Hell’s Vestibule, Investments and a Hard God
Daniel J. Ott
The parable of the entrusted money is a really tricky one. I’m not real sure who the good guys and the bad guys are here.
Well of course we know who the baddest bad guy is. That must be the one who is called a “wicked and lazy servant.” But I have some sympathy for the poor guy. First of all, he’s the underdog, and I always want to root for the underdog. When the boss doles out the cash at the beginning of the story, he gets the least. One gets five bags of gold, another two bags, and to the last one bag of gold. Now it sounds like all of these are pretty goodly sums, but still, the last servant kind of gets the shaft. And what’s more, the parable tells us that the boss gives to each of the servants in proportion to his abilities. So, the boss from the start doesn’t expect much from the poor guy. Why is he judged so harshly, then?
Well, we might think it’s because he takes the money out and buries it. Who just buries money, right? I’ll tell you, I’ve been thinking about burying a few bucs the way the stock market’s been lately, but never mind that. It actually was pretty acceptable practice at the time to burry money. Banking wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today and it sure wasn’t insured by the government. Any kind of investment, even with ‘the bankers’ wasn’t a sure thing. And evidently this boss is a hard case. The last servant is scared. He’s probably already been flayed by this guy a time or two. So the poor schlep goes the easy rout and finds a good hiding spot in the back yard. Who can blame him? Not me.
But the guy telling the story and the boss in the story sure let the last servant have it: “You wicked and lazy servant! Take the money from this servant and give to the first servant. I don’t care if does already have ten bags of gold. And throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Ouch!
This reminded me of a couple other passages where the not-so-bad go in for pretty harsh treatment. You might remember John the Revelator’s message to the church in Laodicea. “I know your works; you are neither the cold nor the hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Ancient writers didn’t like people who play it safe, evidently.
And neither did medieval writers. Dante reserves a special place in hell for the lukewarm or those who lived life with no blame or praise as he calls them. Actually, they’re not quite in hell, but in the vestibule. He writes, “these wretches have no hope of truly dying, and this blind life they lead is so abject it makes them envy every other fate.” So, they might rather be in hell, but instead they’re in the vestibule caught in a rushing, whirling wind chasing a banner that never takes a stand. Get it? – never takes a stand? Dante describes them as “an interminable train of souls, so many that I wondered how death could have undone so great a number… These wretches, who had never truly lived, went naked, and were stung and stung again by the hornets and the wasps that circled them and made their faces run with blood in streaks; their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to their feet, and disgusting maggots collected in the pus.” Perhaps I should have read this last week for Halloween.
But the message is clear, if overstated in all three cases, to take the easy road, to be lukewarm, to never take a stand, really is to not live at all. The one who buries his treasure will never gain anything. The one who is neither hot nor cold, really has no temperature at all. Only the one who does nothing with her life can avoid all blame or praise. If I were going to play it safe with this parable, I would tell you simply not to play it safe and end the sermon here. But there is some sort of irony here that begs me to press on.
Let’s consider the first two servants for a minute. We’re clearly given a clue that these are the good guys in the story. The boss praises them, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” We’ve all heard these beautiful words at the funeral of a faithful loved one. What fitting words they are on such an occasion.
But what did these servants in the story do to earn such praise. Well, they took the money they were given and put it to work. And they did so quite eagerly. The first servant “began immediately to invest the money and soon doubled it.” The second servant “went right to work” and doubled his too. Surely this is good service. This is certainly the kind of behavior we want in a financial advisor or a stockbroker. Put that money to work!
But does it translate easily or well to the life of faith? Should we be looking for a return on our spiritual investments? Should we expect the boss to reward us for faithful service?
I have known people who think about service and giving in this way. I’ve had more than one person tell me that they truly believe that when they give generously to the church, God will bless them. And they mean financially! The more money they put in the plate, the more money God will put in their pocket. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the heart or the guts to tell them that I think such a philosophy is at best wrong-headed, and at worst delusional. This is not why we give to the church. We give to give, not to receive. We give because we have already received so much, not because we have expectations of reciprocity.
And even if we translate the giving into giving of our time and talents – after all the word talent finds its origin in this story – even then the theology is all wrong. Surely we don’t mean to say that those of us who preach, or make soup, or serve on the session, or come to church every Sunday, have any corner on God’s blessings. Surely nothing that we do earns us God’s blessing, right? God’s commendation, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” is not reserved for the ones who gave the most money, or had the most talent, or spent the most time at church.
I’m not at all sure that God and the boss in our story tally up the sheet in the same way at all. In fact, I think we better hurry up and say that the boss of this story and God cannot be the same person. The third servant describes the boss as a hard man, who “harvests crops he did not plant and gathers crops he did not cultivate.” That sound like not just a hard man, but a thief to me. And the boss makes no effort to deny it. In his rebuke of the “wicked” slave the boss exclaims, “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested the money I gave you and brought me the interest.” And then he says the most damnable thing, “For 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.” God cannot be the hard man that says that. God is not a hard God.
God does not reap where he does not sow. God sows and sows and sows some more. God does not harvest a crop for which he doesn’t care. God cares and cares and cares some more.
God does not say, “To those who have much more will be given.” Instead God says, “The last will be first and the first will be last.” God says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” God is not a hard God, like some suppose, blessing the noble and damning the wretch. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is ready to pardon our iniquities and forgive our transgressions.
In the end, surely it will be the lowly servant, the humble and mean slave to whom God says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”
 Mark Musa, trans. Dante, The Divine Comedy: Volume 1: Inferno, (Penguin Books), p. 90-91.