I remember asking my high school theology class to reflect on their personal image of God. Their initial descriptions of God are fairly typical and obviously scriptural: father, shepherd, dove, Jesus. But they also list several images from culture; the two most popular are an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud and, of course, Morgan Freeman. The exercise gets a bit more interesting when I challenged my students to figure out how their dominant image of God was formed. Often, the image is literally just that — an image, usually in the form of a painting hanging in a grandparent’s home. The students were surprised when we perused the vast scriptural images of God. Pointing out examples of a feminine image of God really blows their minds. They began to make a connection between their personal understanding of God and how they, in turn, respond.
Today’s Gospel is a familiar one. We have a traveling master who entrusts his possessions to servants. Two clever servants use the original sum to make more money for their master. The third one did not fare so well; he made the ill-advised decision to bury the one talent given to him. A seemingly obvious question can be directed toward the third servant, “What were you thinking?” The servant himself answers the question: “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear, I went off and buried your talent in the ground.”
We have a clear contrast in the Scriptures today between a group of hard-working and God-fearing people and the lone slacker. The readings are pretty straightforward about the blessings granted and taken away from each. What is the motivation for those that do the work and for the servant who does not? In Proverbs and Psalm 128, we are told that the motivation is “fear of the Lord.” Paul tells us that it is an anticipation of the “day of the Lord” that is sure to come when least expected. Each person who labors is assured a reward. The worthy wife is praised at the city gates, the psalmist promises fruit in the form of family, and Matthew’s servants are heaped with hefty praise and greater responsibilities. It is only the parable’s third servant who is left with nothing. He was not rewarded because he did not do the work required. In fact, he was chastised and stripped of the little he did have. But how did the servant miss the mark by so much? Are we not told that he also “feared” his master?
The servant’s failure to fully understand who his master is and what is most important to him leads the servant to think that burying his treasure is the correct course of action. His misconception of what the master demanded caused the servant to act out of fear, a fear so deep he was afraid to even try and do the work expected.
We, like all the people in today’s readings, are called to work with the talents our master has given us. This requires us to look at our image of God. Do we have a “fear of God,” meaning awe that inspires a desire to double God’s treasures? Or is it a fear and misunderstanding of a punishing God that causes us to doubt our own abilities? What image of God, be it a good shepherd or even Morgan Freeman, can we carry forward that will help us discover and use the gifts we are given so we, too, can hear our master’s voice saying: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”