There are some places in Bible that, if we take them literally, make it really hard to find good news. Some of these difficult stories never appear in the lectionary. Take, for example, the tragic tale of Ananias and Sapphira from the early days of the church in Acts 5.
The Grim Tale of Ananias and Sapphira
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died.
Geez! Imagine this as your text for stewardship Sunday!
Well, today’s story did make into the lectionary – to many a preachers’ dismay. The obvious problem is that if we treat The Parable of the Talents as an allegory, then the landowner is God. And the landowner is not a nice person.
Another problem is that Matthew’s version of the parable is put in here at end of church year, when the lectionary wants us to think about the Second Coming of Christ and/or a Day of Judgement. His closing line from Jesus, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” doesn’t appear in Luke’s version.
In spite of its difficulties, this parable is often used for stewardship Sunday! The idea of risk – investing time, talents, treasure for the kin-dom of God – is a popular theme. And that’s initially where I was going. But to be honest, I just couldn’t get past the character of the landowner. It seemed like I had to do a lot of exegetical gymnastics to get around this elephant in the room. If indeed “character matters,” how could I ignore this man who did not disagree with the slave who called him “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter”?
So instead I decided to go back to Parables 101. I’ve gained a lot of perspective on Jesus’ parables from John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable. So:
Rule #1: Remember that it doesn’t usually mean what we think it means. These stories have become so familiar, domesticated; we think they confirm what we already know or think is the right answer. But that’s not how parables work.
The word ‘parable’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to put parallel or put alongside.’ It implies that two things are being thrown together, a kind of biblical mashup. Jesus used this form of teaching, not to moralize or to tell his listeners how to be good religious people. He told parables to stir things up, to encourage debate, to engage in the great Jewish tradition of lively discussion, spirited theological banter. This might seen like arguing to us, because it’s something Christianity lost along the way and really must recover. The video series Living the Questions is a good example of this recovery, as we learn that it’s OK to ask questions, even to disagree. Because in the exchange of ideas, when texts are questioned, wrestled with and explored, new insights and understandings can emerge for our collective edification.
Rule #2: Try to imagine what your reaction would be if you were in that 1st century Jewish audience. In other words, read the parable within its historical and cultural context.
Three bazillion dollars!
First of all, we’d have understood what a talent was. It wasn’t referring to your ability to sing or dance. A talents was an amount of money. A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth about 6,000 denarii. One denarius would be a worker’s daily pay. So we’re talking millions of dollars in our time. Jesus got the attention of his audience with a “fairy-tale” amount of money. Like, “So there was this landowner, and he gave the first slave three bazillion dollars.” Now that would get your attention!
About the slaves
As 21st century people, we have to recognize our discomfort with the fact that those given this money were slaves. There’s no getting around the fact that slavery was an accepted reality in the time of Jesus. And we unfortunately know that this fact was used to support the institution of slavery in this country for far too long – another reason to take biblical exegesis – historical/cultural context – seriously. Taken with Jesus’ message of liberation, it is impossible to find justification for one person ‘owning’ another.
About the interest
Then there is the matter of interest. We hear this parable in light of our own economic system and think the first two slaves made sound business decisions; they invested their money and got a good return. But Jesus’ audience would have been shocked. This story is the only place the New Testament where the word ‘interest’ appears. It’s in many places in the Old Testament – in a negative light in each one.
It’s Mr. Moneybags
The subject of interest is not a good thing. The landowner is not a good person. He represents oppressive business practices. He doesn’t care how the slaves made more money for him. He’s not bothered by the third slave’s description of him. The “joy” into which he welcomes his “faithful” ones is entry into the 1%: excess wealth gained by systems that made him a perpetuate oppression. We shouldn’t have any trouble thinking of people like that today, people considered ‘smart’ for their ruthless and immoral practices that have made them extraordinarily wealthy.
But the third slave was having none of it. His act of resistance to this ‘harsh’ system made him a representation of the 99%. If it was Jesus’ intention to stir up some good conversation, this parable would have done it quickly. The people in his audience lived in the mash-up of Roman tradition which was pro-interest and the anti-interest teachings of the Torah.In this interpretation, Jesus is clearly siding with Torah – and with the 99%.
But it wasn’t just about money. This wasn’t a call for the Judean version of Occupy Wall Street. It was a call to Occupy the Kin-dom, which includes all our interactions in the mash-up of our beliefs and the ways of the world. Of course, then as now, money plays a very large part in our individual and corporate lives. So if we do interpret this parable with the third slave as the one who was really faithful in Jesus’ eyes, then we are called to make our financial choices accordingly. And now, as then, it can be complicated and controversial. For example:
Where are my pension funds invested?
I remember when the ELCA wrestled with the decision to divest from companies trading with South Africa in the time of apartheid. Today, I can choose to employ screens to eliminate companies, such as fossil fuel industries, weapons manufacturing, and those identified with the denial of human rights. These may or may not yield the highest interest. What is the criteria of the kin-dom in making these choices?
Where do I bank?
During Occupy Wall Street, we were encouraged to take our money out of the big banks. I made the decision to move over to a credit union, but I confess that I still have accounts in one of the offending banks. I haven’t yet been able to wean myself off of the security I feel (rightly or wrongly) in it. But I am aware that in that choice I am aligning myself with the ‘harsh master’ and a different choice needs to be made.
Do I buy clothes made with child labor or pay more for goods made in a union shop for fair wages and benefits?
When you’re on a budget, it’s tempting to go for the cheaper goods. But I also recognize that many people on a much tighter budget than mine do not have the privilege of choosing the higher prices. As a consumer, I can make my own choices. But as a follower of Jesus, I must also advocate for a standard of living for all of us, that is also fair to local economies and the environment.
What about politics?
It’s popular in many parts of the church to warn pastors to keep out of politics. However, in this reading of The Parable of the Talents, Jesus (as he so often does) addresses issues with political implications. I vote according to what I believe are the ways of the kin-dom of God. It’s not left or right, Democratic or Republican. It’s about the choices I make when my spirituality is mashed up with our current culture.
I believe we can read The Parable of the Talents in at least two different ways. On any given day, I might be challenged to be the wise investor, to take a risk with my time, talent, and treasures. But at the same time, I can be challenged to look closely at whatever systems are in operation today that are not worthy of my investment, and even in need of reform.
Bottom line: Occupy the Kin-dom calls me to invest and/or divest in all things in light of the way of Jesus. Can I get an Amen?
Matthew 25: 14-30
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 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; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”