Well, I managed to stay offline nearly all of yesterday, floating on a triumphant exultant glow of having procured nine whole dining room chairs for a total of 36 dollars (how many talents is that—so many) and strong-momming my children into moving a lot of furniture around and cleaning up my house. It was so great and made the crash of sitting in one of those sturdy chairs at the end of the day and watching this all the more irritating. It’s the new German ad campaign to keep people from going out in order to stop the spread of the ‘rona. It features a comfortable looking older gentleman reminiscing about his youth—that time in 2020 when he became a hero by staying home and “doing nothing.” There are cutaways to a darkened room where a single young man is lying on his couch. The old man chuckles. And then it’s all over. I mean—not in some epic cosmic sense, but just the public service announcement. Although, the bleakness of it put me right in the frame of mind to take a gander at this morning’s gospel.
“For it will be,” says Jesus, taking up his discourse in the short time he has left before his own death, “like a man going on a journey,” a there and back again if you will. Only you won’t know about what the man is up to, it will be what he leaves behind that captures the listener’s attention. The man who goes away is a person of property. He will leave his servants in charge of his wealth, and expects them to make something of it while he is gone.
This seems to me like something from the long past—like the 80s—where people had immense trust in each other, wandering around without cellphones or tracking devices. Where children rode their bikes up and down and their parents smiled at them at the end of a long day and then poured out another martini. It’s hard to imagine a world where someone would trust all the people, even the untrustworthy ones, to do something, would go away to do other things, and then come back after a while without texting first or giving any warning.
The first two servants do well. They take the money and go make more money. But the last one falls apart—or seems to. He takes what he is given and buries it in the ground. “Master,” he says, “I knew you to be a hard man…so I was afraid, and I hid your talent in the ground.” The master is incensed, as the man should have expected. For surely, the man spoke through many prophets, promising to come suddenly to his own for a reckoning:
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the men
who are complacent,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do ill,’
cries God in Zephaniah. As if none people in Jerusalem in that day knew what he was like or bothered to know or were curious at all. No one has said this, but the lines, “I was afraid…so I hid,” struck me sideways, as if I’d heard them somewhere before. They seem always to be appearing through the whole Bible, from those first moments when God put a man in charge of his whole world and stood back for a few minutes to see what he, the man, would make of it. And the thing that he, the man, concluded as he wandered around that beautiful place, the sun glinting off the leaves of a thousand bright new trees, the grass soft and cool, the sky clear and expansive, was that his God was “a hard man,” and also that “The Lord will not do good.”
Whence the fear?
I mean, I feel like I am always living now with a low level, slow-burning dread that often manifests as a headache and has made me excessively snappy over the last many months. God has seemed like a “hard man.” Setting aside the question of reaping and sowing, it has often seemed like he has taken away a lot of good things that weren’t really hurting anybody. Like human society, or health, or economic viability. Like the many people who have died this year. Like church. I don’t really want to list out the list because it will be too much for all of us.
But that’s exactly the point—God has “seemed” hard. The man who ran off to bury his talent in the ground could have looked to the other servants for more information, could have questioned himself, could have wondered if maybe the other servants who went out and did what the master required knew more than he did. But why would he? Adam didn’t. It’s not the usual way.
The crowd around Jesus listened in disbelief and remained unmoved. When the time came, they cried out for his blood, welcoming the falling darkness as if God was always their problem, as if he had never come everything would be better. And so I lurch forward to Advent, wondering what the next week will be like. The competing calls of the world and Christ—usually a sort of comfort, the dissonant beauty of candlelight beating back the garish florescent promises of Black Friday—this year are discordant. Christians don’t know where to look or what to do, just like everyone else. Is the virtuous thing to stay home and “do nothing.” Is that the heroism of the moment?
I don’t think staying home is a bad thing. But the “do nothing” bit is a lie. It is an ancient lie. Because to do nothing is to do something—as the man who buried his talent in the ground discovered. To do nothing is to say that God is hard, that he is not good, that he does not care, that what he is giving, even today, is unacceptable. The master, seeing that the servant feared him without knowing him, cast him out.
“Teach us to number our days,” says Moses in the middle of his song about God’s terrible judgment, “that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Which is a big something that every Christian can do—to stop, even in isolation and anxiety, and number up the goodness of God, the degree to which he is kind, the wonders of his mercy. And then to get up and do the thing he asks, with whatever it is that he has given.