A few years ago in my psychotherapy practice I received a call from someone I’ve never met, before or since. He was related to a former client of mine. He called to let me know that my client had died, and that her death was by suicide. My client’s spouse had told the relative who I was, and he wanted to know if I might be able to shed some light on why this happened. How could she have done this? Did I know anything that could help him make sense of this?
I’m not proud to say that one of the immediate feelings I experienced on that phone call was fear. I pulled the chart from my cabinet and looked through it, worried not only that I had missed something, but that I was in trouble. This was as irrational as it was self-centered: I hadn’t seen this client for a few years at that point, and she had closed her time with me in a place of health and strength. Well, that’s what she told me, at least. And she had seemed okay.
For a few days after learning the news, I felt a mixture of feelings: uneasy, sad, empty, frustrated. I talked to my own therapist about it, and she had bracing things to say to me, the usual reassurances that I had done all the right things, that this person wasn’t even my client when this happened, that I shouldn’t take it as an indictment of my work. But she also had her own thoughts and feelings about client suicide, something that happens to many therapists at least once in their careers.
We had a sober conversation.
We talked about the great risk we take working with humans at some of the most fragile moments of their lives. Often enough I’ll get clients that therapists like to call “the wounded well,” individuals and couples who are actually doing just fine, but are here to improve their lives or relationships. But I get my share of fragile folks. I’ve been fragile myself a few times in my life. It is inevitable that I will see suicide in such a raw and tender profession.
And yet, that suicide really got me thinking. For several days, I felt the full weight of what I do for a living. I spent some time reviewing and improving the ways I screen clients for suicidal thoughts or behaviors. I watched a sentimental movie about suicide. I grieved.
And I can’t imagine anything healthier for me at that time. It was a time of increased consciousness, a time of sobriety of the kind mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians: “Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
“We belong to the day.” Daytime here is a metaphor for a kind of focused consciousness, a powerful awareness. This is an exhortation, a warning, but also—like my therapist coaching me about the suicide—a message of comfort. Faith, love, and hope protect us like a full military uniform.
This is a welcome encouragement, especially when we hold it next to the dead-serious warnings in Zephaniah about God making a “full, terrible end of all the inhabitants of the earth,” and then hear in Matthew a bizarre, confusing parable in which nobody seems to be behaving well.
We can “unpack” the parable a little by seeing where it falls in Matthew: at this point in the Gospel, Jesus is warning his followers about the coming “kingdom of heaven” in a kind of extended riff. He had just offered the parable of the ten bridesmaids—five foolish, five wise—and after today’s troubling “parable of the talents,” he describes the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, when everyone is separated like sheep from goats. That’s the passage where we hear familiar words of prophetic justice: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Hear the themes Jesus is stressing here: be ready, prepare yourselves; and if you want to be ready like the wise bridesmaids, then feed the hungry and clothe the naked, because that is where God is: we will find God in our most vulnerable neighbors (such as suicidal clients). So go, Jesus is saying; go and be ready, sober, and alert; go out and help your neighbor.
But it’s easy to misread the parable of the talents. It’s easy for us, in our own context, to see the behavior of the first two slaves in a positive light: they did the right thing by trading the talents to expand their master’s wealth. The third slave comes off as a kind of cautionary tale: a poor loser who was not clever and got lost in fear. But the first listeners who heard and re-told this parable might have seen it differently.
They were peasants in a brutal economic system in which any significant amount of wealth was impossible to have except at the expense of others. (Sound familiar?) A “talent” is a huge amount of money, about 75 pounds of precious metal. It represented several years of wages. And so the peasants hearing this parable might have had a dim view of the first two slaves: by trading for more talents, they are collaborators in the empire’s unjust economy. And their master is worse: in his rage at the third slave, he cynically says that at the very least, the slave could have lent the money at interest, a forbidden practice in the Jewish culture of the time.
The third slave can be seen in a better light, then: for one thing, he speaks the truth to his master, calling him what he is, a harsh and unjust man. And the third slave does not participate in the unjust economy. He suffers greatly for his actions, but I hope you can see him as an unlikely hero in this tale. He was afraid, but unlike the other two slaves, he didn’t anxiously do what the master wanted, but instead incurred the master’s wrath by not perpetuating injustice.
Did he “belong to the day”? I invite us to look at the third slave in this light. Wearing the armor of faith, love, and hope, this slave—even in his fear—can step outside the system of injustice that would have protected him from his master’s anger. He can step into a dangerous but just and ethical life.
This slave is taking the whole situation seriously, and even though he is not immune from fear, he is not giving in to it. Even though he is not immune from suffering and punishment, he does the right thing.
What a strange story. It is in keeping with the tone of Matthew’s Gospel at this point that we don’t hear a satisfying ending for the third slave. The unjust master is not enlightened or defeated; the economic system is not shattered by revolution; the slaves are still slaves. But that third slave: he might be all the more compelling for the fact that nothing outside of him has necessarily changed.
Like you and me, this third slave is living out his life in a complex system, a system that typically works against the very people God calls us to befriend, a system that will be there long after he is gone. And yet, like you and me, the slave’s choices have real consequences for his neighbors. If he had turned his talent into two talents, that action would have saved his hide at the expense of his neighbor. And so he does the harder thing, punishment be damned.
Can you imagine a similar situation in your own life? Often enough you and I are not great actors in our world, like the master who has eight heavy crates of gold to invest. We can act prophetically all the same, in our ordinary lives at work, in our neighborhoods, with our families and friends. In my profession, it’s essential that I “belong to the day” for the sake of my clients, some of whom are vulnerable to suicide. My choices have real consequences.
Unlike the first people who heard Matthew’s Gospel, we do not expect the Day of Judgment to thunder down upon us at any moment. But like them, we are faced with small “Judgment Days” in our ordinary lives—moments of truth, moments of clarity, moments when our next action could either help or harm our neighbor.
You are armed with faith, love, and hope. How might you “belong to the day”?
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90: 1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11