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Do you like optical illusions? Every once in a while, on the internet there’s a picture or audio file that sends people into a tizzy because different people see or hear it differently. Here’s an example. 


Which red snowflake is larger? Many people see the one on the right as being bigger, but in fact they are both the same size.

Here’s another one:

Jesus sign

What do you see? Some people will just see some random red shapes against green. However, if you focus on the green, you may be able to see a name spelled out. Whose name, is it? Right, it says Jesus.

Here’s one last one:

Skull Santa

What do you see this time? Many people see a giant skull, while others see Santa carrying a big bag of toys.

The reason optical illusions work is that our brains are built to perceive patterns. We look for coherence, and we grab the first pattern that makes sense to us. So, you may see one pattern, while I see another. Both are valid, there’s no right answer in the illusion. The choice is being made by us, not the picture.

Today’s parable is like an optical illusion. There are two very different ways of interpreting it, each of which can use evidence from the parable to support its position. You can even understand this parable as a kind of spiritual exercise, a chance to wrestle with the co-existence of these two meanings.

The story seems simple enough. Once upon a time, there was a wealthy man who decided to go away for a while. He gave bags of gold to three of his servants, with instructions to invest the money while he was gone. Two servants invest it in business ventures, and their money doubles. But the third servant does the opposite. He takes his bag of gold, which was the smallest of all, and hides it in the ground. When the owner comes back, he is very pleased with the first two servants, and gives them even more money, and tells them they can share his happiness. But he gets very cross with the third servant who has done nothing with the money. He takes away all that servant has and gives his money to the other two. This, Jesus tells us, is what the kingdom of God is like.

Now, like an optical illusion, this story can be understood in two very different ways. Some people hear this story as being about a very cruel, powerful man who takes money from people and punishes them. The third servant views the owner as a thief, taking whatever, he wants. So, he decides to stick it to the man by not investing the money. In fact, he steals from the owner by not even lending the money, so there’s no interest. He’s deliberately ripped off the owner, knowing that rips off people all the time. And then the owner proves his point by taking everything away from him. So that’s one interpretation of the story, and I have heard this from pulpits, so if you heard the story this way, you are in good company.

But there’s another way of understanding this parable. The only person in this story who tells us that the owner is a thief is the third servant. What if he’s wrong? What if the third servant is one of those people who assumes that the world is against them, and so they decide to stick it to the system every chance they get? What if the third servant is that voice in our head that tells us that the world is a cruel and awful place, so there’s no point in ever trying to make things better?

The story allows for the possibility that the third servant is wrong. The owner comes back and rewards the first two servants and invites them into his happiness. That doesn’t sound like a cruel owner. And how many of us have pleased our bosses at work and then they have “invited us into their happiness”? That isn’t business speak. That’s because this parable isn’t really about money, it’s about how-to live-in God’s world. The third servant assumes that the world is a cruel and unforgiving place, so he decides to take what he’s received from God and do nothing with it. But the other two servants have taken what God has given them, and invested, and made it grow in value. For this, they are invited into God’s happiness. 

This story may sound like it is about money, but the amounts of money suggest something else is going on. Each of the servants is given bags of gold worth a small fortune. Each bag of gold was worth 20 years of wages, more than they could ever earn on their own. Those bags of gold stand for what God has given you in this life, more blessings than you could ever earn on your own. Your heartbeat; your body; every breath you take; the sun that showers this world with sunlight for free; the massive Great Lakes and aquifers which provide our fresh water. So many blessings, all given to us for free. 

The late American poet Mary Oliver wrote a wonderful little poem called “The Summer Day” . The first lines begin with the words:

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

In the poem, she marvels at the simple wonders in a field on a summer’s day. She spends time staring at a grasshopper in all its awesome complexity and beauty. She advises that we spend our time simply observing all these blessings which lie all around us. Then, and the end of the poem, she asks a simple question: 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?[1]

That is a question for all of us. What do we do with this life of blessings that has been given to us? The gifts, the bags of gold, we have been given are different for each of us. Most of us have been given the ability to get through the day, to learn, to make a living of some kind. Some of us are great at math, so we may gravitate toward careers in accounting or insurance. Others are great with people, so we may become HR people, or work in hotels and restaurants, or the service industry. Some of us have a gift for remembering details, so we may train to become doctors, or lawyers, or stock shelves. Some of us want to raise a family, so we elect to stay at home to do that. We have been given bags of gold so we can get by in this life. Some of us will be dependent on the kindnesses of others, giving them a way to share their skills and talents in a way that gives them meaning. 

But this parable says that we have all been given more gold than we could ever need to get by. We’ve been given extra, and the owner, God, wants to see what we will do with it. We have two choirs in the church today. Each of you singers has a beautiful voice which may not be so useful at work. Most people at work would think it was pretty weird if you delivered the quarterly report by singing it. Do that more than once and you’ll get a call from HR for a meeting. You could have kept your singing voice just for the shower and singing alone in the car. But you didn’t. You decided to join a choir, for the fun of it, and to share your voice with all of us. You took some of the extra in your bag of gold and invested it, to the benefit of others. And we are all richer for it. 

After today’s service, you’ll get a chance to meet another group of people who have invested that extra part of their bags of gold. Our Christmas market has over 30 vendors who are selling crafts that they love to make. Most of them started doing crafts for themselves, then their families, and now, they sell them. Few of them do this as a full-time gig. They have day jobs that pay the bills, but they have these extra talents, this extra gold in their bags, which they have chosen to share with all of us. None of them will get rich doing this, but they love it, and they are sharing that love with us, and by extension, their gold will bring joy to whoever you give their crafts to this Christmas. 

Each of us has more talent than we really need just for ourselves. We don’t have to be artisans or an undiscovered Celine Dion. Some of us share our day job abilities with the church by working on committees, keeping watch on our finances, or organizing social events. Others simply show up and help feed refugees who are living in a church basement. Some of you did that this week. We have all been given more blessings than we need. All our benefactor asks is how will we share these gifts; how will we make them grow to be a boon to others? 

In the parable, the first two servants are congratulated by the owner, and we’re told they are invited to share their master’s happiness. That suggests that the master was already happy. I suspect that the master was happy because he knows that there is joy in sharing. That the real return on investment is the pleasure of seeing a blessing give rise to more blessings. The singer whose face glows when they know their song is delighting others. The craftsperson who can see that someone else is enjoying the beauty of what they have made. The laugh shared with someone who has received a meal, that connection made between two strangers, who both realize there is room for hope in this world.

We all have the ability to share the light and love we have been given. Our God hopes that we will see that the universe gives more than it takes. But the way we see the universe is up to us. Like an optical illusion, this parable, and this life, can be seen in two different ways. We can fear the universe, crawl into a hole, and deny that we have been blessed. That’s a choice, and there is lots of evidence to support that choice. Or, we can marvel at how much we have been given, and in gratitude, share it, invest in life, and enjoy what happens as those blessings multiply. That kind of life requires taking some chances, doing something extra, going out for that audition, or trying to sell your crafts at a Christmas market. It takes some faith, and some hope. But it also can lead to sharing in a greater kind of happiness. The choice is yours. 

What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?