--The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
Readings for Proper 28A , track 2
I heard the groans in response to those readings. No, no—I am right there with you. Holy moly. Yikes. But let’s circle back to our collect, one of the first written for the first Book of Common Prayer in England. Let’s look at it together:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures….
to be written for our learning:
Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…
that we may embrace and ever hold fast the—(and note this here)
blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ… That means that there is something here we can hang on to. We just have to be willing to do the work, go deep, and uncover the good news here.
I will be honest: when I was a child and heard this parable, I had a hard time with it, and I am not sure that I have ever outgrown that. But one word in the reading always caught my attention: “Talent.” It was usually not explained to me that a talent was a unit of currency. Instead, as I would listen to the preacher drone on and on, I would think about what I understood to be talent: an ability with which you are born, a potential for excellence in some endeavor such as sports, or music, or art. My mother raised us to believe that our talents were gifts from God, and that it was a sin to not use them to the glory of God. Emphasis on the word sin. As in punishment. In the branch of Christianity in which I was raised, punishment was ALWAYS much more prominent than grace. Just like in this parable we just heard, where there is the ending with being cast out, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.
And nothing was more terrible as a child to think about being abandoned, left to suffer. Nothing. I could not reconciled the God I knew in my heart, the one who took delight in wildflowers and noted every single sparrow that fell and who crafter the stars that whirled overhead, with a God who would chortle with glee at the suffering of anyone for failure—or who would have encouraged any of us, like the preacher up there raining hellfire and brimstone on us every Sunday, from chortling with glee about human suffering even as he called himself a Christian. And I had read my Bible—I knew that guy was actually projecting his own cruelty and contempt for others upon God. And there’s too many people who do that right now. Ain’t nobody got time for that. So, we were expected to use our talents to God’s glory. Talents were gifts. But they were also responsibilities. You were never supposed to bury them—not even if you had stage fright and thought you were funny looking. And saying no to your parent was just as bad as saying no to God, and a whole lot more immediate in the punishment department.
Now in Jesus’s time, the word “talent” had an entirely different meaning. A talent was the largest denomination of currency. But how much was a talent worth? I was shocked to learn that a talent was basically a “hundredweight” of silver or gold. It was literally a block of precious metal that weighted the equivalent of about 75 pounds. Solid. So the estimates for a talents value range from “several years’ wages” to “millions of dollars.” Suffice to say, it was a staggering amount of money the likes of which Jesus’s original audience would NEVER ever see. Jesus loved using exaggeration in his parables. It’s a great teaching strategy—and keeps the listeners’ attention.
So imagine. We are talking about untold amounts of resources. And the kinds of people who actually possessed hundredweights of gold or silver were the Romans, or their collaborators. They were the enemy, the people who mocked the suffering of others.
So when we are confronted with this puzzling parable that also involves the strategy of burying one’s treasure rather than investing it—and that is how it is usually read. But I want to suggest a different angle today. We're going to engage in an act of imagination-- which is of course what all the gospel writers were doing in order to adapt the teaching of Jesus to the needs of their own communities.
I want us to try to hear this parable as Jesus’s followers did—to try to understand this parable through the lens of the economic systems that dominated 1st century Palestine.
It was a system in which extremely wealthy absentee landowners sucked every bit of profit they could out of the poor that were on the land, especially by lending them tiny sums of money at huge rates of interest --between 60 and 400% annually --until eventually the debtors lost their land and the landowner, who already was fabulously wealthy beyond the imagination of 99% of the people around him, would swoop in and take it in payment of the debt.
Historically this is similar to the system of sharecropping that developed in especially the American South in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. It is the actual system used to dispossess Native Americans of their lands in the early days of this country. More recently, it is also similar to the system of payday loans, student loans, and medical debt which bedevil the poor, the uninsured, and people of color, even to this day.
Jesus tells this parable to those who were listed as blessed in the Beatitudes—those who were driven to the brink by people like the landowner. What if we view this parable from their standpoint?
The characters in the parable would then be interpreted this way: the wealthy landowner is exactly that—an incredibly wealthy landowner who makes his money off the backs of the poor by charging them sky high interest. He could do this because there were no banks; and the system was set up for the lender to take their debtors’ possessions- their land, usually-- when they can't pay. The three servants to which he gives his talents –a single talent was equivalent to 20 years’ wages or more --are his middlemen or agents, much like the absentee landowners did who collaborated with the Roman Empire.
Here's how the system worked: the agents of the wealthy elite or of the Empire were allowed to make a little something on the side for themselves if they could get away with it. That's one of the reasons why tax collectors were so hated as we see in scripture--they were allowed to engage in practices which we would consider to be corrupt, even as a crime. They would claim a sum larger than what was owed—and keep the difference for themselves.
This system was accepted even by the wealthy elite --who didn't mind what we would consider to be corruption, as long as the money kept rolling in for themselves.
And always, always it was the poor, then and now, who were then enslaved to their creditors for their entire lives. And, sure, the sums of money being extracted from each individual family was small -- but given how vast a number of people were poor, great sums of wealth were nonetheless being extracted based on economies of scale. And this still goes on today. Right now. Here and all over the world. So understanding this parable, I think, might be vitally important.
Looking at this parable from the context of the economic system in Jesus’s time, what if Jesus is actually condemning the landowner and the first two servants? We start with throwing out the idea that the landowner is God or Jesus. The landowner and the first two servants once again are extracting wealth from the backs of the poor, regardless of the consequences and devastation left in their wake.
Those talents --huge sums of money already --double as the result of probably hundreds or even thousands of transactions with impoverished families. Those profits—a 100% return on investment!-- represent the destruction of thousands of families’ lives—the loss of their land, and their utter fall from bare subsistence to the uncertain future of day labor that we have seen elsewhere in Jesus’s parables this year.
The third servant now refuses to participate in the oppression of people living on the very edge of maintaining their lives. And yet he makes sure he doesn't lose the master’s money, knowing that he is a cruel and heartless man. Of course he is a cruel and heartless man—he’s a loan shark, and they’re not known for being cuddly and forgiving. No profit in that in his line of work.
Therefore, the landowner comes to the third servant expecting to see the immense profit he saw with the first two --but instead sees only that his money has been sitting there in a hole in the ground, not getting any bigger, sure, but not getting any smaller. Technically, he hasn't lost anything --but too much is never enough for people like this.
Whether from fear, laziness, or whatever, instead the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the criminal, the homeless again being the engine of exploitation and profit, the third servant instead throws a wrench into the works. He doesn't lose his master anything. But he also doesn't enrich him, either, by destroying the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people.
Living in our own time and place, we have to be careful about the interpretation of the last two verses in our parable especially. The ones that say that those who have will get more and those that have nothing will never get anything has been a terrible justification for shaming poverty throughout history. In my childhood, I have heard these verses twisted into a support for the oppression of the poor, claiming that somehow they have done something to deserve their poverty and that therefore being poor—and being rich—is merely a judgment of God. Or that people who worked three poverty-wage jobs were somehow either stupid, or lazy, or both. Nothing could fly more in the face of Jesus’s life and work and choice of companions than that. We worship a savior who had no home. Never forget that.
It is important to remember that Jesus is not only talking money or political power. He’s talking about living in a way that is free from using fear and might as a weapon against the weak. He’s talking about using the tools of the world for the glory and growth of God’s kingdom here on earth for everybody.
To put it simply: We need to pay attention to what we do with what we’ve got, and use what we’ve got to do the greatest good we can. That’s the way to live a life of meaning, purpose—a life that makes a real difference. A life that is a monument to love rather than fear, which is always the underlying emotion to greed.
The word “economics” is funny. It originates in the Greek word oikonomos, which means “the management of the home.” The word was NEVER meant to be divorced from the values of family, interdependence, love, sharing, community, and family that is centered by the home. We are being led to recover that original meaning—and to see our household as including everyone around us. And as we continue to talk about getting our financial house in order at St. Martin’s, that is a more important understanding than ever.
The economy of this church blesses its members. But it blesses its members so that we can in turn go and be blessing to others by contributing our resources not just so we can be entertained each Sunday in worship, but so we can go into the world and EMBODY Jesus’s economy of grace and real justice for the all. That means not burying our talents or treasure just for ourselves, but realizing that the talent and treasure we have and the lives we have are literal gifts from God.
That’s what Thanksgiving is all about, isn’t it? It’s also, LITERALLY, what Eucharist is all about—which starts with the words called “The Great Thanksgiving,” where we offer our money and our very selves to God, in order to celebrate communion with God and each other. And, most definitely, it is also what true stewardship is about.
Jesus is calling us as Christians to get our houses in order. To take care of our family’s needs, absolutely which even the corrupt do. But following Jesus as Christians calls us to put our blessings, our talent and our treasure, to work for a greater cause—the cause of God’s kingdom values. How do we use what we have for God’s command that we love one another?
Jesus takes aim at the world’s values, that view wealth as an insulator, rather than as a great and responsibility and gift. What we treasure can either help us or hinder us. It can help us if our treasures and our talents are put to the use of creating security and hope for all. Our treasures can hinder us if they become not just a means to a living, but a thing we worship in place of God.
What we do with our money and what we invested in can have great benefit or great harm. What anyone gives to the church in either talent or treasure is meant to be a gift—never ever a transaction where we are looking to disturb ourselves as little as possible, or where we give only when we get everything our own way. That should never be a position here or in any church when it comes to stewardship. EVER. Being a member of this parish or the Body of Christ is NOT a transaction. It is relationship-- among each other, and between ourselves and God. The end. And stewardship must be relational, if we are trying to live lives as disciples.
The question at the heart of this parable is “What is my responsibility as a faithful disciple living faithfully for Jesus? What is demanded of me as a Christian?” This parable implies that it is not as simple as knocking on doors and pressing pamphlets into often unwelcoming hands. The answer lies in HOW we live in every aspect of our lives and making that our greatest testimony. The answer lies in taking the gifts we have been given, and using them not to assuage our own fears, but to support the mission of God in reconciling all the world to Godself. And the first gift is the gift and challenge of living by love and putting what we have to work for love.
That’s the economy of Jesus.