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Two Siblings, Three Slaves, and a Bus Ride from Hell: Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Two siblings: Tom and Annie — twins — inherited parts of their parents’ estate. Tom was given the family house, and Annie received the summer home (to call it a cottage would not do it justice). They both wanted to honour their parents, and the venues that had been the settings for so many cherished memories.

So Tom, he moved back to the family home. The lawn was overrun by weeds, but he dared not touch them; his parents had been so judgemental with how never tended the lawn and gardens in the way that they liked.

Annie, several hours away, by the lake, discovered mutant vines climbing up the walls of the cottage; threatening to overtake it completely. So, machete in hand, she cut them down. “Because my parents took gardening seriously,” she said.

Back at the family home, Tom was confronted by a matching set of easy chair, loveseat, and chesterfield; all in a floral pattern that somehow made sense in the 1960s. The couch, to preserve this investment, had remained in vacuum-sealed plastic this whole time. Tom’s friends begged him to drop them off at the thrift store, or better yet, a bottomless pit. But “no,” Tom said. This furniture was his parents’ wedding gift from their families.

At the cottage Annie found a picnic table that was actively being consumed by termites. And patio furniture that was rusty in the metal bars and mouldy in the plastic cushions. She went straight to the dump with them. “My parents loved spending time outside, watching the sun set over the lake,” she said. So she replaced the old, rundown furniture with a new set, so that she could enjoy the lake in her own way. (Without needing to get a her tetanus shot up-to-date!)

Two siblings; two parents — shared between them; and two bequests. Yet two very different responses to the generosity shown to them. And I suspect — because families are complicated — that each one of the siblings experienced and dealt with (or maybe, ‘coped with’) their parents in a particular way… which had an impact on not just how they saw their parents, but about how they saw and interacted with the world; with the whole of their lives.

So, two siblings, and differing responses to the gifts they received. And, in the parable, three slaves, and differing responses to being entrusted with something; these “talents.” It’s said that a talent was about 6000 denarii. One denarii was a day’s wages. So 6000 of them was like 15 to 20 years’ worth of wages. The third one — the ‘lesser’ one — is nonetheless handed one or two million dollars.

We can go in a lot of different directions with this story (as we can, and should, with all the parables). The traditional line has been to talk about being wise and productive in using that which God has given us. “Our selves, our souls, and bodies.” And our church, our faith, our baptism… The treasures of the world that we hold. And the treasure in our heart; the hope that is inside us. Don’t hide that stuff in the ground, but spread them around.

A lot of good can come from that.

These days more energy is being put into re-assessing the parable, with an eye on the economic and cultural context of the story. In this way of thinking, maybe the third slave is actually the hero. He stands up against a tyrannical member of the elite class (the “one percent”) who is a “harsh man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not scatter seed…” By burying the treasure in the ground, he puts a stick into the wheel of the economic system that’s been crushing people already struggling. People who might have borrowed from the talent, and been forced to repay at an unfair interest rate.

Maybe there’s something to that interpretation.

But no matter where we find ourselves leaning on those finer points of interpretation, the parable can help each of us be curious about how we would respond if we were one of the characters in the parable (or one of the two twins in the story I started with). In a situation of waiting — in a situation of uncertainty, of being entrusted with a treasure, of having the ability to make decisions — what does it look like to do this faithfully?

Are we inclined to look at our actions as investments in a project that’s bigger than ourselves? Or are we more comfortable with putting walls up, and protecting the bit we’ve been given?

Undergirding all of this, as we think of the three people in the parable, and the two siblings in the first story: are we going to act from a place of trust, or a place of fear? The preamble to the parable doesn’t give us many details: “a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them…” His character isn’t described. Yet two of them act adventurously, while the third responds from that place of fear. Whether that conclusion is deserved or not, their image of the landowner has a significant impact on how they act; how they respond. And similarly, the two twins, Tom and Annie: one of them says, in essence, “my parents enjoyed being comfortable; they’d want me to be comfortable.” While the other responded: “my parents gave me this; I will preserve this (chesterfield wrapped in plastic) at all costs.”

So where are you, in these stories? How has your experience (which, whether good or bad, or some mixture of both, is valid)… how has your experience shaped you. And shaped the way you live? How does your image of God inspire (or inhibit) your life of faith? Basically, looking at the sacred stories we’ve inherited, and the ongoing story of which we’re a part: is it a good news story, or a bad news one?

Almost 60 years to the day the famous Anglican writer C.S. Lewis died. I’m not a devotee of his, like some, though I’ve read my share. And he has this curious book, The Great Divorce, about a character who takes a bus ride from the bowels of hell all the way up to heaven. And upon reaching heaven the character is faced by a wise teacher.

This teacher went down on his hands and knees…

and presently [I] saw that he had plucked a blade of grass. Using its thin end as a pointer, he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without this aid.

‘I cannot be certain’, he said, ‘that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye certainly came.’

‘But — but,’ I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. ‘I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up…. Do you mean then that Hell — all that infinite empty town — is down in some little crack like this?’

‘Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world…. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have nay taste.’ *

And the character who’s made this long journey observes:

‘It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.’

So whether or not the landowner who went away on a journey was a harsh man, we don’t know. But to the third character ‘he seemed harsh enough,’ in his or her own mind. And that became true for them.

But the good news for today is that we don’t have to let that fear response define our parable, our faith, or our reality for us.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Glasgow: Collins/Fontana, 1946), 112-113.