I confess: I’m passionate about the Bible. Maybe it’s too reflective of my status as a (decidedly not young) grad student, but I am determined to see it taught well, and “used” accurately.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and we were talking about how there can be a difference between the historical meaning and significance of Scripture and the individual/devotional meaning and significance.
I land decidedly on the historical/contextual side: Jesus meant what he said, not what we in the 21st century wish he would have said.
I’d like to suggest this: the overwhelming agenda of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is to prove that God’s story was coming to an epic resolution and fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Everything that we read in the gospels flows into and out of that. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to separate Jesus sayings (and actions) from this agenda.
For the next few weeks, I’d like to spend some time pushing back on some (what I believe) are misreadings of the gospels, and try to recover some of the (sometimes even more explosive) things that Jesus actually may have been saying.
Let’s start with a story out of Matthew. Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man (generally understood to be God) who goes on a long journey. He entrusts different sums of money to his servants, and when he returns he asks what they did with the amounts. Two of the three double his money, while one buries it.
The two that gained money get praise from the master, but the one who buried it (safely) gets some harsh words: “‘You wicked and lazy servant… To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. Now throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
Just in case you were wondering, historically, the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” is just as bad as it sounds.
… and cue awkward silence.
Is God really that way?
Divorced form the agenda of the gospels, this can be (and has been) taught as a story about stewardship and giftedness.
Again, is God really that way?
If you don’t play in the church band, are you going to be thrown into outer darkness?
If you don’t risk investment (in people or things or whatever), is what you have going to be taken from you?
Gnash teeth much?
But once you understand the agenda of Jesus—and the gospel writers—things begin to fall into place a bit more…
- if the sums of money represent God’s mission and message in the world…
- if the servants—including Israel—are people with whom God has entrusted His mission…
- if (by extension) the “wicked and lazy servant” is the religious establishment in Israel…
… then we begin to see what Jesus (and Matthew) might be saying here:
- God has entrusted his mission to people, specifically Israel
- Israel believes that God has left on a long journey—His presence has not returned to the Temple
- God has come back to find (a) that unexpected people have valued His mission/message, and (b) Israel (or rather their leaders) have buried His message
- God is taking His message away from Israel and entrusting it—through Jesus and his ministry—to others (the Gentiles; that’s us)
Is God still stern? Yes, because His mission is at stake. When you read the parable this way, this is why Jesus uses such strong language.
Good news is really good: God isn’t concerned so much with how much risk you take in life, or whether or not you serve in the nursery (though you should!); He’s concerned with how faithful His church is to His message and agenda in the world.