Monday, November 13, 2017

How Do We See God?

How do you see God? That's one of the questions I ask when I meet with someone for spiritual direction. Do you see God as a parent? As a king? As a friend? As a judge? What image captures most fully how you approach the Almighty? The answer--and its evolution over time--can say a lot about someone's spiritual life. The supplications we raise to God who is our friend are very different than the requests we make of God the king. The answers we hear from God the judge are very different from those we hear from God the parent. Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:14-30) presents the parable of the talents, and it gives us a chance to explore how our understanding of who God is affects our participation in God's kingdom.

You remember the story of the master who entrusted his wealth to three servants before he went away. To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, and to the last one talent. Remember that a talent was a measure of precious metal--a big hunk of silver--that represented a phenomenal amount of money. The point of the parable is exposed when such ridiculous sums are given to the servants. When he returns to collect his money plus profit, we discover that the first and second have doubled the master's money, while the third has simply buried it in the ground. As we would expect, the first two are rewarded, but the third is punished. Why?

The little details in the story are easy to skip over but shouldn't be missed. For starters, notice that the master gave to each servant according to his ability. The brightest, sharpest, most industrious servant got five talents. The steady, faithful performer got two talents. And the last servant, presumably the one in whom the master had little confidence, received one. What does that do to the outcome? When your ability is defined from the outset and reinforced by the allocation of resources (think public schools that are funded through property taxes), what is the real possibility for overcoming the system's expectations?

Another important detail comes on the lips of the third servant: "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." This servant knew that he was most likely to receive the ire of his master. He was the kid who walked into class on the first day of school only to hear the teacher say, "Hello, James. I've heard all about you. I know you're going to be the worst student in my class. Take your seat." His master was the same master that the other two servants had, yet he is trapped in his fearful impression of him. He missed the opportunity to flourish because he anticipated punishment from the beginning. Is that how we see God?

From our first parents, we see that our human instinct is to hide from God because we are naked. Our shortcomings are exposed. Our misdeeds come to light. We worry that our God is a harsh God, who punishes to the third generation. If that is our picture of who God is, if we imagine him saying to us, "I will be back to judge you harshly," how will we ever flourish?

Jesus has another story of God to tell. It is one of love and mercy and forgiveness. The judgment in this parable is real, but it belongs to those who do not trust in God's generosity. To those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. We are not judged on the returns we make for God. We are judged on whether we rely on God's mercy. There is an opportunity for godly risk bound up in that trust--that faith--that will be explored later this week. To start, however, I'm reexamining the way in which I see God. Do I trust in his mercy? Do I count on his love? Or am I still approaching God expecting condemnation? Those who know love and mercy live in love and mercy. Those who do not cannot.

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