22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Davidson Bidwell-Waite
GOSPEL: Matthew 25:14-30
Jesus said, "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.' "
In the name of Jesus the Revolutionary.
Much of the news lately has been filled with the debate about removing what are called ‘tax breaks for the rich’ and holding Wall Street accountable for the current economic implosion while banks and corporations are posting huge profits. So here's a reframing of the Parable of the Talents we just heard that I hope will be relevant and thought-provoking.
In the debate, one group in favor argued that it is small businesses that generate the majority of new jobs and that by removing tax breaks for people earning more than $380,000 a year and closing tax loop holes for corporations, we would be putting more money into the pockets of small entrepreneurs where the most jobs would be created, thus benefiting the most people and having a sustainable positive impact. They might argue that this would amplify the effect of the new tax revenue by say 5 fold.
A second group was also in favor but argued that only the most wealthy and large corporations should be targeted and that the new revenues should be used for grants to stimulate innovation and to state and local governments to repair our crumbling infrastructure. They argued this would amplify the effect of the recovered tax revenue 2 fold.
A third group argued for a flat 20% tax, which although it would not direct as much money into small businesses and entrepreneurs and would have an negative impact on some poor and upper middle class people, it would give governments more money to preserve schools, healthcare and social security, unemployment benefits and public services. This proposal would preserve what was the status quo in very risky and uncertain times.
Which of these servants would the Master praise? Which of these groups would be doing God's will?
Now this may seem like an outlandish question, but the decisions that are being taken now do have a very real and direct connection with our faith and what God, in and though Jesus Christ, is saying to us.
These are very difficult, and some would say dark times and the divide between rich and poor is widening at an alarming rate. The World Bank recently released figures showing that the US is in the top third of countries in the world which have the greatest income inequality.
Moreover, the middle class is being battered in a way that over the centuries has repeatedly resulted in revolution. And we now have the Occupy Movement calling for radical change and greater accountability from those who control most of our nation's resources.
Now I realize that the Occupy Movement is controversial, but it has quickly spread to over 95 cities across 82 countries and is in over 600 communities in the United States. Whatever we think of it, the movement is in fact prophetic, and it is raising up the same issues the prophets traditionally railed against, social and economic inequality, oppression of the poor, lack of care for widows and orphans (in other words the helpless). With cuts to services to the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill and the poor, with schools closing and people losing their homes, while corporate earnings soar, shouldn't we be hearing the cry of the prophet?
So what's interesting about the Parable of the Talents is that it is often used to support not only the notion of abundance begetting abundance, but also the proposition that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." Granted it is often framed in terms of faith: Those rich in faith receive more, and those with little will have even that taken away - as Matthew says later in Chapter 25 at verse29. So, if the Master is interpreted as God, which is typical, then the first 2 servants are seen as responding to God's abundance and receiving even more abundance in return.
But what about the third servant who buried his talents and produced nothing with what was given him. The Master's reaction is disturbing if the Master is God. The servant calls him harsh (a very Old Testament perspective) and the Master responds with "'you're a wicked and lazy slave". This response would seem to affirm entrepreneurialism, and by extension banking, trading, and consumerism.
So how about this reframing of the Parable? The Master is say the Banking Industry which says; ' Good and trustworthy servant, you have been faithful in making your payments on a small mortgage, so I shall reward you with a big mortgage and lines of credit and credit cards so that you may buy and consume more and enter into the joy of your master. And I shall earn even more interest on your purchases and thus have more money to lend - of course that's after my fees and levies and bonuses and profit sharing, stock options etc, etc etc'.
This framing of the parable would be consistent with the conservative view that supports tax breaks for the rich because it gets money into the hands of those who can produce more with it like, the first and second servants.
However, Paul Nuechterlein in the Girardian Reflections has very different take on this Parable. He asks:
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people? Heck no! If you've got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn't a parable) of the sheep and the goats, which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were... but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. [In short,] ...its message is much closer to
"care for those whom the world would leave destitute."
Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We should not be like the master [or the rewarded servants] in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away.
He goes on to say:
But what if we don't read Christ or God anywhere in this parable but simply [interpret it as] as Jesus making a comment on the standard human economics of, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer", then the kingdom of heaven will be found with those who suffer from such economics. If we "follow Jesus," that's where we will find him, namely, with those [who get] left out when the rich get richer. Jesus' life began in a barn, [he] grew up in the poverty of Nazareth, spent a ministry among the poor and outcast, and finally let himself be handed over into the hands of the richest and most powerful of his nation to be judged as one completely on the outside.
So whatever your feelings about Occupy, they are raising up the plight of those who are being increasingly left out as the rich get richer - and now that includes the middle class. As people of faith, what we should hear from Occupy is "What is your God calling you to do about this situation?"
I don't have any answers yet for myself or to suggest, but I am listening deeply and praying; praying for peace throughout this protest; praying for something new to emerge to stop the hording of wealth; praying for release from the bondage of consumerism that has driven commercial exploitation and brought us to this state; praying for those for whom the "safety net" is tearing beneath them.
I think most of us have observed that the trickle-down theory is not working. This is not meant as a political statement. Corporations have continued to take jobs overseas and the juggernaut of consumerism binges on goods made in China, while our schools collapse, unemployment rises, foreclosures continue. Moreover, we have seen that we are interdependent, globally, to a degree few had realized. Beginning with the Arab Spring uprisings, people are breaking free from the exploitation of the many by the few, and the toleration of injustice and oppression is no longer confined to outsiders and the marginalized. The world has come to our doorstep, and we are all in this together. We can no longer count on the rich and the powerful to take care of us. They have proven themselves not to be trustworthy. The time is ripe for radical change; the inauguration of the kind of world Jesus described when He said - be not of this world; feed my sheep; whoever does for the least of these does so for me. The Parable of the Talents should be viewed from the outside, as an indictment of the way things are.
Occupy is pointing to the problem, but the solution begins here. What is God calling you and me to do?
Speaking of individual accountability, when Edwin and I were doing volunteer work in Cape Town South Africa for 3 months in 2004, we had the privilege of having breakfast with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and some of his friends. During the meal, a woman next to me was complaining about something the Bush Administration had done and turned to Edwin and I and asked "How can you let this happen?" We both responded that we certainly didn't support it and that half of Americans probably didn't. She then asked, "So where are the protests? How are people showing they don't support this?". I responded weakly that many people feel disempowered (bad answer). She went on: "So of the 5% of the world's population who control 95% of the world's wealth, HALF feel disempowered?!" The Archbishop added, "So where does that leave us?"
My Spiritual Director recently discussed the Occupy Movement in a sermon and suggested asking corporate executives who make more than 100 times what their admin does, " how much is enough"? She said, we could ask ourselves , " how much is enough"? She asked me what I'd say to the question , " how much is enough"? My answer - wild patterned shirts from Paris aside - is another sermon.
So as we head into the High Holy Days of Macy's, we might periodically ask ourselves " how much is enough"? Slowing the machine of over-consumption begins with each of us.
Finally, speaking of having enough, please start bringing food for the Second Harvest barrel; lend a hand to making Thanksgiving baskets for our shut-ins; look for serviceable clothing to donate to homeless teens and the women at SAGE who are in our job interviewing class; keep an eye out for the program we will launch soon to buy Christmas gifts for Foster Children who may not receive anything otherwise; and think about giving Nets-For-Life cards that we will start selling in Advent - they have a new, even more uniquely Transfiguration design.
Dear Jesus, help us imagine what kind of radical change now would make the world look more like the kingdom of heaven you describe to us, and help us discern what you would have us do to bring that about.
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