Fr. John Allison
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
November 19, 2023
Christ Church, Hudson
"As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
This week I have been surprised and a little disturbed by this sentence to which I keep returning. "As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
This isn't the kind of image many of us like to dwell on, especially when we read the New Testament. We're much more comfortable, at least I'm more comfortable, talking about love and justice and peace, those qualities that we esteem, those qualities we seek, those to which we aspire, qualities that at various points in the Gospels are associated with the Kingdom of Heaven. But, in fact, this very parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven and so perhaps what makes me uncomfortable is the image of this poor slave, who did nothing dishonest or immoral, or for that matter anything out of the ordinary for it was quite common for Jews of that time to bury money for safekeeping, and he is nonetheless banished to the outer darkness. What I find so haunting about this image is that this poor soul could easily be me. How often have I, have any of us, buried our treasure in the ground for safekeeping?
But let's take a moment to review what's happening in this parable. First, we must understand that this parable, like so many of Jesus’ parables is an allegory, the figures in the story are not to be understood literally but as representations of something else. Jesus tells us the story of a man who is going on a journey and entrusts to each of his "slaves" a particular sum of money, a "talent." I should say that actually a talent is a unit of weight, about 80 pounds, and that when used to denote currency it's the value of the equivalent weight in silver. At the risk of being too literal I'll also say that a single talent, then, was about 6000 denari, the more common unit of currency, and would have been about twenty years wages. In other words, it was a lot of money. So, the master gives each slave the talents, to one 5 talents, another 2, and the other 1. And we know what happens: the first two slaves double the money through investing and such, and the third buries the money in the ground and returns to his master exactly what he was given. He held on to what he was given. If I say it that way it does't sound so bad, not so bad that he would be "banished to the outer darkness." He didn't steal it; he didn't misuse it. And maybe that's why that final sentence is so haunting for me: "As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
And I'm going to leave you with that for a minute, while I take a bit of a detour. When I first became aware of this parable coming up in our lectionary I was excited because I saw it as being about something that I talk about a lot: discernment. It's about understanding the gifts, the "talents" God has given us and making good use of them. Interestingly, it’s from this parable that the word "talent" as we commonly use it today to refer to a special skill or gift, has its origin. It's about what I did during my formation as a priest and what I'm continuing to do. It’s about what I want for each of you individually and for Christ Church collectively: To understand our gifts and how we can use them to serve God as the gathered body of Christ.
But discernment is no easy task and the one thing that has become clear to me over the years is that discernment is an ongoing process. It's something we are continually called to do so that we can best use what we have been given. For me that discernment has taken many forms and I'd need much more than this sermon to run through them all but what I can share is that all of you are involved in that process with me right now. As the Body of Christ we belong to one another. Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
I think that’s what excites me about being your priest, that much like the slaves entrusted with their talents I am very much aware of the gifts God has bestowed on me; I’m very much aware of the gifts God has bestowed on you. It’s in expressing these gifts that we are able to see them grow. I've been enlarged and fulfilled and have that much more to offer back in God's name. That’s what we do for one another as the Body of Christ.
Many years ago, more than twenty in fact, I was part of a vestry retreat and we did an exercise that was meant to help us discern our work together; it involved naming the talents we saw in each other. We were each given a stack of index cards and we were to write a particular gift we recognized in each of our colleagues and then return it them. Each member then had several cards naming a gift that another had recognized in them. There was a lot more to the exercise but what I remember was the power of having these gifts named in me by another. For the most part they were characteristics of which I was at least passively aware but to have these qualities recognized and named as gifts by another was quite powerful. I kept those cards. I tucked them away in a folder in my desk. You might say I buried them.
Then, at some point, they were moved to another drawer. From time to time, as I reorganized or moved, I would come across them and thumb through them, reminding myself, but then putting them away again, burying them again. I hadn't thought of those cards for a long time until recently when I was organizing my desk and I found them buried at the bottom, safe, ready to be moved and tucked away in yet another safe space. I took them out and removed the decaying rubber band that held them and thumbed through them: Patience, listening, intelligence, compassion, curiosity. Indeed, these are gifts that I treasure, but what surprised me was that far from being hidden away in that drawer they have been very present in my ministry with you. That's when it hit me, that's when I understood that what is so enlivening about ministry is that I have allowed myself to share what God has given me. In risking to share my gifts, they are multiplied, strengthened, refined. And, I pray, they continue to grow and give glory to God. This is what it means to multiply our talents. This is how we are made ready for the coming Kingdom of Heaven.
But then I remember that line that has been haunting me so: "As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." At this point in the liturgical year, the end of Pentecost, the end of the church year, we have many such readings about the end times, about Christ’s return to the earth. And that in itself is difficult; we don’t always know what it means. I don't want to think about wild-eyed fanatics holding signs proclaiming "the end is near." But something I learned in seminary helps me with this. It allows me live with the colorful language and dire predictions in a way that pulls me forward, pulls me into a future that is full with God's love. That word is telos—an end, the purpose toward which we move. For us as Christians we have our telos in Christ, through whom we are reconciled to God. That’s what we will recognize next week when we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.
I think, as I have been reflecting on this, the power in that line, “throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” reminds me of how easy it is to bury the gifts God puts in our trust: how easy it is to name something, to write it on a card and stash it in a drawer, to take it out gaze at it from time to time before tucking it away again; how easy it is to not even know how to share, how to multiply what we've been entrusted with. I know how easy that is, how safe. But it is in such seeming safety that we risk alienating ourselves from God and from one another, separating ourselves from God's will for us, forgetting that we are journeying together to that end we have in Christ. That separation from God and from one another, that’s the outer darkness. To lose sight of our purpose, to lose sight of the end toward which we travel is to be in darkness. But to live, to grow into God's love for us we must risk our gifts. We must share them and use them to the glory of God. That’s how we prepare. That’s what it means to be ready. Amen.