With New Eyes
Passage: Psalm 123; Matthew 25:14-30
Date: November 13, 2005
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Reading the Bible can be wonder-full, life-changing, confusing, troubling, even dangerous. This seemingly straight-forward and familiar-to-many parable is one such text.
Honestly, how many of us have heard stewardship sermons based on these verses? We know the moralism here: Our gifts are on loan from God, for responsible spending in the world. We will be held accountable for how we use them. The 4-2-1 distribution of talents means that it is unimportant to God how many each of us has. Therefore, we should not compare ourselves with each other. Whatever the talent, if used faithfully, the reward is identical. We will experience the joy of the master. But, look out if you bury your God-given talent. The story seems planned to shake early Christians, and us, out of our laziness, in a sense, out of our faithless non-use of what has been given to us. Ergo-fill out the time/talent/treasure card in the in the friendship pad folder. Right?
Since we already know the message, thus ends the sermon. Last week, I read several excellent, thoughtful sermons and scholarly commentaries written from this perspective. Some challenged me in helpful ways. I do want to be a faithful steward of all that I am and have. So, in a true sense, I am grateful for their words.
However, as I read this text carefully, I am convinced that the whole essential faithful stewardship subject has no relationship to these verses at all. Let me say it again. I looked at my records. I have preached stewardship sermons using these verses. While the sermons may have been OK, I now do not believe they were true to the text. Come with me, and I will try to show you what I mean. In the process, let us open ourselves to God's revolutionary word. Let us pray: As we seek you, O God, startle us with your truth. Silence in us any voice but your own, that hearing, we may be changed into the people you want us to be, in Christ Jesus. Amen.
As we look carefully at this text, we must acknowledge a huge socio-economic difference between Jesus' day and ours. We come with a particular economic perspective. That is, we hear these verses through capitalist ears. We cannot help it. Our economic system encourages getting ahead, the accumulation of wealth, moving up the economic ladder. We value financial success. That is how our society operates. We perceive the economic and social pie to be expanding, not fixed, limited, closed. When we come to the Bible, it is necessary to try to come with different ears. Ours is not the perspective of Jesus and his culture. Scholar Bruce Malina helps us. Listen to how he describes the society of Jesus.
...the people presented on the pages of the New Testament would see their existence as determined and limited by the natural and social resources of their village, their preindustrial city, their immediate area..., both vertically and horizontally. [this leads] to the perception that all goods available to a person are, in fact, limited. ...[this means that] their total environment-land, wealth, prestige, blood, health, semen, friendship and love, manliness, honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety-literally all goods in life-exist in finite, limited quantity... [Here is the major consequence for how we read the text. He says] Since all good exists in limited amounts which cannot be increased or expanded, it follows that an individual, alone or with his family, can improve his social position only at the expense of others. (The New Testament World, p. 75; original research used by Malina from an article by Richard Rohrbaugh in Biblical Theology Bulletin 23, 1993)
Do you sense the radical contrast to how we view life? From our perspective, the two servants who invested and multiplied their funds were acting very wisely, and are to be congratulated. The one who put the money under his mattress got what he deserved. Right? From the perspective of Jesus' hearers, entirely the opposite is the case. The master of his day might be equivalent to the large corporation of ours. In Roman times, great householders often left slaves in charge when they went on journeys. The sums entrusted to the servants in the parable were enormous, fit only for a parable and not for actual life. To double one's investment, however, was viewed by common people as usury, and there were scriptural laws against it. Common people would have sensed that to double one's money could only be the result of dishonesty, of economic theft. Further, to move up economically meant others must move down. Remember, the economic pie was fixed, and fully distributed. What the first two servants did, therefore, would have been seen as dishonorable behavior, because the community suffered. Remember, the economic ideal was stability, not self-advancement. We can imagine Jesus' listeners shaking their heads in disgust at the first two servants. Further, in that agrarian society, peasants were too often forced off their ancestral land by large landowners all too eager to loan money at exorbitant interest based on speculation of future crop production. Then, unable to make their payments, small family farmers lost their land, and became day laborers. They experienced daily the pattern of economic exploitation and wealth accumulation. By the way, consider this in terms of credit cards, interest and debt in our day, and whom the law protects. So, with whom would Jesus' peasant audience have identified? Seen as the hero in the parable? Of course, the one who buried the talent, who kept it safe, who was committed to community economic stability. He actually told the truth about the dishonorable land owner.
There is much more here, but I want to pause for a moment. What I am doing is turning centuries' long interpretation on its head. It feels a little scary to me. Do you remember seeing on the news lines of cars at service stations, as people tried to drive out of the path of Katrina? How would you, how would I have felt, if someone crowded in line ahead of us? If the service station owner jacked up the price out of our financial grasp? I would have been very angry, felt cheated out of my fair share. We all want to get out safely. The first two servants in a sense crowded into the economic line, and the third got the shaft.
Ready for a bit more? If we keep this as a parable about God and our stewardship of talents, what image do we get of the Holy One? In the text, the master does not deny the third servant's description: One who reaps where he does not sow, who harvests where he does not scatter seed. That is, the master gets rich by exploiting other people's labor. And then there are the master's moralistic words: "For to all those 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." "Them what has gets, and them what doesn't have, even that they will lose." The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Pretty clear to me. Sounds like a God of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy.
Friends, this is not any God I want to worship or follow. I resign. Next week, the lectionary continues, with Matthew's only parable of the last judgment. In total contrast to today's reading, the wealthy are not valued, or praised, or rewarded by God. Instead, it is those who serve the least and lowest, the powerless and hopeless whom the true Master welcomes. This is the heart of the God we know. This is the God we know who heard the cry of the slaves in Egypt and led them to freedom. This is the God we know who time and again, called the people back from deadly idols of success to the living water of relationship and servanthood. This is the God we know in Jesus, who in a few short chapters will himself be powerless before the powerful. Like the third servant who spoke truth to the authority, Jesus will speak God's truth, and suffer terrible consequences. He too will be banished by the masters to a place outside the city, a place of punishment.
And from there, God will energize a revolution in which compassion and justice reflect the very heart of God.
I have been listening for God's word in this parable, as I hear the news about our congressional debate. A funding bill which passed the senate is now stuck in the house. If passed, it will cut some $50 b in programs intended for people in need, Americans at the lower end of the economic ladder, programs like food stamps and healthcare. At the same time, the Administration wants to cut taxes for the wealthy by $70b, and eliminate the inheritance tax. I have been listening for God's word in this parable, as I read in the most recent census that 37m Americans are stuck below the poverty line; and that them what have have more, and them what don't, have less; and them in the middle are getting squeezed. I have been listening for God's word in this parable, as I learn about large corporations who cut or nearly eliminate pensions promised to long-time faithful workers. I have been listening for God's word in this parable, as I become aware of nearly no federal financial planning to cover the costs of caring for veterans of the war in Iraq. I have been listening for God's word in this parable, as I think about trying to raise next year's church budget, which does not even bring our giving to assist others up to 2004 levels.
Remember, in the beginning, I said that reading the Bible can be wonder-full, life-changing, troubling, and even dangerous? This is one of those amazing, exciting texts for me. I don't want to hear it, and yet I do, desperately. I want to be drawn closer to the true Lord, to be part of his revolution of compassion and justice. I want to know the heart of God, for that is life itself. We know it is, in the crucified and risen Christ. May God help us. May God help us. Amen.