A Bridge Past Scapegoating by Allie Papke-Larson
This sermon was preached at LCM|Canterbury on November 15, 2020. You can also find the video of the sermon at the bottom of this post.
Greetings my Siblings in Christ from God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We continue our journey with Matthew today with Jesus continuing to tell us about the Kingdom of Heaven through the parable of 3 servants who were each left with an exorbitant amount of money to take care of while their master went on a journey. Upon the master’s return he wants to know how each did with the money he entrusted to them: the 1st and 2nd servant invested the money and gained more, the 3rd however, was fearful of what would happen if he were to invest the money and then lose it, because according to the him the master was a “hard man”, so he buried it. The master returns and was very pleased with the first two servants, whom he called “good and faithful” inviting them to “share [in their] master’s happiness.” He did not respond well, you could say, to the 3rd servant, the one who had buried the money and brought back exactly what had been entrusted to him. The 3rd servant was scolded, called lazy, and thrown from his master’s home into a place where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This parable seems harsh, a man who did not appear to hurt anyone was punished for not taking initiative and making his master money like his comrades did. Upon hearing this parable my first reaction was “why would Jesus tell us a story about how capitalism is king, and servants belong to their masters…and how those servants will be crushed by the scepter of capitalism for being paralyzed by a fear they have been taught to live into their whole lives?”
Okay, Allie, take a step back… Does that seem like a message Jesus, the man whose ministry worked towards tearing tyrants from their thrones and turning the world upside down, would preach? Certainly not. The guards we have surrounding our own hearts, sometimes, can become blinded by a desire to see whatever it is they are looking for… and in this case my guards were ready to call something rotten before allowing my heart and mind to engage with the spirit of this ancient text.
Looking at it again, it appears to me the 3rd man, the one who buried the treasure, was not acting out of clear sight but out of a clouded vision of how he saw himself and who he saw his master to be.
The 3rd servant acted out of fear and certainty. Fear not only that the master would punish him, but also fear that he would be punished because he would mess up what had been entrusted to him. Unlike the first two servants who has faith in the goodwill of the master,, and who believed in the skills and goodness they had within them, the 3rd man’s vision was clouded and he not only misinterpreted the character of the master, but also his own potential. You see, it seems that the 3rd man kept himself from living into the goodwill of his master, and his own gifts, because he was feeling fearful, and nothing keeps us from sharing our gifts more than being fearful. His fear, that all would go wrong and he would be hurt by his master, made up his mind for him into “knowing” what kind of man his master was, and created certainty over how this situation would unfold…of course his fear and his holding back of using his gifts did not prevent what he was fearful of from coming to pass.
This parable reminded me of a podcast I listened to by The Liturgist, called “Are those people the problem?” The host of the show interviewed a man named Peter Rollins, a Northern Irish Philosopher who, in this episode, was speaking about scapegoating. “The scapegoat,” Rollins said, “was the goat that carried the sins or lack of the community, the idea that the scapegoat is someone we blame externally for all the internal conflicts within [us and] our society… it is the external person we believe is the problem, and if we got rid of that person, everything would be better. But,” Rollins continues, “the community requires the scapegoat because that’s what holds them together… they don’t have to look at the internal conflict, the one within the group or within the self” because they are placing all their fear and blame on the scapegoat. This, of course, does not create peace, but enemies and even war.
Now, I have two connections to say about Rollins thoughts on Scapegoating. The first is the 3rd man in the Gospel was scapegoating his own fear of failure and his own lack of faith in his gifts onto his master; and this caused him to create a monster out of his master, which seemed safer than to deal with his own fear and live into his gifts. In the end his scapegoating manifested the ending he was so fearful of, and was the opposite of what God desires for us which is to be in right relationship with each other.
The second thing is I believe we are doing this today on a grand scale of progressive vs. conservative, and democrat vs. republican. We are manifesting monsters out of “those people over there.” We are doing so in the same way the 3rd man in our Gospel did, with fear in our hearts creating certainty and false knowledge about who the “other” is. A bridge through this scapegoating, Rollins says, is through something he calls “Apocalypticism: meaning the incoming of something you could never have imagined.” If we are to believe that we don’t know what the future is, that it could hold something we cannot imagine, and if we decide to not be certain about who “those people” are, perhaps then there can be room for all of us to live full lives with the possibility of newness and surprise.
If we look to our psalm today, Psalm 90, we will see that we are called to live full lives. This Psalm is a prayer of hope, a hope that understands the future is unknown to us, but that our God can soften hearts, give wisdom and provide manna. This psalm praises the God who is everlasting, who created the mountains and also humans. This psalm illuminates that God has given us the gift of desiring full lives. It praises the eternal God by comparing the shortness of our lives to God,
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
The psalm, even knowing that we are like dust, implores God to show compassion and even share splendor with us.
Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children.
This psalm illuminates that God has given us, humans, the gift to desire full lives. Even with our lives being short, and filled with trouble and sorrow, we still desire splendor and God’s love. We plea for wisdom, we hope for compassion… it is in human nature to seek full lives.
When I read this psalm I feel seen by the Bible and those who wrote it, and this makes me feel more human and stronger, because the writers understood the struggles of being human and having the desire to live a full life and also, like the 3rd servant, a desire to protect ourselves, point fingers and succumb to fear…
So, how do we live in the abundance God has given us, instead of scapegoating our fears onto others, and living small lives with treasures (and heads) buried in the dirt? Again, I turn to psalm 90:
May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.
We turn our trust to God, asking, pleading that God will establish the work of our hands and our hearts. That God will give us hearts and characters of light in order to do works of light… even in dark times… even in times of peril… even when we are scared and cannot trust in the gifts we have been given. We can practice having faith in our human spirits, the same spirits that implore God to give us not just compassion, but splendor!
And we can practice, and I keep saying practice because we will probably never get it perfect but we continue to try, having faith that we do not know what the future holds, that we do not live in a world of certainty and that this then opens up the possibility of seeing others and ourselves with newness. We don’t have to put our heads in the dirt, friends, but can lean on our God-given and God-full human spirits. Amen.
A graduate of Augsburg University, Allie Papke-Larson has served as our Program Coordinator since July 2019. Beginning this academic year, she is preaching every third Sunday at LCM|Canterbury.