Parable for Weenies
Whew. That reading is a doozy. For a long time it has been one of the primary reasons I have found the Gospel of Matthew to be so challenging, and my least favorite of the 4 stories of Jesus. But then I read an article by the great Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor which helped me see this parable in a whole different light and which deeply informed this sermon.
Many of us have long known that how we read a parable is dependent on who we are, what our life experiences are, what assumptions we make about the world, and what assumptions we make about the characters in the story. As I have said before any parable, but especially this one, sounds different to those of us who are white and wealthy than to a subsistence farmer in the deep south, or a person living on the streets of Philadelphia, or a woman in Guatemala gathering sticks in the mountains. And while I have intellectually understood this concept of reading scripture from a distinct bias, one that insulates me from its teeth, it has eluded me with this particular piece of scripture. I mean, it is clear, right? God is the Master (capital M) and the servant who buried the money was a giant weenie (something I can relate to)—too afraid to risk losing the money and ticking off the Master. Clear.
Jesus lived in a time when wealth disparity was huge—the gap between the vast majority of people who were barely getting by and the wealthy landowners was Grand Canyon sized. Actually, it had been that way in Israel for a long time: prophet after prophet had railed against it. Warning the people Israel that God was not at all pleased with the rich exploiting everyone else. But the wealthy didn’t listen. Even after multiple catastrophes befell Israel including being taken over by one occupying force after another, the wealthy continued to horde their wealth and mistreat the poor, and the prophets, like Zephaniah, continued to rail. And Jesus too had a lot to say about money. He talked about it more than he talked about anything else. Almost as if he knew we tend to obsess over it, worship it.
In one of the few instances where I have issue with the Bible translation we are using, the translators changed the word “talents” to “dollars”, and substituted “$5000” for 5 talents. This dramatically undervalues the amounts of money discussed in the parable because in 1st century Palestine one talent was not only huge—weighing about 80 lbs, but it was a fortune—worth roughly 20 years of one person’s labor. Only the wealthiest, those whose households were the economic unit of their time, had that kind of money. They got their money in ways we know; through trade, importing-exporting goods, lending money to people with few resources and options—say subsistence farmers in a time of drought, or people whose family had suffered a catastrophic illness or death.
Wealthy householders, the banks of their day, were happy to help out. If you were strapped for cash, you got the best interest rate you could, put up your land as collateral, and got busy planting and harvesting like your life depended on it. By the time you realized what 60% interest really meant, it was too late. Your land went into foreclosure, and in the blink of an eye it was not yours anymore. Of course, you could stay, as long as you were willing to work for your former lender—and if you could stand to watch your family’s fields re-purposed as olive groves, or vineyards—something more easily monetized, that would appeal to a more upscale market at home and abroad.
And given that wealthy landowners often were abroad, it was customary for them to have “workers” managing the books and seeing to the day to day operations, taking a bit for themselves, of course, because it helped ensure that they kept tabs on each other while the master was gone. And it ensured the servants dependence on the master was built in-for them to prosper, he had to prosper and the better he did, the better they did. Their wealth derived from his. If he wanted to spend his profits on creature comforts and status symbols, there was no shame in that. It helped, actually. Like a good advertisement, it let his clients know how good he really was. Wealth was its own justification. Wealth brought honor. A master who shared a little venture capital with his workers when he went out of town was not only increasing his potential joy—he was inviting them into it as well. “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have imitated me—you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
Which is where I draw up short. Why do so many of us hear the master in this parable as God-master with a big M. Haven’t there always been a lot of masters applying for God’s job, most of them really really lousy? Look at the the parable like one of the “little ones” who followed Jesus around, like someone living as a subsistence farmer, or people living on the streets of Philadelphia, and it can be hard to see the master as anything but one more millionaire sitting on a pile of money so high that he cannot see the bottom of it—which is why he has to hire people to keep it flowing up from wherever it comes from without troubling him with too many details.
As long as they can double his money, they are welcome to make it any way they like. As long as they can give him back twice what he gave them, they may deduct their “expenses” to the full extent of the law—which has been generously amended so that people like the master can go on stimulating the economy for the good of all. Really? We are seriously supposed to believe that the first two servants in this parable are the praiseworthy ones, both in this world and the next—for making a wealthy person wealthier, for keeping an absentee landlord in business, for scoring a 100% rate of return for him in exchange for getting to do a little of the same to others—these are the guys who are doing it right, while the third one— the only one who buries the talent where it cannot do any more harm, the only one who tells the truth about the master (not behind his back but to his face), the only one who refuses to play the game any longer even if it means being banished from his master’s morally costly “joy”—he is the one whose “laziness” and “cowardice” have cost him “the opportunity for meaningful existence”?! Of course the master threw the third servant out! He could not have someone in his household exposing the truth “that he gathered where he hadn’t scattered, that he harvested and didn’t sow.” It was past time to show him the door. As for that outer darkness where there is “wailing and gnashing of teeth”? I have to wonder if that is just the truth about where whistle-blowers go once they have decided they cannot go on the way they have been anymore—that they would rather join the 99% in the dark than stay with the 1% of who burn through all the brightness without ever seeing those who foot the bill?
During the Occupy Wall Street movement, a town named Mosier, Oregon became the smallest town to join in. Mosier does not have a stoplight. The only gas station closed years ago, but a handful of people set up a dozen tents where they could camp together and talk about things that matter to them which included reducing the influence of corporations on local politics, supporting credit unions, and spending more money on health and education than on war. “People asked us if we were getting a permit,” Mosier resident Corie Lahr said. “We had to laugh because we don’t have sidewalks, let alone a city park where people could gather on city property for a protest.” Once the camp was set up, members of the Occupy movement invited members of the Tea party to come for tea and round table discussion, in hopes that the two groups could find places where their visions overlap. I have been trying to imagine Jesus dropping by Mosier—coming up to the people sitting in their camp chairs in front of their tents, eating food out of plastic coolers off paper plates—all of them foregoing beds and showers and flat screen TVs for the time being so they can brainstorm how more people might share in the wealth of this nation they love. If they had any eighty -talents, they were sitting on them. There was no one selling anything in this camp; there was no one buying. I have been trying to imagine Jesus coming up to one of them and saying, “I’ve come for my profit. What? No profit? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. Somebody take away the little bit they have here in Mosier and give it to those with ten times as much. For to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” I just cannot imagine those words coming out of Jesus’ mouth at all.
So maybe what I am preaching here is not a sermon about the parable of the talents at all. Maybe it is a sermon about how we read scripture—about why we are so reluctant to challenge established meanings, about what is at risk if we do, about what would happen if we stopped thinking of the truth of scripture as something cast in amber in an old, old book and re-conceived it as something fresh that happens every time we get together and let our lives poke at scripture until it yields new and living truth—maybe even something that would upset the (little “m”) master? Wouldn’t that be something?