By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.
Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18, Psalm 90.1-12 1, Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30
A big shift is happening in our church and other mainline denominations that is talked about in books and blogs but something we rarely articulate in our individual communities and congregations. It’s a paradigm shift if you will, a major shift in the very assumptions we make about how belief systems work in the context of human psychology. I’ll call that shift the Three B’s.
For centuries now there has been an assumption that people coming to believe in Christianity – or in any faith – do it by accepting a set of beliefs about who God is, what the world is and the people in it, how they are related to each other, and so on. These beliefs are expressed in the baptismal creed or the Nicene creed – or in a specific denomination’s confession of faith. Before you receive communion you are baptised, and before you are baptised you are supposed to go through a formation process to help you understand what the Christianity is, so you can recite the creed and make certain other confessions of belief at the time of your baptism.
So the important thing is whether you have the correct belief to behave like a member and then you might really belong. Believe-behave-belong. It used to be, for instance, that children could not receive communion until after they were confirmed, when they were supposedly at an age when they could intellectually assent to the beliefs of the community.
That has been changing a lot over the past few decades, however so that children who have been baptised are now allowed to receive communion, and adults who have not been baptised are in some places allowed to participate in communion even though in our diocese the official position of the bishops is that you should not receive communion unless you’ve been baptised.
The big shift has been toward a different ordering of these three Bs: belong-behave-believe, a reflection of new understandings of human psychology and spiritual growth. Seekers are welcomed into the community and feel a sense of belonging, they behave according to the practices of the faith community, which in turn supports their learning about the faith and coming to believe the underlying story of the faith.
One of the most interesting and articulate writers and thinkers on this topic is Diana Butler Bass. In a book called Christianity after Religion, she calls it a world-wide spiritual awakening where the emphasis is like this:
We belong to God and to one another, connected to all in a web of relationships, and there we find our truest selves. We behave in imitation of Jesus, practicing our faith with deliberation as we anticipate God’s reign of justice and love. We believe with our entire being, trusting, beloving, and devoted to the God whom we have encountered through one another and in the world. We are; we act; we know. Belonging, behaving, and believing — shifted back to their proper and ancient order.
It is this emphasis on belonging-behaving-believing that Jesus is talking about in the gospel for today. A man going on a journey gives money to his slaves – five talents of silver to one, two to another, and one to the third. He rewards the two slaves who invested wisely and doubled their money. But he cruelly punishes the one who was too frightened to invest his money.
Some Biblical scholars, especially in the evangelical tradition, equate the slave owner with God. But God is not cruel and capricious. Parables are not to be taken literally or even as allegories. They are stories, fables, told by Jesus to make a point. In many cases the point is veiled to us because we don’t live in or really comprehend the context.
So the first thing to consider about the context is that Jesus himself does not accept the image of a god who is a cruel judge. The God we know through Jesus’ teachings is a God of love, compassion, and justice. So we have to be really careful when we read the parables not to equate any character in them with God.
The second thing about the context is that the parable is aimed specifically at the scribes and pharisees – the religious leaders – who are always in contentious conversations with Jesus.
Third, Jesus is using the imagery of punishment and afterlife that were accepted at the time – it’s simply part of the context. In order to make his point, Jesus takes for granted their worldview.
So how does this parable address the paradigm shift from Believing-Behaving-Belonging to Belonging-Behaving-Believing?
The scribes and pharisees were the primary religious leaders of the time. They taught that in order to be a good Jew you had to accept the belief that the covenant God had with God’s people was literally a contract – I will be good to Israel, I will protect you, I will fight your wars for you, I will make you especially mine if you follow my commandments. The pharisees believed that the commandments were not only the Shema (the original confession of faith for Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.). They were not only just the 10 commandments, But they included the much later interpretation of these commandments in 613 different laws, most of which are in the Book of Leviticus.
Jesus, on the other hand, declared there was just one commandment which we call “the summary of the law,” based on the Shema – Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God; Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself.
For Jesus, that confession of faith was for the community, just as the Shema was for Israel. Judaism was never meant to be a private religion – it was a community of people all bound together in covenant with God. You became a Jew by being born in a Jewish family. And the same was true in the early church. Whole families were baptised together, because they were still Jewish and still accepted the premise that religion was communal – not a matter of coming to a formal intellectual acceptance of a theological system or a confession of faith.
Somehow the Christian church over the centuries has come to assert that to belong you must first believe in a set of theological assertions, behave in a certain way which proved you were of the right beliefs (including using the right language), and then were accepted as belonging. But if you strayed one iota from the theological beliefs you could no longer belong.
Jesus taught just the opposite – like the earliest Hebrew communities in the Old Testament, you first belonged to a community of seekers – because that’s what the disciples all were. They were invited into Jesus’ fellowship first. Jesus did not ask them to recite a confession of faith. He simply called them. Come, be my disciples. Their spiritual formation came from being with Jesus, hearing his teachings, watching him heal people, treat them with compassion and empathy, and then take out time – often – just to be with God in prayer – alone, and with the disciples. They travelled with him and learned from him, and then, in the end believed so strongly that they were willing to go to the death with him.
This angered the pharisees, and so they were always trying to trap Jesus. They were not willing to invest in a deeper relationship with God.
And that is what this parable is saying: The two people who were given 5 and 2 talents felt accepted and trusted by the master to go and invest their money. They wanted to be part of the team, however nasty and scary the team leader was. The third person knew he wasn’t really accepted. He didn’t belong. He was given only a pittance and so out of fear of the master he went and hid it. And as we saw, no good was going to come of that.
If even a nasty master can inspire confidence and risk in people, then Jesus is saying to the Pharisees (and maybe to us?) that risking a little, letting the Holy Spirit out of the safe box we like to keep her in, will lead to who knows what depth of love, of belonging? And that longing in turn affects our behaviour – we want to invest ourselves, risk our lives even, for God.
May we risk the power of love and belonging in order to share with the world the good news that the only commandment we need to follow is the Shema, and the only obedience we owe is the obedience of love: “This is my commandment,” says Jesus in the 15th Chapter of John’s gospel, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Belong – behave – believe.
And help others to do the same. Amen.