I would guess that the average Episcopalian is cool with the Parable of the Talents all the way up to the final verse. Sure, there are some who will embrace the imagery of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, just as there are some Socialist Episcopalians who will balk at the whole premise of this parable, but, by and large, most of us feel like we can understand what Jesus is up to until we hear those words of judgment. It is there that we get fidgety.
Now, I’m not so sure we feel uncomfortable about the imagery that Jesus uses because we are afraid that we’ll end up there. I think it is probably more likely that our discomfort comes when we think of those whom we think might find themselves there someday, and we instantly become uncomfortable. Episcopalians tend to be pretty willing to let the whole hell thing go. But I’m not so sure that’s helpful.
Let’s be clear, this particular set of images for what eternal damnation might look like are nearly exclusive to Matthew. The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears seven times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Six of those occurrences are in Matthew. We are clearly getting some of Matthew’s theology thrown in here, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the whole image away. Instead, I think it is helpful to spend some time pondering what this image is intended to convey. Three times it is combined with the outer darkness. Twice it is used in conjunction with the furnace of fire. The other use speaks of where the hypocrites are. The image is meant to convey a place of isolation, like the Jewish concept of Gehenna or the burning place, where those who were judged to be worthless, wicked, and lazy will end up in the final judgment.
This is not what Dante created for us in his Inferno, but it is still very much a place in which no one would like to end up, and that is exactly why we need to talk about it. Not to scare anyone into belief, but to be honest about the fact that our decisions have ramifications. Until we are willing to talk honestly about sin and about how the broken relationships that sin creates have long-lasting, even eternal, impact, we are failing to help our people understand the fullness of the grace of God. Rather, the image that many of our people have been given is that their faith doesn’t really matter, how they live their live is without impact, and that hell is only a place “they” use to force conversion.
Without judgment, there is no true grace. While we need not be known as a church of judgment, we should be clear that all of humanity stands under the judgment of God and that, at least for us, the path to restored relationship is through live-changing faith in Jesus Christ, and this Sunday offers the preacher a chance to name that reality with hope, with grace, with good theology, and, we hope, with tact.