- Typically the sermon runs something like this: God our Master gives us talents - in the story, the coin; in our lives, personal abilities, skills, and assets - and it is our job to make the most of those in His service. In modern parlance, we say that to those much is given, much is expected.
- In many ways, that view of the Parable drives our culture. The Anglo-American Protestant work ethic suggests that in working hard to honor our Master, we will be rewarded - not only in Heaven, but in the material gains of our everyday lives.
- This interpretation is what allows politicians like Newt Gingrich to get away with saying that poor children have to be taught to work by being put to work. This interpretation is what makes people center their lives around their work, and to be devastated by unemployment not only because it wreaks havoc on their financial lives, but because everything in our society tells us that if we cannot earn enough money to buy things - homes, clothing, food, cars - we are of no use to the society at large, and indeed we have no redeeming personal value. The Poor are worthless. The Poor are evil. The Poor deserve to die of diseases and conditions that commonly killed people 80-100 years ago but not in the post-Vietnam War era. They deserve what they earn, and nothing more. It's the American Way.
- The homilist that day was a young black woman, her dreads neatly arranged, a multi-colored stole pulled over her shoulders, her white vestments bright against the beige stone of the steps to the chancel. The Rev. Wise is chaplain to the Episcopal City Mission, and her focus was not on the first two servants, who multiplied their Master's bags of gold, but on the third one, the one turned away as Unworthy:
“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
She tried to use the words of the Unworthy one to talk about her charges, the children in detention at the City's Juvenile Detention Center, and by extension the victims of the Penn State debaucle. I was not convinced, but her focus on that part of the Parable, which I had never really paid attention to beyond the traditional interpretation, got me thinking.
- "Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed." Isn't that the core argument of the Occupy Protesters, that the 1% have profited beyond what their work would rationally give them, and used their wealth to gain further advantages from our political and legal systems?
- Are the Unworthy's words not those of revolution, of standing up against what is Wrong and saying, I will not take part? Does speaking words based in justice make us unworthy in the eyes of God as well as society? Is he not Wordsworth in an earlier time, calling our attention away from the material to the spiritual?
- As my son says to me, This homework has no point beyond keeping me busy and I have other things I'd rather do. is he speaking from laziness or from the position of the Unworthy One? And by forcing him to complete his work, am I playing the part of the Unjust Master whose only values are those of greed because I am so focused on his learning to work hard so he can "be a success in life" rather than pursue happiness now?
- When I do my part in the consumer culture, getting and spending on things made and grown by underpaid people in China or Latin America or even in my own country, am I following in the footsteps of the Master who takes advantage of others for personal gain? Is that what I really want to do?
- In the next chapter of Matthew, as he is being bathed in expensive oils, Jesus tells the disciples, The Poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. In Mark, he adds And you may help them any time you want. Is this making it optional? Is it an abdication of earlier scriptures that instruct us to give all we have to the poor in order to follow in His footsteps and serve God? Whose side is Christ really on, anyway?
- Whose side am I really on?
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
10 for Tuesday: Musings on the Parable of the Talents
It's been a month ago now, maybe more. I got up one Sunday morning and through the ringing pain of a headache decided I was going to Eucharist. It was in those few weeks when Stewardship is the main topic, when the church is trying to understand its financial and volunteer assets for the coming year, which is when the Parable of the Talents shows up in the readings.