The Parable of the Ill-Advised Workplace Evaluation

Let me suggest that the proper title for the parable we hear this morning is not “The Parable of the Talents.”  No, if you ask me, this story should be renamed “The Parable of the Ill-Advised Workplace Evaluation.”  You know that workplace ritual, right?  It sounds like a wonderful, holistic experience oriented toward your personal growth, but in practice, it can feel like judgment day.

Now you may think it’s the third servant who is being evaluated this morning, but I think the real problem in this story is that the third servant elects to do an uninvited evaluation of his master. For some reason, though this servant is apparently timid when it comes to investing, he is strangely bold about critiquing others, so instead of just reporting that he has done nothing with the money, he decides to lead with some helpful feedback.  “You are a harsh man,” says the servant, defensively.  “You reap where you did not sow.” And, in case the critique wasn’t strong enough, the servant makes the final point in bottom-line terms: “You scare me so much that I’m not really able to do my job for fear of your thundering disapproval.  Please take back the money you gave me.”

Rule number one of a performance evaluation: wait to give feedback until your boss has asked the magic, “and what could I do better?”  Don’t get out there ahead on your own.

This is a flippant reading of the parable, obviously, and I don’t want to stay with it for too long, but I do think it’s worth considering that the third servant has some kind of perceptual problem, and that his master’s eventual hard-heartedness is in some way a reflection of the servant’s fear. It’s true that there is no way around the intensity of the master, but let’s explore what’s wrong with the third servant anyway, shall we? Because it seems like the greatest obstacle in this story is his intrusive belief that the master will condemn him.

I can’t shake the thought that the third servant is somehow misreading his own situation. This is, after all, a master who entrusts his slaves with his property.  Yes, the first two servants manage a miraculous hundred-percent return on their investments, but even so, the master’s words to them are surprisingly grace-filled: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant….Enter into the joy of your master.”  There are good reasons that so many of us hope to hear these beautiful words at the end of our lives.  We don’t hear them every day. In fact, in our own ruthlessly perfectionistic times we may find it remarkable that the master has no nitpicking critique to offer along with the recognition that the job was done well.  He doesn’t offer them advice about branding.  He doesn’t ask them whether they are already working on a second project.  No questions about where they see themselves in five years or whether they’ve done a feasibility study.  By the standards of the modern workplace, that is, this master is remarkably supportive at first.  He is impressed and grateful and he expresses delight.  “Enter into the joy of your master”: is it too much to call that a kind of friendship?  At very least it’s an offer of security that most bosses would be unable to offer in the workplace today: “I’ve got plenty of work for you for as long as you want it.”

But for some reason the third servant has no access to that picture of his master. He has managed to work for him for some time, I guess, without seeing what’s strange and rich and complex about this admittedly irascible figure.

And we too have made some pretty one-dimensional pictures of God that keep us from the work of the kingdom. We have made our own economy into a master that is harsher and more demanding than this biblical slave owner.  We’ve submitted to notions of reward and punishment that are far more draconian than the ones that offend us in this parable.  And we are certain that God is a lot like the worst boss ever, just waiting to tell us that we’ve done it all wrong.  Waiting to take everything from us. 

Maybe we are secretly thinking that God’s decision to put the kingdom of heaven in our hands—to make us co-workers with God’s own grace—is a capricious, overwhelming, unfair arrangement. A set-up.  A test we can’t pass. And our complaints about this vision of God, like the third servant’s complaints about his master, may come rushing into our awareness when we are confronted with the truth that God has entrusted something precious and urgent to us.

But make no mistake.  God is not the same as our economy.  God is not the same as our culture of blame and guilt and shame and relentless critique.  God is not like the worst image of authority in our heads.  God wants us to be free and loving. The parallel between this master and our God is not in his ruthlessness, it’s in his slightly crazy willingness to put himself into our hands.  Yes, God’s trust forces a moment of decision for us, but not because God is waiting for us to get it wrong.

And yes, friends, this is Commitment Sunday, this is the Sunday in which we ask for financial pledges for the coming year. Right now, you and I are being asked to do this work.  Something of God’s kingdom has been put into our hands, crazy as that may seem. Look around you: we are it.  If the kingdom of heaven is going to flourish in Philadelphia, some Philadelphians are going to have to be involved, and that means us.  Our financial commitment to this parish and to the work of God’s church is not optional, not something we can turn away from.  The work of God is urgent, and like it or not you have been entrusted with one of God’s real treasures: a flourishing, vital, beautiful, flawed community of believers who, in spite of all the odds, have gathered together here this morning to take joy in Christian stewardship. 

We are stewards of all of this: this building, this glorious music, this rich heritage of worship and belief.  We are stewards of the faith and hope and love that have been poured out here since the late nineteenth century, and in that we are stewards of God’s very work in this world. We are stewards of the needs of the broken who come here for relief, of the joy of those who come here to be married, of the seekers who turn to us for hope that God is still possible in 2017 and beyond. There is a shelter for souls on Locust Street in Philadelphia.  There is a living monument to the joy of walking with God right here in this city. It has been entrusted to us, by the grace of God.

And we have no reason to doubt the grace of God. We have no reason to doubt God’s forgiveness when we fail, because we fail here all the time and God stays with us patiently. We have no reason to doubt that what we do here can work, because it has been working.  We have no reason to fear that this parish can’t grow, because it has been growing.  Sure, we have to be prudent about our own circumstances, but we can let this parable challenge us.  In the parable, the third servant is presented with proof that his master enjoys the bold efforts of others.  He is presented with proof that the master wants his servants to enter into his joy.  He can see the abundance that his peers are experiencing. But what he imagines is danger and failure and judgment.  And you too, are presented with proof today that God’s kingdom can flourish on this earth. A joyful life of faith is possible.  We are doing it.  Take that in.

In our world, visions of malicious power can be found without any effort at all.  We don’t have to look hard to find a culture of condemnation.  It’s easy to find somebody who will want to cast us into outer darkness, or invite us to expel others from the circle of the elect.  Recrimination is everywhere, and we are haunted by images of failure: the failed state, the failed career, failed relationships, deserted towns, failed businesses.  Closed churches.  If you get it wrong in our world, it can be hard to locate the source of help and forgiveness and new life.

What a profound statement it is to be here this morning, then, ready to offer our best.  We are ready to offer some of our security, precious though it is, because by God’s grace we are not too preoccupied with thoughts of getting it wrong.  Because we know God.  God has met us here and God’s life is offering itself to us and to others, in abundance.  That joy is available to us.  We can enter into it.  We can be part of its power.  We can be part of the transformation of the world by God’s grace.  How could we fail?

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson

19 November 2017

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on November 20, 2017 .