What is the reign of God really like? Jesus uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven", but to those of us accustomed to democracy that isn't a very clear way of speaking. What would life be like in this "kingdom of heaven"?
I think it is fair to say that we have some preferences about what we'd like God's governance to be like. We'd rather not have God's rule be absolute despotism, although the Old Testament seems to leave that possibility open. Pure democracy, or even representational democracy, seem to be out of the question. The kingdom of heaven is about the rule of God, not the collective wisdom of human beings. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is a constitutional monarchy – not that that would have been a term understood in Jesus' day.
If we are going to commit life and eternity to God's reign, shouldn't we have some idea just what it is that we are committing ourselves to? How will the coming of God's rule affect my life? What is the kingdom of heaven like?
Jesus repeatedly attempts to give some clarity to the question. Apparently, we aren't the first people to have trouble with it. One problem I have with Jesus' answers is that he never gives me a nice, simple model of governance that I can hold onto. In fact, Jesus keeps turning the question away from theories of government to the messy area of relationships.
Another problem is that Jesus seems to wander from one image to another. The gospels give us way too many answers. Eventually all the analogies start to contradict each other. In Matthew alone, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven in terms of:
And, in our gospel reading today,
So, what is it? Is the kingdom of heaven more like a plant or more like ten of a young bride's best friends? Offhand, I can't think of two images that are less alike. Is the kingdom of heaven more like a farmer or more like a central banker – say, more like Michael Slattery or more like Alan Greenspan? Jesus used both similes, and there's the conundrum.
Today's story is about a travelling man, probably a trader who goes on a trip. When I go on a trip, I go for a day or overnight and my big concern is who will take care of my dog. This man is making a long trip out of the country and his concern was who would take care of his financial assets. He has quite a bit in his account; 8 talents of cash equivalent. A talent was a measure of weight on the order of 50 pounds, and we might expect that as an active trader of the first century he kept his accounts in silver. So we can guess that this man was leaving his servants with somewhere around $50,000 to $60,000 at today's prices.
Now, one of the servants was known to be an expert trader himself, so the man gives this servant $35,000 to work with. The servant gets to work in whatever passed for the commodity exchange of that day and doubles his investment. (Not overnight – remember that this was a long trip.) Eventually, the traveller returns and calls for his servant to settle his account. "Well done, good and faithful servant," says the travelling man. "Enter into the joy of your master."
So, the trader is happy with his servant's success. He is not jealous. He is not threatened by his servant's success. He does not pretend that the profit was all due to his own acumen in absentia. I've worked for people who had those kinds of problems, people who needed to feel essential and wanted all the credit. The travelling man of this story is not like that. He is truly happy that the servant succeeded. What is more, he wants his servant to be happy. He gives the man a big promotion, maybe a partnership.
I'm not the first person to find this man's happiness to be a sign of hope for my own relationship with God. That's a pretty positive story and a pretty positive relationship. And that's what the kingdom of heaven is like. "Enter into the joy of your master."
Similarly for the second servant, who gets $14,000 to play with. This servant works hard and doubles his money. The second servant also is invited to join the trader's happiness. From this we learn that the measure of success is not based on a fixed scale, how many dollars you make or how many souls you've saved, but success is relative to what you have to work with. And that's a pretty hopeful story, too.
But then there is that third servant. The one who was given only $7000 to work with. The one who gave only $7000 back. The one who was afraid. The one who is like me.
At least, I worry that he is like me. Often I think that I don't have very many resources to work with and that I'm not doing very much with what little I have. (I know that there are those who will dispute these ideas, but of the four men in this story it is this third servant with whom I most identify.)
This third servant doesn't have much money to work with, and we all know that it is easier to make money if you have money. Furthermore, he doesn't seem to have much business acumen, at least not for the kind of business being conducted here. We don't know the details of the business that our traveller is in, but it seems to reward aggressive traders with lots of confidence. That just is not what this third servant is like; he is risk-averse and looks at life with a moral squint. He probably shouldn't have been in this business at all, or at least he should have had a more appropriate assignment.
What happens to this servant who isn't given much and doesn't give back any more than he got? He is thrown out, dismissed, separated from this happy group. He is cast out. And that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
So, which is it? Is the kingdom of heaven a welcoming environment where success is rewarded and efforts are measured fairly? Or is it a judgemental environment where success is mandatory and failure inexcusable?
Failure seemed to be inexcusable in the case of the third servant. That doesn't mean that he didn't have excuses, though. He offered several excuses. He said, "You are too demanding." He said, "You aren't completely ethical." He said, "I was afraid."
I've never been able to decide whether the travelling man was really a harsh person, demanding windfall profits that he didn't earn honestly. That's what the third servant claims about the man: "harvesting where you did not plant" is the way he puts it in the story. The trader, however, doesn't even deny the accusation. He says, "If you thought our transactions were a bit shady and you didn't want to participate in market speculation, that wouldn't have stopped you from investing safely and honestly." He said, "Look, I entrusted you with my money. This conversation isn't about how I conduct business. It is about whether you fulfilled your fiduciary duty to me."
Aren't you glad that Jesus didn't use such legal jargon when he told the parable?
The point here is that this story is not about a man who went away on a long trip, leaving his money to be cared for by three of his servants. Whether this man himself was honest and ethical in his business practices is not germane to the story. (After all, he was far away while the money was being made.) The story is about the three men left behind and how faithfully they carried out the responsibilities that were given to them.
Two of the men were faithful. One was not. Two of the men were rewarded. One was not. And that's what the kingdom of heaven is like. People who don't keep faith are going to be bitterly disappointed.
A few weeks ago the Jehovah's Witnesses left a brochure on my front porch. It is titled, Would You Like to Know the Truth? My first reaction was, "Of course, I'd like to know the truth." Then I thought, "Wait … is this going to be about me?" If it is the truth about me, I'm not so sure that I want to know. Truth can be difficult, and I'm not always prepared to handle it. Insofar as this parable is a story about me, it leaves me very uncomfortable.
Perhaps you've had a friend who repeatedly reminded you, "Life is not all about you." Let me remind you, then, that this story is not all about you. It isn't about how the kingdom of heaven impacts your life. This story will always be confusing if you think it is a story about how the kingdom of heaven affects you.
The kingdom of heaven isn't all about you. You are all about the kingdom of heaven. This is a story about how you affect the kingdom.
During the six months or so that I ever had a title – I think it was Data Processing Manager – I had the opportunity to interview candidates for an open position. They wanted to know what it would be like working for us, and I wanted to know what they would be like. I asked them some of the more obvious questions, like, "Can you read?" and "Do you read?" Then I asked, "Will you be here when I need you?" I wanted to know whether I could rely on them, whether they would be here not just physically but in terms of their attention to the challenges that fell on us in that department.
Let's tell the story that Jesus told from my point of view as a Data Processing Manager. When the story opens, the employer tells his employees, "I'm going away. I expect you to be here for me and for my interests until I get back. Will you be here when I need you? I need you now."
When the man returned, he called the employees one at a time into his office and asked them, "Were you here for me? Was I right to rely on you while I was gone away?" One of the employees said, "Yes! I was here for you and I did the work you would have done if you had been here. You were right to rely on me!" And the employer replied, "I'm glad. You've done well. I will continue to rely on you."
A second employee said, "Yes! I was here for you. You were right to rely on me!" And the employer replied, "I'm glad. You've done well. I will continue to rely on you."
The third employee said, "No! I never wanted you to rely on me. I'm not comfortable with this business and I wish you'd never put any responsibility on me." To which the employer replied in the only way he could. "I'm sorry to know that I can't rely on you," he said, "but since that is so, you can't work for me any more. Pack your things and leave the building."
And that's what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Does retelling the story in this way make it easier to follow? Jesus is saying that living under God's rule is not so very different from what we've come to know in the secular world of jobs and families. If you know how to be an effective employee in a human business, then you already know most of what you need to know to be God's worker.
When Jesus first began teaching about the coming of the kingdom of heaven, his students had questions much like those job candidates that I interviewed years ago. "What will this kingdom be like?" they asked. It is the same thing that we want to know: "How will it affect me?" What should I expect when the kingdom of heaven comes?
But Jesus turned the question around as he so often did, and very much as I did with the job applicants. Jesus told this story of the travelling man and asked his students, "What can I expect when the kingdom of heaven comes? Will you be here when I need you? Can I rely on you?"
Because that's what the kingdom of heaven is like.