discern how we image God is to examine our own behavior. Whether we realize it or not, we act like the God we image.

So, for instance, how do we address God in prayer?

As a church, we say the Lord’s Prayer together weekly: here we address God, “Our Father in heaven.”

Also, I thumbed through fifty-one pages of collects in our BCP (pp. 211-61) and found these addresses:

Almighty God; Merciful God; Lord; God; Eternal Father; Father in heaven; Almighty and everlasting God; Most loving Father; Gracious Father; Almighty and everliving God; Lord God; Almighty Father; King of glory; Almighty and merciful God; Lord of all power and might; Blessed Lord; Everliving God; Lord of glory; Lord God Almighty; Gracious God; Almighty and gracious Father; Eternal Lord God; and Merciful Creator.

Rich and varied as these addresses are, most of them suggest distance, as if God is away from us, in heaven, ruling and reigning from on high—from somewhere else. A few, like “God” and “Gracious God,” are ambiguous: distance is neither suggested nor not suggested. But none of them addresses a God who is already present.

These are our collects. These are the prayers we say as the liturgy begins. The implication is that God is far off in a heavenly throne room somewhere until I, the ordained celebrant, summon God to be present with all of us.

Frankly, this is bad theology, a hangover from the medieval image of God as powerful and aloof king. If we say as a church we don’t view God this way—and we do say this: that God is always present with each of us and all of us—perhaps it’s time to revise some, maybe even a lot, of our liturgy.

Or maybe the reality is that we actually image God this way after all without realizing it.

Well, that’s an example from us as a church. What about you personally?

How do you address God in your personal prayers? Is it always, “Almighty God,” or, “Father in heaven”? Have you ever tried addressing God as “Caregiver,” “Friend,” or even “Lover”? What about something like, “Nurturing Mother”?

I’m not saying you should; I’m not saying you shouldn’t. You have liberty. I’m simply trying to make the point that we understand God largely in terms of how we image God; and we subconsciously live out our faith in accordance with this image.

A good dose of self-examination here can do us a lot of good. It might even motivate us to rethink our image of God.

4.

Of course, Jesus gives us an image: Jesus tells us that God is love.

But how do we image love? Love is an action; an ideology. How do we form an image of action or ideology in our mind’s eye?

I don’t know that we can. Love may be simply too abstract.

But what we can do is recall how it looks when played out. What does love look like? It’s a meal given to a hungry person. It’s a quilt received by someone in need of healing. It’s a kind word spoken at the right time.

Really? Is a hot meal an image of God? Is a quilt? What about a word? Jesus himself is called the Word of God.

Perhaps this is what Jesus has been pointing to all along:

  • Seeing God in the smile on your daughter’s face at the dinner table as you crack a silly joke
  • Realizing that God is everywhere around you as you wait in the checkout line at the grocery store
  • Hearing God in a piece of music
  • Observing God’s hand in nature
  • Sensing God’s very presence in the middle of a heated discussion at diocesan convention

Is this what Jesus means when he says, “God is love”?

5.

I am reminded here of a story about Socrates, that great Greek thinker.

His is arguably the second most tragic death in the history of human civilization.

He walked the earth long before Christ, executed in 399 BCE.

Like Christ, he never wrote a word—that we know of anyway. He is remembered through the testimony of others, especially his disciple Plato.

So, the Greek world of Socrates’s day, as you know, imaged God as a pantheon.

Zeus was the father god of the earthly realm; while his brothers Poseidon and Hades ruled the sea and the underworld, respectively.

Of course, there were also Hera, Zeus’s wife; Aphrodite, Zeus’s daughter (born out of his head, by the way); Apollo, Zeus’s son from an adulterous relationship; Ares, Zeus and Hera’s son, whom (according to Homer) they hated; and so on and so forth.

But, as you can surmise already from the little I’ve told you, the popular image of God in Socrates’s day was nothing short of divine dysfunction!

And Socrates knew it!

So, one of his more brilliant ideas was that, yes, there must be some kind of deity, for everyday life has all kinds of pointers shouting out so; but, no, this deity simply could not be—to borrow from The Kinks—a mixed up, funked up, shook up pantheon (except for Lola—or Hera, as it were).

In other words, for Socrates there was in fact a deity, but not as the popular image portrayed it.

Socrates realized that the world around him, wanting to approach the divine, had fashioned for itself concrete images of the divine. These images were the pantheon, a kind of high court of deities, gods that looked, for all intents and purposes, a lot like regular people, with all their warts and weaknesses—not unlike DC Comics’ Justice League.

Still, Socrates knew, there was something of God in each of these images; yet all of God could not be contained by any of them. Concrete images cannot capture the ineffable. By definition, it’s impossible!

Anyway, Socrates’s downfall was teaching the youth to see through—or beyond—these popular images of deity. “God is not a pantheon,” he declared, “but One. God cannot be contained by images.”

And for this—for leading Athens’ youth astray into what his opponents called atheism(!)—Socrates was tried, found guilty, and made to drink the poisonous hemlock.

Tragedy came upon the world because one man dared to challenge its popular images of God.

Jesus challenged a popular image of God in his day too—the image of God as king; and again tragedy came upon the world.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be like the third slave in today’s parable. I don’t want to view God as a harsh taskmaster, which simply perpetuates the fear, shame, and guilt that already runs rampant in our society.

Rather, I want to be like the first and second slaves. These guys took risks! These guys understood and lived into their freedoms! And in the end they were elevated to a kind of equality with their master.

Yet even more than that, I want to be like Jesus, who imaged God as love. For in imaging God as love, we become love.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: