Thursday, November 17, 2011

Merit Badges

Mt. 25:14-30[1]

Most of you know that I was a Boy Scout. And many of you know that I’m an Eagle Scout. What you may not know is that I really liked the whole system of checking off requirements to advance to the next rank—from Tenderfoot to Second Class to First Class to Star to Life to Eagle. I also liked the whole aspect of earning merit badges. When you completed all the assignments, you finished the badge. And at the next Court of Honor, you got that badge and you got to wear it on your sash. It was a very satisfying thing to have a merit badge sash full of badges. When I first started out, I had three—rowing, canoeing, and swimming. I took those my first year at Summer Camp in 1972. Having a sash with only 3 merit badges made you feel kind of “naked.” So there was a subtle motivation to fill that sash up! When I finished in 1977, I had 28 merit badges.

I always liked that system—you check off requirements, and you get a reward. I’ve often thought I should have gone into the military, because at least on the surface it looks like an extension of that very structured system of merits and rewards. It seems to me that a lot of people look at the parable of the talents in our Gospel lesson for today and think that the “Kingdom of Heaven” operates like that. Now, I realize that among the parables of the kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel, this one may be the hardest to see as ironical—it is in fact talking about the opposite of what the kingdom is like. Most of us have heard the “sanitized” version of the parable—the “talents” are abilities that you’ve been given to invest on behalf of the kingdom, and if you don’t use them you lose them. But I don’t think that’s what this parable is about at all. Not at all!

In the first place, a “talent” in that day and time was an incredible fortune—the equivalent of ten to twenty years’ wages. This story should be called “The Parable of the Fortune Funds.” That puts this parable in a completely different realm of life—that of profits and margins and commissions! But more importantly, if you pay close attention to the details, this parable is about earning rewards. You get five fortune funds, you earn five more, and you get to keep all ten as a reward. You get two fortunes, you earn two more, and you get to keep all four. It’s very structured, very predictable. The rewards match the deeds; the merits match the achievements. But the down side applies to any “under-achievers.” If you’re like the servant who got one fortune and did nothing with it for fear of losing a great deal of money, then you don’t even get to keep that. And because you didn’t live up to the requirements, you get thrown out and punished.[2]

If that’s really what the “Kingdom of Heaven” is like, God looks more like a ruthless Wall Street tycoon than a loving creator and redeemer.[3] In that version of the kingdom, “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” (Matt. 25:29). Make no mistake, if the parable of the talents is not ironical, then the “kingdom of heaven” is about a strict system of earning rewards, and there’s not much room for grace or forgiveness or mercy.

I don’t know about you, but to me that doesn’t sound much like the God who blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:3-6). It doesn’t sound much like the God who freely gives the blessings of sun and rain to all alike (Matt. 5:45). It doesn’t sound much like the God who feeds and clothes those who have little faith (Matt. 6:25-30), or the God who gives good things to those who ask like any parent does with a child (Matt. 7:7-11).[4] It doesn’t sound very much like the God who cares so much about each one of us as to keep track of the very hairs of our head (Matt. 10:30)! And it doesn’t sound like the God who seeks us out like a shepherd seeking one lost sheep because it is not God’s will that “one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt. 18:14).

Nor does the idea of a kingdom that operates based on merit and rewards sound much like the strange kingdom Jesus talks about. In this strange kingdom, there is nothing to earn—no merits or rewards to rack up.[5] And everybody gets the same gift—God’s full and free acceptance. In this strange kingdom, the religious “under-achievers” gain entry ahead of those who think they’ve racked up more spiritual points. In this strange kingdom, God doesn’t throw people into “outer darkness,” because the only judgment is based on God’s mercy that forgives all sin and creates the possibility of new life for everyone.[6] It is a strange kingdom indeed—one that works completely contrary to the way things work in our world.

Now, what you may not know about my merit badge sash is that there are two badges missing that almost every Boy Scout everywhere always earns. I never got my Cooking and Camping merit badges! Isn’t that absurd—an Eagle Scout without Cooking and Camping merit badges! Of course, in reality I fulfilled the requirements for both of them many times over. But I was never officially awarded the badges! In our world—sometimes—when you fulfill the requirements you get the reward. When you do what is expected—sometimes—you get the “merit badge”—whatever form your “merit badge” might take. And when you collect enough badges you get to move up to the next rung of the ladder. And you keep climbing, because if you slack off, you might get bumped all the way off the ladder!

But that’s precisely the problem with that kind of system. It works for those who make it to the top; but for everyone else, it means only rejection and humiliation; "the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud" (Ps. 123:4). More importantly, if whether we “make it” or not in a spiritual sense is determined by a strict system of merit and reward, then the plain truth is that we’re all under-achievers. On our own, none of us can ever earn enough merit badges. But I think that’s Jesus’ point—the “Kingdom of Heaven” works completely differently from “The Parable of the Fortune Funds.” In this strange kingdom, there are no badges and no rewards, because everything is a gift. In the “Kingdom of Heaven,” everything depends on God’s love, which never fails, and God’s grace, which always seeks us out, and God’s mercy, which embraces us all completely.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/13/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] It seems to me that the 2011 Independent film “Margin Call” presents a contemporary real-life scenario that effectively models this dynamic of “winners” and “losers” in the financial world.

[3] In fact, Berthold Brecht, in his Threepenny Novel, has a scene in which a Bishop preaches a funeral sermon for the crew of a warship that sank because it was launched in unseaworthy condition. The Bishop uses this parable to justify the profit that the wealthy ship builders made at the expense of the crew’s lives. See U. Luz and H. Koester, Matthew 21-28, 250. They observe, “When the rapaciousness of a capitalist … become(s) a parable for the kingdom of God, … these methods and the profit motive behind them are justified … . God thus becomes a God of the rich and the clever, since he acts just like them.”

[4] See David J. Neville, “Toward a Teleology of Peace: Contesting Matthew’s Violent Eschatology,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30 (Dec 2007): 153, where he points out the tension between the violent outcomes in these end-times parables of Matthew’s Gospel and the presentation of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which he describes as “a nonviolent moral vision … grounded in the indiscriminate love of God.”

[5] Cf. Desmond and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, 21.

[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 315, 334-37. Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 255.

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