Yes and No

Proper 28A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Oops.  Wrong answer-right?  Anyone who attended Sunday school knows you don’t hide your talent under a bushel basket or bury it in the ground! You’ve gotta let your little light shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.

At first blush, this would appear to be the lesson of Jesus’ parable. But notice, Jesus isn’t talking, here, about our special abilities and spiritual gifts. He’s talking about a very, very large sum of money. One talent was between 80 -130 pounds of precious silver or gold, equal to fifteen to twenty years of a daily laborer’s wage. You are fabulously gifted by grace. It’s true. But this parable is not about some sort of spiritual talent show, neither is it a lesson about wise investing. That just wasn’t any part of the world view shared by Jesus’ audience.

Hear then, Jesus parable of the talents: “A member of the wealthy 1% gives three of his most trusted workers a jackpot to play with. They know the rules — the more they make for the boss, the more they’ll get to keep for themselves. The name of the game is exploitation — no questions asked — and the only rule is: turn a profit. Turn as huge a profit as possible” (Debi Thomas, “The Good Kind of Worthless,” Journey with Jesus 11/8/20).

“Two of the slaves do exactly as they’re told. They take their talents out into the world and double them on the backs of the poor. Who knows how many fields they seize, how many farmers they impoverish, how many families they destroy? It doesn’t matter: they fulfill the bottom line. They make a profit. When the master returns and sees what they’ve accomplished on his behalf, he’s thrilled. He invites the two enterprising slaves to enter into his “joy” — the joy of further wealth, further profit, further exploitation.” (Thomas)

Perhaps our first clue to think again about the meaning of this parable should have been the third slave’s description of his master. ‘Master,’ he said, “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’ (Matthew 25:24, 25a). Unfortunately, maybe this too sounds like the God we learned about in Sunday School—but whatever we might think, the God we encounter in the bible is not harsh, demanding, or threatening.

People listening to Jesus would have understood just the opposite. The God of Israel brought them out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey, to drink from cisterns they did not dig and to reap harvests that they did not plant. In fact, God instructed them to harvest badly, that is, to leave some of the wheat and sheaves behind for the hungry to glean.  God told them not to strip the vines completely bare of grapes, nor to shake all the olives from the trees so there would be some leftover for those with nothing to feed themselves and their families. Those listening to Jesus did not look kindly on wealth generated by reaping where they did not sow or by gathering where they did not scatter seed i.e., who profited from dishonest labor.

The ancient Mediterranean attitude toward wealth was very different from ours. The concept of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron (Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels). Jesus’ consistent priority is for the poor and outcast.

The first two slaves did their master’s bidding. They went out and lent money to the farming poor at exorbitant interest, and systematically stripped those debtors of their land. But the third slave? The third slave opted out. The third slave “is more than a quiet hero; he is a whistleblower. Jesus’ audience would have given a thumbs-up to the actions of the third servant, because he is the one who said no.  I will not participate, I will not cooperate, I refuse to be part of your system.  At great cost to himself, he names the exploitation — the same exploitation he colluded in and benefited from for years. He relinquishes his claim on wealth and comfort, calls out the master’s greed and [predatory rapaciousness.] He told the truth. He’s cast out. He lost everything” (Thomas).

Despite of what we learned in Sunday school, the ‘master’ in Jesus’ parable is not God but a stand in for all the corrupt worldly powers of empire that hold sway over us. The heroes aren’t the slaves who turned a profit but the one who let his little light shine by saying “no” to the ways of the world, the ways of Empire, and dog-eat-dog capitalism, and so, was cast out just as Jesus was. The way of Jesus leads to the cross.

What we encounter today is a counter-narrative to all our dystopian novels. Woven through the texts for this Sunday is the topic of fear: fear of punishment and ruin, of mortality and wrath, of communal uncertainty and individual failure. These lessons have special resonance for us today. The search for God and the search for our deepest selves ends up being the same search. As Teresa of Ávila famously said, ‘one finds God in oneself, and one finds oneself in God.’ This is the spiritual food that empowered our ancestors to courageously confront the values of empire and begin to replace them with hospitality, justice, and mercy. This is the story of hope that enables us now to live boldly, body and soul, in the promises of a God who treasures us.

Jesus turns our world upside down. Jesus upends even what we may have learned in Sunday School. Highest praise is reserved for those who make of themselves a gift to others. God is not a tyrant but a steady source of undeserved and abundant love. Transformed by the way of the cross, this love turns our hearts and hand outward toward the outcast and the poor. Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

The so-called lazy slave said “no” to his master and said “yes” to God.  We too, say “yes” in our baptism.  We have vowed to renounce the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin that draw us from God.  We have vowed to live among God’s faithful people, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This is not a burden, but the source of our joy and thanksgiving.

So, let there be some thanksgiving in our Thanksgiving.  Let us work not for the betterment only of ourselves—but of our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren –so future generations may live and thrive and not make the same mistakes we have made. Even now the kingdom of God breaks in all around us, with us, in us, through us, and among us.   Thanks be to God.