Once Upon a Parable
I have always thought that today’s scripture reading is rather timely where it falls in the lectionary or the rota of readings in the Church on this second last Sunday in November. It seems to me that there was no great theology that went into choosing this passage of the talents to be read today, but rather a need, six or so weeks out from the financial year end of church for parishioners to hear about the importance of giving. This text has formed the basis of many a stewardship sermon. You know how goes, “It’s time to consider how much God has given you so you can decide how much to give back – not only so places like this will be here the next time you want to come but also because it is good for you to let go of some of what you have.”
You can feel sorry for that third servant, the scapegoat in the story. Jesus says, then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;5so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” There are sermons that tell us that talents are just that, our talents. Aim to double God’s investment in you so that you don’t wind up like this poor fellow. After all, who doesn’t want to enter into the joy of their master like servants number one and number two?
If you understand the money and the talent aspect of this parable, then have you grasped what Jesus was really getting at. The meaning of this parable has been established in most of our minds for so long that there’s hardly anything left to be said about that third servant that hasn’t already been said.
A number of years ago I worked as the director of a crisis counselling centre in downtown Toronto. The centre had been going for a few years and had numerous programs to help its clients get back on their feet. Being a Christian centre, there was preaching and advice from the Scriptures on living. There were classes on how to beat addiction, apply for a job, manage finances and how to qualify for government housing. I came to know Bernice, a fifty-five-year-old woman who lived in a stairwell and wore copious amounts of perfume to hide the fact that she hadn’t had a bath in a while. One day, over coffee, she said to me, why do people at this place want to fix me up and then send me back into the society which chewed me up in the first place? Bernice that day and in other conversations taught me that where you stand in life and in society has a great impact on how you hear these parables of Jesus.
Some of you might recall the situation in Nicaragua back in the 1970’s. The country was in the midst of a revolution, a popular uprising against President Somoza whose family controlled 40% of the country’s economy and 30% of the arable land. The priest of a lay monastery called Our Lady of Solentiname, which was on an island in Lake Nicaragua inhabited by subsistence-level farmers and fishermen. The priest in the black beret, as he was known, invited the ordinary campesionos of Solentiname to meet and talk with him each week, like we do with Faith Study. Only he did it in place of the sermon. It was such an unusual idea in the Catholic Church that people care. All kinds of people came, and they had one thing in common: a life lived below the poverty line.
On the Sunday this parable of the talents came up, there was a famous Colombian poet visiting. As soon as he heard it, the poet led off the discussion by saying “That’s a lousy parable.” The priest asked him why it was lousy? “Because it’s speculating with money: something we all condemn, like putting money out at interest; giving the money to others so they can work with it and hand over the profits to the owners of the money.” Someone else said, “It’s really a very ugly example that Jesus gives of exploitation, of speculation with money, of pure capitalism.” Another person said, “Well, he probably didn’t say it.” The poet then said, “The example is lousier because of what the servant who hid the money says: that he was a hard master, that he had gathered where he hadn’t put anything, that he harvested and didn’t sow.” The priest said that perhaps he was seeing the exploitation there was in the society of his time, and that’s going on now in our own country.
Until I read this account from Nicaragua this past week, I never saw this parable as talking about an economic system.
Here are some stats from about six years ago and from the United States, but you’ll get the picture. In that country seven banks hold the assets equal to 66% of the Gross Domestic Product. Twenty years earlier it was only 18%. 1% of Americans hold 39% of the nation’s wealth and take 25% of it’s annual income. Twenty years earlier, the figures were half that.
What might Jesus be getting at here? Let’s go back to the Bible. In Jesus’ day a talent weighed between eighty and one hundred thirty pounds. It was approximately twenty years’ worth of an average person’s income. The only people who had that kind of money were the wealthy elite. They made their money in the usual ways: being engaged in trade, transporting goods to market, running import-export businesses and lending money to people at interest.
These rich elite loved to lend money to those land-poor people who were having trouble making ends meet at the end of a long drought or as a result of a catastrophic illness in the family. If you were strapped for cash, they would lend you money and you would put up your land as collateral. Quite often the interest rate was 60%…but you needed the money to survive. Next thing you knew, your land went into foreclosure and then it wasn’t yours any more. The new owner would let you stay if you were willing to work the land. You stood by and watched your land repurposed as olive groves or vineyards, something that maximized profit and was easily shipped to a more upscale market at home or abroad. At the time of Jesus, this takeover of the land by the wealthy was happening on a massive scale all over the near east for the first time in human history.
Quite often the wealthy financiers lived abroad. They employed household retainers to look after things while they were gone. They were “slaves” in the context of society, but they were well placed ones. They were the domestic bureaucrats in charge of managing workers, keeping the books and collecting the debts. It was common practice that they were to make a little extra for themselves by skimming off the top as long as they met their master’s quota. In the scheme of a business, the higher up you were, the more you got to skim off because you were trusted with more handling of money.
The servants’ standing and their dependence on the master was built into the system. They lived on his excess. The better he did, the better they did. If the master spent his money lavishly, it was a good thing because it let all of his clients know how good he really was.
“Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
What I want to know is where did many of us today ever get the idea that the master, the man going on the journey, was God? Yes, Jesus tells us it is a parable of the kingdom, but how did we go about turning the little “m” master in the story into the capital “M” Master of the World? It seems there have always been a number of little masters applying for God’s job and most of them have been terrible at it.
What happens when I read the parable as someone living on a lake in Nicaragua, or as Bernice living in a stairwell, or as someone who just slept out undeath a bridge last night? Doesn’t the master become just one more tycoon sitting on a pile of money? As long as the underlings can give him back twice what he gave them, they may deduct their expenses.
Are we to believe that the first two servants in this parable are the praiseworthy ones – for making a man wealthier, for keeping an absentee landlord in business – but that the third one, the only one who tells the master the truth, who refuses to play the game any longer even if it means being expelled from the master’s expensive joy, is a cowardly un-wise man? Of course, the master threw him out. He couldn’t have someone in his household exposing the truth: “that he gathered where he hadn’t put anything, that he harvested and didn’t sow.” It was time to show him the door.
Do you remember the Occupy-Wall-Street movement? Tent cities sprang up all over the place to protest the absurd economics of our times. There was an article entitled “Too Small to Fail,” about Mosier, Oregon with a population of 430. I came across it this week. Its citizens banded together to form a tent city in their town. They came together to talk about things like reducing the influence of corporations on local politics and spending more money on health and education than on war.
While I have been thinking about this sermon, I have been trying to imagine what would have happened had Jesus dropped by their tent village. Meeting and talking with people sitting in their camp chairs in front of their tents, eating food out of their coolers with plastic cutlery and paper plates. All of them forgoing beds and showers and Netflix so that they can brainstorm how more people might share in the great wealth of this world. If they have any talents, they aren’t using them. There’s no one selling anything in the camp; there is no one buying anything.
So, I wonder what Jesus would say when he came up to them. Would he say something like, “I’ve come for my profit. What? No profit? Then you ought to have invested my money with bankers and on my return I would have received what was mine with interest. Somebody take away what they have here in Mosier and give it to those with ten times as much. For to all who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
I just can’t imagine Jesus saying this. So maybe this is not a sermon about the parable of the talents. Maybe this is a sermon about how we read Scripture – about why we are too reluctant to challenge established meanings, about what is at risk if we do. Maybe it is about what would happen if we stopped thinking of the truth of Scripture as something already set down for good in an old, old book and re-conceived it as something fresh that happens every time we get together and let the Spirit challenge our reading to reveal a new and living truth. Wouldn’t that be something?