We Are What We Love – November 19, 2017
This sure ain’t no “God in heaven story” we get from Matthew today. What a grump—with all this business again about “the weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It must come from his years of working for the Jerusalem version of the IRS. He relates a parable that Jesus allegedly told about this arbitrary and manipulative slave owner who gives quite different sums of money to the three slaves with no explanation for his undemocratic behavior.
Did Jesus really tell this story—or did Matthew edit the original version to make his own point about judgement and punishment—two of his favorite topics? We simply don’t know but it is the Gospel and we don’t do ourselves any favors by simply dismissing it. It’s important to grapple with texts like this and to look deeper under the layers to discover what God might be telling us that is buried beneath the distasteful parts of the parable.
First, we should consider this word “talent,” which did not mean a skill or ability. It meant the highest unit of measurement that existed in the ancient world. It would be equivalent to something like a trillion dollars.. So the amount of money given to each of the slaves was staggering, more than anyone of us will ever see much less have in the bank.
On a very practical note, this wasn’t an electronic transfer. Imagine getting a suitcase full of gold bullion and told to invest it. How in the world would these slaves be able to lift it, let alone invest it and , by the way, there were no banks so actually the one who buried the money did a very sensible thing.
If we’ve heard this Gospel story before we likely heard the preacher use it to talk about non-monetary things over which we have ownership and how we should use them wisely and generously. I’m sure I’ve tried to sell that line over my many years of sermonizing. It’s not a bad interpretation of the parable but is it what Jesus would have wanted his audience to glean from it?
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would applaud, let alone imitate? Is this what Jesus expects of God’s people? Of course not! Just look at what immediately follows in Matthew’s Gospel—the prophecy of the sheep and the goats which tells us that judgment will not be about our wealth or success in the business world or even on how religious we were but rather on our care for the down and out, marginalized, oppressed, and destitute in our human family.
Jesus was a rabble rouser in the best sense of the word so I wonder if maybe he told the story as an indictment of the economic system that places human beings under great pressure and anxiety. Does he want the audience to be uncomfortable when hearing it? Yes, absolutely, but I suspect not for the reasons we might think.
Several years ago, Michael Budde, a political scientist working at DePaul University in Chicago, took exception to how this parable gets interpreted. He worried that if we let this parable alone it sounds too much like it was written by a Wall Street Hedge Fund: Invest and you’ll be rewarded. Save, without interest, and you’re doomed. Now, don’t panic. I’m not advocating that we all bury what might be in our 401K’s or other financial holdings. And remember that the “talent” in the story referred to an enormous and staggering amount of money, the likes of which we’ll never see.
Listen, then, to Michael Budde’s thesis. He says that, given what we know about Jesus, a text that seems to trumpet and extol the premise that “the rich get richer, the poor get shafted, the “have nots” always end up the losers at the prosperity of the “haves,” hardly seems like Jesus talking nor is it the kind of economy that exists in God’s reign. Budde argues it’s not. He postulates that the master in the story is not God, but the devil. And the slave who buries the talent is not a lazy, wicked person, but is Jesus himself.
How do we read this story then? Now we have a story that is based on the supposition that extreme wealth usually represents the sustenance of the poor unjustly diminished by the rich. We get a Jesus who refuses to heap further misery on the underprivileged by participating in such an unjust system, the suffering servant who is cast out into the darkness weeping and gnashing where most of the poor in his time ended up.
That’s a different take on the parable isn’t it? It’s counterintuitive, certainly not the interpretation of mainline church preachers. In truth, it’s an intriguing and controversial reading and if Budde’s provocative assessment of it is correct, we can sure learn from it. Nor does it take a Mensa-like IQ to see the application is has in contemporary American life where some elderly have to choose between buying food and medications, children go to school hungry every morning, even who we consider middle class folk can’t afford to have life-saving surgery, all just the tip of the poverty iceberg.
For us who share the life of a radically welcoming community and all that it implies, we might be smart to concentrate on the incredible amount of money represented by the talents and recognize it as a metaphor for God’s abundance as it has been revealed in our lives. It is easy to bemoan all of our losses, to count the disappointments and hard times we’ve experienced. We’d probably be amazed if we made a list of the unmeasurable lifelong blessings we’ve received by God’s grace—all of which we could never put a price on for it would be staggering.
“Eight hundred,” says the auctioneer. “900 … 1,000 … 1,100 …” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars — the equivalent of $800. Not a used car, a piece of land, or an item of furniture. Not “merchandise” at all, but two human beings. One of the unidentified men being sold appears to be in his twenties and is wearing a pale shirt and sweatpants. “This is a big strong man, he’ll dig,” the salesman says. “What am I bid, what am I bid?” Buyers raise their hands as the price rises and within minutes it is all over and the men, utterly resigned to their fate, are being handed over to their new “masters.”
Each year, tens of thousands of people pour across Libya’s borders. They’re refugees fleeing conflict or economic migrants in search of better opportunities in Europe.
Most have sold everything they own to finance the journey through Libya to the coast and the gateway to the Mediterranean. But a recent clampdown by the Libyan coastguard means fewer boats are making it out to sea, leaving the smugglers with a backlog of would-be passengers on their hands. So the smugglers become masters, the migrants and refugees become slaves.
Another story of master and slave, not from the ancient world but from 2017—only about 150 hundred years ago the same scenario could be witnessed in these United States—beloved children of God treated like a piece of cheap real estate.
What makes me rethink this parable and align with Michael Budde’s interpretation is that Jesus had a thing about wealth and money. Why would he praise the slaves who got richer? Is this just a paradoxical story testing our sensitivity and awareness about how well we get Jesus? Is God telling us that there is something much more valuable and cherished in God’s eyes than even the most staggering amount of money and that is life in all its forms, not an inert pile of gold?
It is an enormous, uncountable, unimaginable treasure. How do we care for it, honor it, nurture it? How will our investment as a society in the treasure that is life add up in this ongoing cosmos if there is some kind of final accounting as suggested in Scripture where, as the Prophet Zephaniah tells us, neither silver or gold will be able to save?
Philosopher James K. A. Smith has argued that our lives are shot through with unconscious acts of worship, whether we genuflect at the Apple Store or wake up whispering prayers for our child’s admission to the Ivy League. “We are, ultimately, liturgical animals because we are fundamentally desiring creatures,” he writes in his book “Desiring the Kingdom.” “We are what we love.”