The kingdom of God is like a lot of things. It’s like a mustard seed. It’s like a woman who searches and finds a lost coin. It’s like a farmer who sowed seed on the ground. None of these tells the whole story. Parables give us glimpses of what the underlying identity is. We need to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” all of them before we consider ourselves knowledgeable of God’s kingdom.
As I wake up this morning and read the Daily Office and the lessons for the upcoming Sunday, I encounter two very contrasting images of the kingdom.
First, in Luke 15:1-2, 11-32, Jesus likens the kingdom to a man who had two sons. One came and demanded his share of the inheritance and then squandered it in dissolute living. We know his story as that of the prodigal son. He came to his senses, returned to his father to apologize and beg to be treated even as a slave, but the father comes to embrace him and orders that his return be celebrated. That which was lost has been found. The other brother’s refusal to join in the celebration heightens for us the extent to which God welcomes back the estranged sinner. Who does such a thing? God does.
Then, in Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus describes the kingdom as like a man who went on a journey and entrusted his property to three slaves. To one he gave five talents, to one two talents, and to another one talent. When the master returned, he found that the first two have made profits of 100%, and they are rewarded. Out of fear, the third hid the talent in the ground and returned it to his master having earned nothing during the span while the master was away, and he is summarily judged by the master as unworthy to share in his company: “So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
So which is it? Is the kingdom like the first image, in which God welcomes back even the most disrespectful sinner? Or is the kingdom like the second image, in which God casts the faithless one out into the outer darkness?
Of course the answer is both. We know that. We might not know exactly how that works, but we know and trust that the kingdom is both of those things…and so much more. So what does that mean for this Sunday’s sermon?
Don’t let the parable of the talents come to represent everything we need to know about God’s kingdom. It isn’t the whole story. But likewise don’t hide behind the parable of the prodigal son and soften the important and true message of judgment that the parable of the talents presents. The kingdom is both. It must be both. As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I feel called not to talk about the “outer darkness” as the damnation that God reserves for “wicked and lazy” sinners like me. That seems to make the parable of the talents into a perfect image of the kingdom, which it was never designed to be. Instead, the questions isn’t one of “heaven or hell.” It’s one of relationship. What does it mean to be in relationship with God?
God is like the father to the prodigal son. When we come to our senses and return to God seeking mercy, we discover a God who is eager to wrap his loving arms around us. And God is like the master of the wicked and lazy slave. When we hide the gifts he has given us because we are afraid of him, we will never discover the God who is gracious and loving—instead we find ourselves in the outer darkness. The issue isn’t one of God’s posture or attitude. God is always gracious; God is always loving. The issue is whether we can see and know and feel his love to the very core of our soul. Fear is the single greatest impediment to our ability to know God’s love.