A Sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 15, 2020, preached by Dr. Rod Dugliss, Dean of the School for Deacons
For those who can’t wait for 2020 to be over, at least the liturgical year has only a couple of weeks to go. Anticipating that, our lectionary has been inviting us to learn from Jesus’ last teachings about ‘what comes next’, as his life and ministry neared their end.
Jesus frequently taught using parables. A couple of things we think we know about parables: they are not always what they seem to be; they are allegorical or metaphorical; they are intentionally obscure; they are both very much a product of their time and place and they contain universal truths; they often turn things upside down to make a point.
Today we have a parable that our Wednesday evening conversation found particularly difficult to work with. So I will give it a try. A personal note; I come to the parable of the Talents warned by theologian William Stringfellow that you have heard me cite before. We are used to interpreting the bible Americanly; what we need to do is interpret America biblically.
That is particularly hard work with today’s gospel because it triggers so much that is familiar to us in 20th and 21st century America. It just makes sense that way. I also acknowledge that the reference to slavery makes it hard for many people to hear the story, and too easy for others. Still and all, if one describes a distractor as a ‘red herring”, the parable of the Talents is boat load of fish.
What in this story is so easy for us to hear “Americanly?”
Basically it provides the the biblical foundation of neo-liberal capitalism. The value of human beings is expressed and measured by money. People who aren’t productive are worth less, and lazy. No risk, no reward.
If you start with more and make more you are more rewarded.
Wealth is ultimately ‘the joy of our master’ for which we strive.
The master, or king, or vineyard owner in a parable is a stand-in for God whose favor is indicated by material reward; crudely, God loves rich people more; more subtly, the Good News of Jesus is a prosperity gospel. Wealth is the sure sign of God’s love.
There is always more, so if you don’t take advantage of that your poverty is your own fault. Only fools put their money under the mattress.
In the church, we have chosen to understand the unique term “Talent” to mean more than just a lot of money. I bet we all have heard at least one sermon, here at the end of stewardship season, inviting us to do more than tithe money but also to commit our God-given talents to support the community of faith. And I could go on, but I think I have dug a deep enough hole for myself.
On Wednesday we finally found a common point so we could wrap up the night, when Willard offered, “well, we all have a responsibility.” I think that’s right, but maybe not what we thought it might be.
I am deeply indebted to a little known biblical scholar, Bruce Malina, who specializes in drilling down on the social, political, and economic contexts in which Jesus lived and taught. His observations reframe the whole story about the Talents.
He says the one-talent person is accurate in his description of the master; a harsh and angry man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter. Clearly not a stand-in for God. Rather a person whose wealth comes from taking from others their crops, goods, ultimately, ancestral land. He is, therefore not the benefactor of his slaves but their role model for achievement. Today, in our economy of a vast wealth gap, hostile takeovers, quashing competitors, and sweating workers, we can find familiar, highly rewarded masters and their striving minions all around us.
In our Wednesday reading from Eugene Peterson’s The Message,we heard the master exult, “come and be my partner!” The first two slaves were his kind of folk. There was no stock market or joint ventures. Their productivity was based on the same malignant practices as the master. Partnering together with the same rapacious approach they can grab even more.
So what then of the “wicked and lazy slave?” Surely he is the loser, the sucker, in this narrative. Malina actually sees him as the good guy, it not the hero, in this parable.
How can that be?
Malina points out that the economic and ecological understanding of the times was that the material world was fixed and finite. For one person to prosper others must lose. In other words, there is only one pie. For the greedy master and his avaricious slaves to have a bigger slice, others will have less, or nothing. This was the reality of peasant life in Jesus’ world. In much of the Hebrew Bible we have stories and contexts that turn on this reality. Selling yourself into slavery or your body into the sex trade were the chief among limited options open to you if too many drought years, invading armies, clever manipulation, or simply the town bully meant near starvation or the loss ancestral lands.
By neither growing or losing the Talent entrusted to him, but burying away safely, the slave ensures that no one will be harmed. He does the right thing, not just for himself but for the community in which he lives.
There is a lesson there about responsibility. But we know better, don’t we. We embrace, promote, and benefit from a society, economy, ecology of endless growth. Another one of our myths is that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Everyone can win because there is not just enough, there is always more. If you don’t win then clearly it is your problem.
You are indeed a loser and a sucker.
Except all that is based on a lie.
We are finally beginning to understand what voices from the “crypto-communist liberal left” have been professing for years. We live on a finite planet. Over consume one thing, something else is lost. We have been told for years that if China, India, and all the developing economies in Africa achieve the current level of consumption of the United States, earth will soon be another lifeless round rock with some sort of atmosphere orbiting another dying star. And yet we still invest, and gamble, and consume counting on endless growth, with our five or two Talents.
The cautious slave shows us the Way of Love, not of object or person, but for the whole human community. That beloved community is what the returning master of the second coming in many other parables hopes to find. In Eucharistic Prayer C, seldom used at All Saints, there is the striking affirmation that in our creation, humankind is gifted with “memory, reason, and skill.” Our creator equips us to live fully in healthy relationship with all others, or to enable us to be the one species that can destroy life on earth, our island home.
Oh, if we could only learn from the example of the prudent slave.
To call out the causes of and response to the climate crisis is not being “political:” a frequently heard critique in and of churches. It’s the gospel in action in our day. And, Willard, it is a God-given responsibility. Amen.