Year A, Proper 28 November 19, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For to all who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
This is the Parable of the Talents, or if we follow Karl Barth’s dictum and preach with the Gospel in one hand and the newspaper in the other, we could call this the Parable of the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” Have you heard much about the tax plan that just passed in the House? One of the provisions is to make graduate student fee waivers taxable income. Another increases the threshold of the estate tax to $11 million, meaning no taxes are paid on any inheritance worth under $11 million for a single person, $22 million for couples. Taking from those with little and giving to those who have much. Some things change, some things never do.
This parable is part of what some call the Sermon on the Mount of Olives. He left the Temple after picking those fights with the scribes and Pharisees, and went over to the Mount of Olives where He spoke to the disciples. He gave an apocalyptic sermon, a sermon about the eschaton, the end times. There is the Parable of the Slave Left in Charge, about the one who stays diligent in his work as opposed to the one who beats and cheats those left in his charge. That story is followed by last week’s Parable of the Bridesmaids, some who brought oil, some who did not, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Then we hear this week’s Parable of the Talents, and then it ends with the Son of Man coming in glory, gathering the people dividing them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The righteous, those who serve the least of these, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner are placed on one side. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” Those who don’t do these things on the other, “…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” This is as hard as Jesus preaches and it incurs wrath. The next thing that happens in the story is the plot to kill Jesus, which flows directly to the Passion.
Is this the way the world is supposed to be? Is going to be? Is this a parable of how the world is? Each of those possibilities have very, very different implications. How do we make meaning of, or use of a parable such as this? I think the short answer is “very carefully.” What does this story mean?
Is this how it is supposed to be? No. Jesus is not saying that the Kingdom of God is like this master giving talents to his slaves and going away. That was the case with the Bridesmaids. He said be alert, do what needs doing because it takes work, salvation, and you never know when it is you time. But that is not what is being said here.
Some allegorize this parable. Jesus is the master and the Gospel is given to the people. Some work hard with it, do what needs doing and are rewarded. Some are fearful and hide it away, don’t do anything with the gift God, Jesus offers and they punished horrendously for it. But Jesus does not reap where He does not sow. So that allegory falters.
Some say that it is about fear. The Master is generous in his trust, but that comes with great responsibility. (And great responsibility can be scary). A talent was worth a lot, something like 6000 denari. A denari was the wage for a typical day’s labor. So five talents is something like 80 years worth of salary, or $4 ¼ million in today’s dollars based on median income. OK. That kind of responsibility could be scary. The first two slaves did not act out of their fear, they rose to the occasion, but the third did, he was paralyzed by his fear. So maybe we’re supposed to consider how often we are motivated by fear in our own lives? Question what we are willing to risk for the sake of love, for what is right?
- But it would seem that that third slave had reason to fear the master. He was overly conservative in the master’s eyes, but at least the master got his talent back. What would have happened if he had invested and lost the money? Was it the effort that counted in the master’s eye or the result? I am just guessing here, that a slave owner willing to throw someone into the outer darkness for under-achievement is not going to be very forgiving of failure. So I don’t think that is it. This is not a parable about how it is supposed to be.
It could be about how it is going to be. The historical context is important. Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, Jews who saw Jesus as a reform within Judaism, not as a wholly new religious movement. And it is written by and to folks who existed in the wake of the desolating sacrilege that Jesus predicts at the beginning of this sermon: the destruction of the Temple and the heart of the nation of Israel with it. They were trying to make sense of life in the wake of the destruction of the Temple. Why did it happen? What does that mean about God? Jesus was crucified. The infantile church scattered, then was hunted and persecuted by people like Saul of Tarsus. The temple was destroyed. So much was lost. Apocalyptic discourses like this come about in times of great peril and uncertainty, trying to make meaning slips so easily in trying to assign blame in times like that. Look into our politics right now, everyone is turning on everyone. “It’s your fault!” “No, it’s yours!” “It’s his!” “It’s hers.” “It’s theirs!” Blame is so in our nature.
So this parable could be the Matthean community trying to find meaning, which often devolves into assigning blame for the horrendous evil that had and continued to rain down upon them. That could explain how and why these words are coming from Jesus’ mouth, but it doesn’t make it very useful to us other than a significant cautionary tale.
So maybe this parable is about the way that it is. Not everything is like this, gross injustice, abuse by the powerful on the powerless, but it is enough of the time. Less than one percent of the world’s population controls wealth equivalent to the wealth of the bottom 3.8 billion of us. Slavery still exists. There are 21,541 homeless students in Oregon public schools. We counted 1,529 homeless on our streets in January during the HUD Point-in-time count. That wasn’t everyone. We had 1,677 unique guests at Egan last year. That is more than we counted in January. Guns flow freely on our streets. Health care is being taken away from millions. Racial and religious minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ folks are persecuted for who they are or who they appear to be. Women, women! We are finally, just now, beginning to acknowledge as a society how bad so many men treat so many women. So this parable, the story of what happens to you if you don’t play the man’s game, is descriptive of the experience of many. So maybe Jesus is trying to say that this is how it is? Or maybe it isn’t going to always be like this for those of us who are righteous? Who are willing to bring our spiritual oil with us, do what it takes to be ready for what will come?
Or maybe this parable is about fear, real and understandable fear because it can be scary out there, sometimes. It sure seems to me that that master was an evil one, reaping where he did not sow. The only thing he risked was capital. The slaves risked their lives, as if they had any choice in the matter. But actually, there was choice, that third slave decided not to help the master, not to collaborate with his obvious enemy, his owner. No he didn’t destroy anything but potential earnings that were lost, but that is still a pretty strong moral statement. He refused to do what he did not believe in, that he thought was wrong, or just did not want to work to enrich an evildoer through risks he would have to take and efforts he would have to make. And do you know what that resistance cost him? Everything.
Someone gave me a beautiful set of modern day icons. They sit right behind my laptop on the desk where I write my sermons. They depict Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, the four Churchwomen of El Salvador, Dorothy Day and the Martyrs of San Salvador, the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 16 year-old daughter who were imprisoned, tortured, raped and killed by American trained troops of an American backed government in 1989, the year I graduated high school. Not ancient history. They, each of these martyrs (minus Dorothy Day, she’ll be a saint, but not for martyrdom), each of them paid as heavy a price as can be paid to do what was right.
God willing, none of us will have to pay the price of everything, or anything even remotely near to what those heroes of the church paid. But at the same time, we have to abandon the notion that living right, doing the right thing, being what Jesus asks us to be in the world and doing what Jesus tells us to do in the world doesn’t take effort, doesn’t take risk, is painless. It is not, never has been, and never will be until “that great gittin’ up morning” as James Weldon Johnson calls it, the fullness of time. Doing the right thing is risky, and can be very costly. The first two slaves avoided the problem. They went along to get along and they got their reward. It worked out for them in the near term at least, “enter into your master’s joy.” But what did their enriching of him do? It got them out of the hot seat, for one thing. OK. Very understandable. But maybe they were slipping into what Bonhoeffer warned of when he said, “The sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility.” The “good slaves’” efforts earned the master more wealth so he could what, buy more slaves and put how many others under the threat of being declared useless and cast into the outer darkness? I left the business world in large part because I realized that the sole reason for my work was to make a lot of money for myself, and a whole lot more for the people up the chain. I knew those guys, they were nice enough, but they didn’t need to get any richer and didn’t need my help getting there. Maybe this parable is about how it is and how high the cost of discipleship can be. <Sigh>
Where’ the Good News here? Where’s the hope? What do you think? You read the newspapers. Watch the news. Listen to NPR. You live in this modern world. Where do you see the Good News? Think about that for a moment.
Remember, thinking about the Good News is not just ignoring the bad. That is the easy way, not the Way of Jesus. The really Good News, the capital G capital N Good News doesn’t avoid the bad, the evil, the outer darkness, those who are cast there and who do the casting. It doesn’t need to, it is that Good.
I see the Good News constantly. It brings tears to my eyes. I see it in my daughters as they struggle to learn to be good girls who will grow into good women. A lot of tears in their eyes going through all of that, Lord have mercy, growing up is hard, but it is Good News. I see Good News in the forests in Jasper. There is a big clear cut along the property line up in the hills, talk about desolating sacrilege. But even after years of a getting a glysophate/2,4-D/goodness knows what else cocktail, life is eking its way in. There’s more and more green up there and I saw bear scat, and deer and elk droppings all over one part of it last year during elk season. (No elk, though). That’s Good News. I think the best news I have heard recently was sitting with Nerine and Jim as they died. Their families were there. Peace had been made. They were ready. It was time. “…we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to the earth we shall return. For so did you ordain when you created me saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust…” Those are the words we commend a body with. Nothing painless about any of that in the least, “…yet,” the prayer continues, “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that yes, it is hard, there is pain and suffering and horror and evil in the world that seems sometimes bent on crushing that which is most beautiful, that which is most fragile and precious. There is fear and trembling, sickness unto death, and outer darknesses do in fact exist, but that is not the end of the story. That is not how the story ends, not how our story ends. Following Jesus we are children of light, our end is not darkness. As St. Paul commended his friends in Thessalonica, “let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with Him.” And that is some Good News indeed. AMEN