Notes from Underground
Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 128; Matthew 25:14-30
Last week in my Bible as Literature class at OSU we were talking about the idea of “fearing” the Lord. And my students were really resisting that idea. God is loving, they said. God is our friend. We shouldn’t be afraid of him.
And of course that’s right in a way. God is loving and God is our friend. But that’s not all He is. There are many, many images of God in scripture and tradition, as king and poet and lover, as mountain and whirlwind, and all of them are partial, all of them are limited. We can’t assume there’s only one.
And we can’t assume that the nicest image, the easiest image, is the best. That’s the underlying danger here, in this generation of students, a sense that the best thing is always what feels good. That we should always be able to put our feet up. We should always be able to walk around in our PJs. And I think that’s an attitude in us baby boomers, too. We’ve so thoroughly rejected the distortions of the hell-fire-and-brimstone approach that we’ve lost sight of something really important.
“Blessed are you who fear the Lord,” the Psalmist says today, and of course “fear” here means respect. It means to be in awe of. It’s like at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind when that giant space ship is hovering over the mountain. People go quiet. They’re stunned. It’s like going to the Grand Canyon. There’s something really there, objectively out there, and it’s so beautiful and so vast we naturally stop talking, and should. That’s what God is and who God is: He is the Grand Canyon and Michelangelo and everything vast and beautiful rolled into one, and the fact that this God becomes a child, is born into the world and walks in the world and reaches out to us and tells us to be not afraid, only makes him still more magnificent and deserving of awe. That’s why we don’t have cup holders in the pews. Why we don’t eat popcorn during mass. This is the Lamb of God here, this is He who takes away the sin of the world, not some guy we met at a party.
A student comes up to me at the end of a class, six weeks into the term, and asks when my office hours are. I say, they’re in the syllabus. And he says, “there’s a syllabus for this class?” A student comes up to me at the end of a class and says that she didn’t bring pen and paper and so couldn’t do the quiz. Could she come to my office and do it later? Well, no. Sometimes I teach an advanced course in grammar for student teachers. Once a student in that class emailed me after I handed back an exam and said that she didn’t like her grade. She said that she “felt” she’d done better on the exam.
But it doesn’t matter how she felt about it. A verb is a verb. A subordinate clause is a subordinate clause. I really like my students. I think they’re smart and try hard and are finally no different than I am. But sometimes there’s a truth out there. There’s just something that is, and we have to adjust to it. Modern people, C. S. Lewis writes, believe “that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important!”
The third servant in the parable today says he buried his master’s money because he was afraid of the master. But that’s not true. He’s lying. He’s projecting. He’s making excuses, and the master knows it. He instantly sees what’s really going on. The servant, he realizes, is “lazy.” He’s lazy. The servant is kidding himself and kidding us because deep down he just doesn’t want to make the effort that reality requires.
Next term in a survey class I will teach once again a long short story called “Notes from Underground” by the nineteenth century Russian writer Dostoevsky. It’s about this small-minded little civil servant who hides in his room all day and nurses his grudges against all the people who have hurt him. At the end of the story he has a chance at redemption. He’s humiliated this poor young prostitute named Liza, treated her very badly, but for a moment she rises above him and rises above herself and feels compassion for him. She reaches out to him, literally, holding open her arms. But the Underground Man says no, he turns away from the chance for love, and here’s why he says he does it. Here’s his reason: Should the world go to hell, or should I go without my tea? I say, let the world go to hell as long as I can have my tea.
Incredible. Stunning, in its own way. And yet deeply familiar. Because this is us, too. This is us. Maybe not to this degree, maybe not with this kind of directness and honesty. But this is us. “Which is better,” the Underground Man asks later, “cheap happiness or sublime suffering? Well, come on, which is better?” The Underground Man has buried his humanity the way the wicked servant has buried his talents, and they’ve both done it for the reason we all do it. We’d rather be comfortable. We’d rather have our tea—or our latte, or the X Factor, or the internet. We’d rather have a cheapness and a shabbiness than the real thing, because the real thing is always too much trouble.
No one in scripture is ever said to have been sent to hell by name, not even Judas. This is a parable, and it’s designed to scare us, to frighten us, into changing our ways, as I think “Notes from Underground” is designed to frighten and disgust us into change. The Church has never in all its two thousand years ever said that any one individual has been sent to hell. That’s for God to decide, not us, and anyone who has ever said to you or to someone else that so and so is going to hell for whatever reason is simply arrogant and presumptuous and wrong. That’s not our business.
But our own choices are our own business, and those choices make a difference. It’s not too late for the Underground Man, even after all those years of bitterness. Even at the very end, he can be saved, as we can all be saved. Grace is always abounding. But some things are wrong, they’re just wrong--sin is real--and we have the choice and our choices make a difference and our little choices have a cumulative effect over time, they color us, they change us, and at some point it’s too late.
No, God doesn’t send anyone to hell. But we do. We send ourselves.
It’s not about having just one talent. It’s not about failing or succeeding. The master wouldn’t have rejected the servant if he’d tried to do the right thing and failed. We are loved, infinitely loved, for exactly who we are, whether we have one talent or ten or a thousand. But we can choose to reject that love and we do choose to reject that love and we need to stop and admit that and do something about it before it’s too late for us and we get contaminated, warped, shrunk.
We have to make that tiniest little move. We have to move, and if we don’t, we’re in serious trouble.
We have to wake up. We have to wake up and look around. We have to change out of our PJs and put on our work clothes and get to work.