What God Do You See?

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

So you know the saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I wondered, after reading this week’s gospel on the Parable of the Talents, if we might also say that anger and fear, as well as, perhaps, wonder and joy, are in the eye of the beholder as well.

There are two ways to read this parable, you see, and while I’m familiar with the dominant one — that our waiting for the master’s return should be purposeful, not idle — I was struck this time through by the reaction of the third servant. And not just his reaction, but also his motivation. He is, as he himself confesses, terrified of his master. He believes his master to be harsh, aggressive in his dealings, if not exploitative. We have no evidence at this point in the parable that the master is, in fact, this way. But the servant believes it and is afraid. And so he freezes. Fear will do that. As a result, he doesn’t do anything with the money he has been given, terrified that if he risks it in the market place he may lose it and reap terrible consequences.

By contrast, we know nothing of the feelings of the other servants about their master or the motivation for their business dealings. We only know that they went out and multiplied what had been given them. Did they do this because they loved their master? Or did they also fear him, but were driven to succeed at any cost rather than fear and fail? Did they anticipate the generous response of their master to join him in his “joy”? Or were they simply natural-born risk-takers? We just don’t know. We only know that whatever it was that the third servant saw that so terrified him did not have the same effect on the first two. They saw something different, and that changed everything.

Think how often that is true in everyday life. What we expect is most often what we see. Do we see conflict as something awful and to avoid at all costs? Then it probably will be. Do we instead imagine conflict as a chance to grow and stretch? If so, then we will probably experience it as just that. Is a crisis a threat or an opportunity? Is a challenge a problem to overcome or a mystery to be embraced? Is someone who disagrees with us an opponent or colleague? Again and again, our experience of life is so very deeply shaped by our expectations.

Now, it may be that the master is indeed all the things the servant fears — certainly his actions do little to dissuade us of the validity of the servant’s impressions. Yet might the master be reacting as much to the servant’s characterization of him and his consequent lack of faith — playing, as it were, the role assigned to him — as he is revealing his true character? I’m not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that what we expect — of a given situation, event, or person — very much determines our experience.

I have a hunch the same is true of our expectations of God. Even more, I think each of us has fairly clear, if often unspoken, expectations of God that shape our experience of God profoundly. Or, to put it another way, I think each of us carries around with us a picture of God and our experience of God rarely strays very far from that picture.

For some God is loving and kind, like a benevolent grandparent. For others God is stern and judgmental. For some God is protective, for others God is always on the verge of anger. For some God is patient and long-suffering, while for others God is impatient and dour. These pictures shape not just how we think about God but how we actually experience so many events in our day-to-day life that we connect — often unconsciously — to God and our life of faith.

So what is your picture of God, Working Preacher? Just as importantly, what are the pictures your people hold of God? We’ll never know, of course, unless we ask them. And so I’d invite you this week to do just that. Ask your people what they think of when they think of God. Invite them to turn to others in the congregation and talk about what they imagine God is like, where these images and pictures came from, and how they shape their relationship with God and each other. It might take a little while for people to articulate their pictures, to find words to describe their impressions. But if you give them encouragement and a little time, I suspect there may be some very interesting and important conversations in your congregation this week.

After this, I’d invite you to do one more thing: share something of the picture of God Jesus draws for us. A God who loves us so much that God cares deeply about how we treat each other (hence next week’s parable on the sheep and the goats). A God who loves us so much that God will come in the person of Jesus and take on our lot and our life, sharing our hopes and dreams, fears and failures. A God who wants us to know of God’s love enough that God will finally die on the cross that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Our pictures of God matter, Working Preacher. Because not only beauty, but also joy, wonder, and grace, are also all in the eye of the beholder. Thank you for helping us see these things — and the God who gives them all — more clearly.

Yours in Christ,