By Rev. J.C. Austin
One of the most humbling aspects of parenthood is your increasing incompetence at helping your kids with schoolwork. My son Liam didn’t make it out of elementary school before I was over my head trying to decipher his math work; that was pretty humiliating. In middle school, I was still holding the line with science, but I have finally had to retreat in the face of full-strength high school chemistry and physics.
So that leaves me basically with social sciences, music and art, and literature as arenas in which I can make a contribution. Right now Liam is studying Homer’s Odyssey in literature, though, so I lit up when he asked me the other day to take a look at a draft of a paper he is writing. One of the best aspects of parenthood, though, are those moments when you realize your child is just really good at something and simply needs your affirmation and support instead of technical “help.”
And that’s how I felt reading his draft, which was a very insightful analysis of the pivotal moment in the Odyssey when Odyessus descends into the land of the dead and talks with the spirit of Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles, and the impact that has on the further actions of Odysseus. In that scene, Odysseus compliments Achilles on his status among the dead, but Achilles confesses that he would trade all his renown and status to be even the nameless slave of a poor farmer, if it meant that he could also return to the land of the living.
He laments to Odysseus that he was so focused on winning glory in life and not taking the gift of being alive itself more seriously. As a result, Odysseus, who has spent his return to Greece from the Trojan War pursuing adventures in which he routinely flirts with death to win glory, rethinks his goals, particularly when Achilles then asks about his family, and he realizes he has no real information about how they’ve been doing all this time.
He resolves to be more cautious and to focus on getting back home to his wife and son and resuming his responsibilities as king of the island of Ithaca. That journey still takes him many years. But after this encounter with Achilles, Odysseus undertakes the rest of that journey with both prudence and resolve. He still risks his life on more than one occasion, but only when it is necessary to fulfill his purpose of returning; personal glory is no longer a temptation or a goal.
The Odyssey is so influential on subsequent European literature and culture that “odyssey” as a word now means not simply the epic tale of Odysseus, but any long, meandering, and adventurous journey with multiple reversals of fortune along the way. And it became (and still is) one of the key templates for any story of a heroic or adventurous journey coming out of European (and later, American) culture.
The whole sub-genre of “road movies,” for example, wouldn’t exist without the Odyssey; you can see it in everything from Easy Rider to Finding Nemo. And it struck me, in reading this unusual parable Jesus tells, that the Odyssey is a pretty good reference point for understanding what Jesus is describing in this unusual parable he is telling in our passage today.
When he opens by saying, “it will be like a man going on a journey,” what he means is this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like; this passage takes place in a series of stories that Jesus is telling to his disciples on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem just a day or two before his arrest and subsequent crucifixion, death, and resurrection. What they’re asking about, essentially, is when they will know that all the difficult times for the church and the world will be over and they can rejoice in Jesus’ ultimate victory. This story about a man going away on a journey and entrusting his property to his servants while he’s gone is part of his answer to that question from his disciples
Now, when we hear, “it will be like a man going away on a journey,” it sounds like more than, say, a trip to Wegmans for milk and eggs, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like an epic adventure at first, either. It’s tempting to hear it as more like the first-century equivalent of a business trip to LA or even London for us, if you can remember when people did such things, especially since this character seems to be a businessperson of some significant wealth.
That kind of a journey takes a certain investment of time and you might have to make some arrangements to keep your household straight while you’re gone: someone to water the plants or feed and walk the dog, for example. But the implication here is much closer to Homer’s Odyssey than a week or two on the West Coast. The word for “journey” here means to travel abroad, and in the first century that meant not days and weeks but months and years. Nobles and wealthy landowners and merchants who undertook such journeys would have to make arrangements for their households to be managed well for an extended period of time in their absence.
This was actually one of Odysseus’ big failures in the Odyssey, because he didn’t do anything like that, and after going off to war and not being seen or heard from for years, his rivals on Ithaca decided he was dead and started camping out in his palace, trying to get his wife to choose one of them to be her new husband and Ithaca’s new king.
Now, it goes without saying that, if you were such a noble or merchant or landowner going abroad on a journey, an odyssey, you would want servants of indisputable ability, judgment, and commitment to fulfill this sort of management role while you were away. Again, this is the first century, so it’s not like the servant can text or email you whenever they have a question about what you would want them to do. The whole point is that they are going to have to make decisions completely on their own about how best to manage your property for you, using their best understanding who you are and what you would be most likely to do if you were there making the decisions yourself.
In the case of Jesus’ story, the landowner gets two out of three of those servants. The landowner seems to have some sense of that because Jesus says he entrusted them with different amounts, “each according to their ability,” and the third one is entrusted with the least funds by far. Still, if you’re familiar with this story, you may know that even one “talent” is an extraordinary amount of money; it was a denomination of money that was equivalent to about 15 years of wages for a typical worker.
Now, given that the landowner distributes the resources among the three servants, each to their own ability, that suggests that the third servant may be the least able of the three, but he still has significant ability to manage these funds, or the landowner wouldn’t have entrusted him with anything.
When you really look at it, the real difference between these servants is not so much in their ability as it is in their understanding of who their master is and what they are being asked to do. The third servant believes that his master is both harsh and ruthless to the point of being predatory, taking the produce and earnings of others for himself.
And he admits that made him afraid, and it is on the basis of that fear that he makes his decisions: he thinks his job is not to lose what he’s been given, to keep it safe and secure, and so he chooses the safest possible course of action at the time, which was to bury the funds in the ground so nothing bad could happen to them. In fact, the law at the time said that a person responsible for someone else’s property could not be held liable for any loss if they secured it by burial. I can’t lose, he must have thought to himself after figuring out his strategy; it’s a sure thing.
The problem is, he didn’t understand his master at all. The master did not entrust his wealth to these three servants to make sure none of it was lost. If that was his goal, he would simply have buried it himself and never involved the servants in the first place. The whole point of entrusting it to them was for them to do something with it, to use it in constructive and productive ways.
And that requires risk, because you can’t both use resources and keep them completely safe. The other two servants understood that and acted accordingly; after all, you don’t make a 100% return on your investment without taking on some risk. They saw being entrusted with these kinds of resources by this master not as something to fear, but something to embrace, from a master who doesn’t prey on others by taking from them, but rather empowers others by giving to them a staggering abundance of resources, discretion, and time to really accomplish something on his behalf.
The sure thing is not avoiding the master’s wrath, which the third servant ironically fails to do; the sure thing is what the other two servants do: fulfilling the master’s trust by taking the prudent and faithful risks necessary to accomplish the master’s goals, which is why the master gives the third servant’s talent to the first one; the first one has demonstrated his trustworthiness, his faithfulness and prudence, and so is entrusted with even more responsibility and resources.
Of course, figuring out what the prudent and faithful risks are, figuring out how to live out of trust instead of fear, is the real trick, isn’t it? There’s a thin line between prudence and fear, between faithful and foolish. As our response to the pandemic became more and more politicized and polarized, there have been voices arguing that we should not live in fear, that we should feel free to go about our lives as we used to, that we should not give in to the “tyranny” of wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. It has been argued that that those who are afraid of the virus should themselves stay home and let everyone else live their lives according to their own free choices.
As you can see from the fact that I am delivering this sermon from my home because I am in a precautionary 14-day self-quarantine due to a child testing positive in my son’s high school “pod” shortly after their last in-person school, I don’t agree with that viewpoint. While this is following the best guidance of public health officials, it is, in the end, guidance; there wouldn’t be any legal consequences if I chose not to do it.
I am doing it because I think it is the prudent thing to do, yes, but much more importantly, because I think it is the loving thing to do for my neighbors. And while I have the freedom to make a different decision, one that is more convenient and less disruptive for me, I believe that I am accountable to Jesus Christ for how I use my freedom, and whether I do so in ways that further his kingdom and fulfill his commandments to love God with all my being, and love my neighbor as myself.
That, after all, is what Christian freedom is all about in the first place. In this parable, these servants are given an astonishing, even intimidating, level of freedom in deciding how best to manage the mind-blowing amount of resources that the master has entrusted to them. But it is a freedom that is conditioned by both purpose and accountability; the servants know that they are supposed to do something on the master’s behalf with these resources that will further his interests, and they know that the master will return at some point and ask them to account for what they’ve done.
So they don’t have the freedom to use those resources for self-indulgence or self-aggrandizement or self-interest; that is not the purpose of either the freedom or the resources. But they have something much more powerful than any of that: because of the abundance of freedom and resources and opportunities that the master has given them, they can use them prudently and faithfully and receive a dual reward: even greater resources and opportunities to use on the master’s behalf, and the invitation to “enter into the joy of their master,” as Jesus puts it.
That is what you and I have right now, in this very season of turmoil and uncertainty and fear. There is never a shortage of freedom and opportunities and yes, of resources as well, to fulfill our calling as servants of Jesus Christ to build up his kingdom. In fact, the greater the turmoil and uncertainty around us, the more abundant are the freedom and opportunities and resources that we find that we have been given to do our work prudently and faithfully on Christ’s behalf.
And what we find is what Jesus was trying to tell those disciples when they asked, “when will all these difficult times be over?”: that the kingdom of heaven is not just like entering the joy of Christ when everything is over and our work is done, but that joy is ours, as we are Christ’s, all along if we are willing to receive it, and believe it, and act on it. And that is as sure as anything gets, because it is Christ’s promise to us.