The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
What a cheery set of readings we’ve been given for today! In Zephaniah, the Lord says to those who don’t believe God has any power – Call me impotent? I’ll show you: wrath and anguish, darkness and gloom, blood and devastation! Paul picks up the theme – the Lord will come like a thief in the night, with sudden destruction.
And then the gospel – slaves are entrusted with some money by their master. Two of them turn a quick profit, but one hides it so he won’t lose it. He returns it safely, and what is his reward? The master calls him wicked, lazy, worthless, and throws him into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The moral of the story? The haves will get more, and the have-nots will lose what little they have.
Aren’t you glad you came to church today?
What are we to make of these readings, especially the gospel?
Jesus’ parable has been interpreted for centuries as a metaphor about faith and risk. The master in the story is God, who temporarily lends us all our resources – money, time, personal gifts – and we are expected to risk these resources so that they will grow and be useful to others. But if we play it safe, like the slave who avoided all risk, we will lose the gifts we have been given. Our inner poverty will be a kind of darkness.
There is truth in this interpretation. But there is another way of looking at this parable, an approach which Deacon Judith Jenkins took a month ago when preaching about a very similar parable, also from Matthew’s gospel. In that story, a ruthless and murderous king invited the public to his son’s wedding feast. One man who came was not dressed in proper wedding garments. Like today’s risk-avoidant slave, this poorly-dressed guest was cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Judith questioned our assumption that in Jesus’ parables, God is always represented by the one who is powerful, rich, or father-like. The story takes on new meaning if we see the king as the story actually describes him – a cruel and violent man – and if we see the man without the wedding garment as one who has done nothing wrong. Judith suggested that the story might be about an innocent Christ figure refusing to participate in a violent social system, and being punished – crucified – for it.
So we come to today’s parable. The story tells us that the master is known to be harsh, reaping where he does not sow. He doesn’t sound like the God that Jesus teaches about. He gives his servants money and goes away on a trip. Upon his return, two of the servants give him a 100% return on his investments, which they accomplished in a very short time. One wonders what they did to pull this off – it sounds like the Mafia. The master’s message to the one servant who didn’t exploit others for his master’s gain: nice guys finish last, loser!
Perhaps in telling this parable, Jesus was being subversive. Perhaps he was pointing out the outrageous injustice of financial exploitation that ruins common people’s lives. In Jesus’ day, there was big money to be made in ruthlessness. There were corrupt tax-collectors, Roman taxes and temple tithes, landlords that schemed to turn people out of their ancestral property and make them indebted sharecroppers or day laborers. That’s the master and his lackeys in this parable.
And who is the so-called worthless and lazy slave? The one who refuses to play the game. The one who doesn’t go out and quickly extort a 100% return on his master’s money. And for refusing to do this, as in the parable a month ago, he is cast out of the company of the elite, into the darkness that lies outside their privileged and corrupt world. Even the little he has is taken away from him.
Exploitation is common to every era, and we are no strangers to it. It happens when people of power abuse their position, hurt those who are powerless, and gain personally from it. Power, in and of itself, is neutral. It is often used for good. And powerlessness is not always a virtue. We need some power over our lives. But power used for personal gain at the expense of other people’s suffering is evil.
We have seen this in the global financial meltdown of the last 3 years. I understand that the reasons for this are complex, but at least one strong contributing factor was a group of reckless gamblers who used other people’s money to make quick fortunes for themselves. The Occupy Wall St. movement, now global, is an unfocused but passionate cry of frustration giving voice to the millions of unemployed and debt-ridden common people who suffer from the greed of a few. Perhaps we can see this whole scenario in Jesus’ parable. 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.
Another example of exploitation by people of power is the awful situation unfolding at Penn State. Child abuse by the football coach was horrible enough, but even worse was the inaction, indifference and self-preservation shown by every person of power in that institution who knew about it. It rivals the worst of the Roman Catholic scandal. Power was used against the powerless – the children, in this case - so that the University’s status and fortune created by football would not be jeopardized. 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.
Well, it’s easy to throw stones at obvious public examples of exploitation. But Jesus never let his listeners off the hook that easily. His parables are told for everyone.
Each of us has choices every day whether or not to use whatever power we have against others for our own personal gain. We can withhold or skew information, so that we win the contract. We can whisper half-truths about others so that we look better. We can use others for sexual pleasure. We can overwork our employees and avoid paying benefits so that our profits stay strong. We can dominate our children, forcing them to our will so that we retain our illusion of control. We all have power, and power can be used to create good or to exploit.
What is the alternative, especially in a dog-eat-dog world? I think it is a simple change of perspective. Rather than seeing ourselves as that exceptional individual who is trying to pull himself above the pathetic masses, we live horizontally, as it were, in community. From this perspective, we see ourselves among other children of God, each of us deserving respect and dignity. We are not individual units, but connected, part of the human family, serving not just our own needs, but also the common good.
Jesus’ parable suggests that there is a cost to living this way. The slave who doesn’t exploit others for his master’s gain is cast out of the company of the elite. If we live a more horizontal life, there may be a cost for us, too.
We may end up in a lower-paying job that has integrity as its reward rather than personal gain. We may pay more for products and buy less because we choose to give our money to businesses that are not exploitative. When we give away a percentage of our income to causes and institutions that serve the common good, we will have a little less money to spend on ourselves. Withdrawing from competition, we may sometimes be taken advantage of by more power-hungry people around us.
These are examples of what some call “the cost of discipleship.” But Jesus does not end with the cost. He goes on to assure us of the reward. The last will be first, the meek will inherit the earth, and self-denial is the true path towards self-fulfillment.
The lone servant who chose not to use his master’s power to exploit was, in the eyes of his peers, cast into the darkness beyond their privileged world. He was dead to them. But consider where he might have actually ended up: in the company of Jesus’ followers, among poor and rich, weak and strong, losers and winners, a mosaic of humanity whose common word, no matter what their station in life, was love.
He wasn’t in the darkness after all. He, and all who follow his example, had come into the light of God.