By Our Own Words (A reflection on Luke 19.11-28)

There’s an old episode of The Simpsons in which Homer, having sold his soul for a donut, is brought to Hell. Specifically, he is taken to Hell’s “Ironic Punishment Division,” where he is force fed donuts for all eternity. Of course, being Homer J. Simpson, the joke is on the demons: he goes on happily eating the donuts oblivious to the fact that it is supposed to be torture. 

This scene presents a very old idea (albeit played for laughs): The Deuterocanonical book of Wisdom states, “one is punished by the very things by which one sins” (11.16). Similarly, the extra-canonical Jewish book known as Jubilees speaks of sinners “being given back into the hand of their transgression” (21.22), and The Testament of Gad notes that “By whatever human capacity anyone transgresses, by that he is also chastised” (5.1). And, of course, this idea is found in the New Testament as well, in slightly less specific terms: “For you will reap whatever you sow” (Galatians 6.7, cf. 2 Corinthians 9:6). The general rule here seems to be not “ironic punishment,” but leaving people to their own choices: you choose violence in this life, you’ll get violence in the next; you choose donuts in this life, you’ll get (torturous amounts of) donuts in the next.

What makes all this interesting to me is that it strikes a similar chord to Jesus’ teaching about judgment: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7.2). Again, it would seem, the choice is ours: The standard by which we choose to cast judgement on others is the same standard against which we will be judged. If we treat others with grace and kindness, we can expect God to receive us with grace and kindness; if we judge others based on our exacting standards, we can expect God to similarly judge us by our exacting standards.  

Which brings us, finally, to today’s Gospel reading, which is Luke’s version of the Parable of the Talents (the more famous version can be found in Matthew 25). In this parable, a wealthy man goes on a journey and entrusts money to three servants: one invests the money boldly and is able to give his master back ten times the amount entrusted to him; the second is less successful, but still manages to give his master back five times what had been given to him; and a third servant — too afraid of the master’s harsh reputation to act — hides the money and gives it back to his master untouched. Rather than being rewarded for his caution, this man is punished because of the fear that motivated his inaction. The master says, “I will judge you by your own words… You ‘knew,’ did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? … Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” This servant expected his master to be cruel and so he got a cruel master.

So much, it would seem, depends on our perception of reality and the internal scripts we choose to follow. Our assumptions and beliefs shape so much of what we experience in life. Often how we experience the world has less to do with what is actually happening to us and more to do with how we’re thinking about it. As much as we like to think our inner life is a mirror of what’s happening outside of us, often it’s the opposite: there is a mirror, but it reflects out what we are thinking and feeling about the world. This Gospel reading suggests that this is true of how we experience God too. 

The question before us, then, is what kind of God is it that we serve? Is God a stingy, legalistic accountant? Or, is God a good Father, eager to give God’s children every good and perfect gift? The real fear may in fact not be that God isn’t as loving or as gracious as we think, but that we might experience in God the harshness we actually expect. 

And so, let us remember, that we do reap what we sow, that we will be judged by the standards we set out for others, and that God will judge us by our own words — our own expectations of who and what God is.

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