James Hillman commented when asked about his book, ‘The Terrible Love of War’, that we live in a world where we live in competition with one another. For one to advance, another loses. We are expected to drag ourselves up by our bootstraps and always to grow. The numbers count. How many have joined the church since you arrived? How has the bottom line grown? The G20 being held in Brisbane is setting a growth target for the world to achieve this very weekend.
Each of us is deemed to be a perpetual growth machine designed to always be hitting the goals society sets, chasing the Joneses like a dog chases its tail only to find out that when he catches it, it already belonged to him. In political terms, from Menzies to Hockey, we have been divided into lifters or leaners. You must make use of what you are given according to the rules or you will be cast out, with much gnashing of teeth.
The parable Matthew relates in Matthew 25:14-30 is often used to encourage us to use our God given gifts or suffer the consequences. Traditional interpretation suggest the businessman is God and his servants those of us who have been entrusted with the kingdom of God. Each are given gifts, in this case money and are expected to make it grow. Two are successful; the third apparently fails miserably and suffers as a result. Much sermonising builds on the story to encourage, or more often, apportion guilt liberally on those listening who, for a whole range of reasons, haven’t been able to double their investment.
Is this what this parable is really about? What happens if we move a little to the side and have a quizzical look at the story, putting it in its context and avoiding the personalisation of post-reformation theology or the imputed violence of the extortionist and his three henchmen as a symbol of the coming of the kingdom of God?
This parable is as challenging to Jesus’ contemporaries as last week was to the men of the time. How inappropriate for them to be compared to unmarried teenage girls who sillily forget to trim their lamps? How inappropriate to tell a story about a rich man who most likely lived abroad (a foreigner), a non-Jew as an archetype of God. He leaves money with his subordinates to invest for his future. Yes, this is a story about money, for that is what talents were. In modern terms the amount for the 8 talents is about $3 million dollars, something those listening could only imagine as the product of theft, bribery or extortion. You could not, in their eyes, amass such wealth any other way.
So how did the servants double that investment? Well, as the story assumes, being non-Jews or acting on behalf of a non-Jew, they could lend money at exorbitant rates (30-50%), enforce repayment or send people to prison. They would drain the poor people taking an unfair share of harvest or grain production as repayment. They were unscrupulous, breaking all the accepted Jewish rules and become wealthy, not for themselves but for their master.
The third slave seems to have had a moral conscience. Some commentators say he feared his master and didn’t want to lose the money and be punished, and so he put it in a safe place. As there was little or no inflation, burying the money was a safe and prudent option. He simply wasn’t prepared to be involved in any immoral or unjust acts, or break any religious taboos just to make money.
Yet when the landowner returns he punishes the prudent one, and rewards the unscrupulous. Is this an accurate picture of God and how God deals with people? Is God prepared for us to be unscrupulous in order to advance the Kingdom? Is God’s kingdom a violent and unjust place where we are punished for doing what is morally right and appropriate?
Or is Jesus channelling the spirit of satire, joining the ranks of the Chasers and Shaun Miccalef, holding up before those he was speaking to that the Kingdom of God does not fit easily into the personal growth program of the world. The kingdom of God is at odds with the Kingdom of the world and we need to let go of the benchmarks held up by society and seek a much more dangerous path, the path of righteousness and love. It will not bring you wealth, you in fact will be cast out by the rulers of this world, pushed aside and seen as irrelevant, you will be a leaner not a lifter, someone who needs to have their income managed by governments, programs approved by bureaucrats, sermons approved by the city council as is happening in some US cities and, generally, deemed irrelevant by those you live amongst.
I suggest the third servant actually ‘saw’ what was going on and made a conscious decision to live out his beliefs. His dialogue is blunt, exposing the brutality of the system, holding up a mirror to the landowner so he could get a good look at himself. The servant remained prudent, diligent and fair, and probably scared half to death, with good reason, yet he did not back down.
So what does that say to us as we move through Advent? What does it say to us as a church as we look to the future? What are we waiting for and how are we going to see it when it arrives?
May I respectfully suggest we look closely at the unsuccessful servant and remember?:
ONE: That we are to be the church in the world. We are not a business, a professional centre or even a school. We are the church, the body of Christ alive in the world and committed to being ‘a peculiar people’ in a peculiar time.
TWO: That we are to holdfast to what is the God News, as troublesome as that may be, the imitation of the living Christ, and remain committed to the blueprint for the kingdom of God as outlined in the sermon on the Mount. There is no room there for making money, or anything else, unjustly.
THREE: That we remain comfortable with being cast out because we avoid what is acceptable practice on the basis it is not in tune with the practices of the Kingdom of God. Paul reminds us in Phillipians 4:8, ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.’
FOUR: That we remain faithful even though we know our actions will be greeted with ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth. Thomas Merton writing to a despondent Jim Forrest during the fight for equal rights in the 1960’s in America, says, ‘“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
Our challenge is to sit in the place of the outcast servant and do what is right in the eyes of the kingdom and its people. Gandhi rightly suggests that ‘The main purpose of life is to live rightly, think rightly, act rightly’. Our love lives in relationship and we work to ensure that God’s love is real right where we are, even if that pushes us to the outside. That is what God is waiting for.