Our perception of God: a sermon on Matthew 24

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

Well, the holiday season is upon us.

In the stores, on the radio, on television, in the mail, people are telling us what to buy, what to eat, what to wear, in order to have the perfect holiday.

Now we know that a lot of the market-driven promises coming our way at not rationally true.

We don’t rationally believe that eating a certain kind of turkey for Thanksgiving will bring the family together.

Or that buying at this certain store will make the holiday shopping season easier.

The way human psychology works, however, is that even when we suspect or know that these things are not likely to be true,

the more we tell ourselves these stories, the more we come to believe them as true.

That’s how human psychology works.

And so we live in a world where we are told and where we often tell ourselves, not the factual truth, but instead a perception of the truth.

In other words, perception constitutes a large part of our reality.

And I wonder if that’s not what is also going on in today’s parable.

I wonder if the slaves’ perception of the master, does not in some way become the slaves’ reality in the way they live and work.

In today’s parable we get no description of the master.

The parable itself doesn’t tell us anything about him, except what the slaves think of him.

And the first two slaves seem to perceive the master as one who is open and generous and also forgiving and gracious.

And so the first two servants take their talents, multiply them, and give them back, and are rewarded when the time comes.

The third servant, on the other hand, has a very different perception of the master, so different in fact, that it clearly affects the servants’ work and what he does.

The servant says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow,

and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

What is interesting about the master’s response to the servants’ perception of him, is that the master speaks to the slave in the form of a question.

“You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter?”

It’s as if what the servant thinks of the master is how the master chooses to be.

The servant’s perception of reality, becomes for the servant, his actual reality.

The question for us to ponder, and the question biblical scholars have pondered, about this parable, is whether the master is meant to be representative of God.

The master doesn’t have many characteristics that I would associate with God: a dubious work ethic for one: “you do all the work and I will take all the profit”,

a cold-hearted approach to business, and a violent response to what some would call prudent financial management in uncertain times.

But maybe our perception of God, does in some way constitute our perceived reality.

If we imagine God primarily as an enforcer of rules, then we can get hung upon the legalism of religious doctrine and dogma.

If we visualize God as stern and prone to punishment, then we might come to believe that everything bad in our lives is a punishment from God.

If we see God as arbitrary and capricious, then that might be what we experience: a fickle and

unsympathetic God, who does not meet our expectations.

On the other hand, when we see God as gracious and generous, we are blessed and uplifted by the moments of grace and generosity that surround us.

When we understand God as a God of love and acceptance and forgiveness, it is easier for us to

experience God’s love in our own lives and to share that kind of love with those around us.

Now, if this is a bit unsettling for you, I understand.

Many of us, I suspect, may not be entirely sure what our perception of God is actually like.

We haven’t been trained to conscientiously reflect on our perception of reality, and whether or not it might actually be a truth we choose to believe in.

What’s more, our perception of God, if we are aware of it, likely comes from sources that we know and trust.

Parents or grandparents or mentors in the faith, from Sunday school teachers, pastors, or from Christian music, movies, and books.

I went through a large part of my early life of faith perceiving God as a bearded, old white man ,

passing judgement, orchestrating world events and pointing a divine finger from the sky,

because that was how God was depicted in a children’s bible that my beloved grandmother gave me a child.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these images of God we inherit from trusted sources.

It’s just that they are other people’s perceptions of God and they sometimes become our own perceptions …

without us having the opportunity or chance to think those perceptions through for ourselves.

The other piece that can be unsettling in all of this, is to think that our own whims and flawed understanding can influence who God is for us and for other people.

We would like to think that who God is is unchangeable, immutable, and fixed in the universe.

God is all those things, but our human perception of God, unfortunately is not.

Just look at the myriad of ways that God is portrayed in the Bible, and you get a flavor of how human beings have interpreted God’s actions differently in human time and space.

Throughout human history, people’s perception of God has sometimes even led them to commit acts that, for later generations, seem anathema to what God would want or desire for the world.

The crusades, slavery, jihads, to name only a few.

These can be difficult questions to face, to ask ourselves to reflect on what our perception of God is, and then to ask ourselves if it is an understanding of God that we choose to believe in.

But it is an important thing to do, in living the life of faith.

Perhaps our perception of God works for us, and our life of faith and the world are richer and more wonderful for it.

If so, that is a profound blessing!

But if our perception of God is making our world more narrow, more exclusive, more limiting, for ourselves and for other people,

or if it is moving us to commit acts of disdain, judgement, hatred, or even violence towards ourselves or others…

…then it might be time to try and think about God differently, so that our reality reflects the kind of God that the world needs.

The kind of God that is worth believing in.

A God of justice, compassion, forgiveness, grace, generosity, and love, to name only a few aspects of God worth believing in.

I would invite you, in the privacy of your prayer life, or in conversation with people you trust, to take some time and to ask yourself…

Who God is for you? What is your perception of God?

And what aspects of your perception of God are life-giving and enriching for you and the world,

and what aspects might be less helpful to you and the world?

I would invite you to take the time to reflect on your perception of God, because it is too important not to do this work.

And here’s why this work is important: Jesus shares today’s parable in Matthew’s gospel, just days before he dies on the cross.

Not as a substitute or a surrogate to be punished in our place, but rather as testimony to how far God will go to proclaim God’s love for us and for all the world.

Jesus spent his earthly life proclaiming God, as a God that loves and cares for all people, rich or poor, slave or free, young or old, gentile or Jew,

and who welcomes all who recognize their need for the loving embrace of God.

For this message, Jesus was crucified.

That’s how much God wants us to know of God’s love.

And in case we miss or underestimate the message of God’s love, God raises Jesus from the death, so that we might know that life is stronger than death and love is more powerful than hate.

This is a message that is not to be missed, and certainly not to be misunderstood or misinterpreted, where a false perception of God become for us a painful reality, rather than a life-giving gift.

God does not want us to go the way of the “third servant”.

God wants us to see, rejoice in, and live under the love and grace of God that we know in Jesus Christ.