Monday, November 21, 2011

Investing Well

Scripture for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Judges 4:1-7; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

I realize that our collect says that all holy scripture has been written for our learning, but I have no idea what to do with that portion of the Book of Judges. It introduces us to Deborah, a prophetess who functioned as one of the great judges of ancient Israel. I’d thought at first that this passage might be setting us up for a series of readings about her, but not so. It’s a one-off reading that must have depths I haven’t plumbed and applications I haven’t imagined, but darned if I know where to go with it.

Our psalm, however, has a certain currency to it. “…for we have had more than enough of contempt, Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” That sounds as if it comes straight from the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’d judge the popularity rating of that sharp-edged verse at about 99%...maybe 100.

It’s an interesting companion piece to Matthew’s parable of the talents. On the face of it, there’s something cold and steely about this parable, enough to make me wish I could avoid dealing with it. But I’ve struck out on Judges and haven’t found St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians ringing my bells, so let’s see what we find in this parable.

Rather than re-trace it from the get-go, let’s visit the bottom line. Three estate managers have been handed portions of a wealthy man’s property, to invest and trade upon while he takes the grand tour. He has judged how much to entrust to each, based on their working history. I presume that the one surprise this keen capitalist had on his return was to discover that the fellow he trusted least, the manager from whose skills he expected least, under-performed even the low water mark of their working history.

The Bible commentator tells us that a talent is a large sum of money. Do you have a calculator on your smart phone? Take the wages of a day laborer (let’s say it’s minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, so multiply that by eight hours: $58.00) then multiply that by fifteen years of daily labor (a Jew would not work on the Sabbath, so let’s say six days a week would yield $348.00, multiply that by 52 weeks and we have $18,096, multiply that by 15 and behold, a talent on our terms might be in the neighborhood of $271,440.00. That’s serious money.

I’ve got to say that this story reminds me of our last Finance Committee meeting here in the parish. We have a very sharp committee, and they’ve wisely diversified, placing the management of the parish’s longterm assets in several sets of hands. And there’s one that keeps underperforming. Though I can easily picture us indulging in some judgmental language, I’m not sure we’d go so far as to call that manager wicked and lazy, and I’m positive that, even if the committee decides to remove parish assets from his stewarding, they won’t expect to throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So what’s with the intensity of the master? Where does all this feeling come from?

From the start, don’t we know that this parable is going to speak about something beyond its literal terms, that while the story is cast in the language of estate management, it’s really about something more, much more. Jesus tips his hand right at the outset, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” he says.

And isn’t it intriguing that the word “talent” should carry more than its weight in gold? The commentator tells us that this double meaning wasn’t there in the first century— that stands to reason, since the coincidence occurs in English, not in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek. As a result of the wide circulation of this story, the word “talent” came into the English language in the Middle Ages as a term meaning God-given abilities, gifts, graces. In the first century, the talents in this story were money on the barrelhead.

But that doesn’t mean that money, wealth, investment, stewardship in this parable represent financial or commercial property. A parable is always an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; or, as the great Bible scholar C. H. Dodd puts it,

“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” (C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom)

Any Bible scholar would urge us to notice the context in which the Gospel-writer, Matthew in this case, locates the parable. We’re right on the heels of last Sunday’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, which we saw addressing not so much wedding customs as the second coming of Jesus Christ in glory to set right a world gone wrong.

That’s the immediate neighborhood of today’s parable, and it is where it is because Matthew wants his hearers to wrestle with a hard question: In the between-time after our Lord’s first coming and before his return, what ought good and faithful believers be doing with their lives?

A divided first-century church, under pressure of persecution by Roman imperial forces, may have made several answers to Matthew. Some thought what mattered was being theologically correct and pure in that waiting time, keeping your hands clean and your eyes on the prize. Some may have had little idea how to wait for God’s final act on the world stage except to be passive and cautiously watch what happened, but disengaged and in a place of hiding. And some were positive that faithfulness meant strict obedience to the clear instructions of the law and the prophets, following the old rules regardless of all the flux and flow of severe change all around. But there’s yet one other answer that some Christians would make.

Before going there, let’s be sure we’ve been adequately teased. What is that enormous wealth which the master has entrusted to us stewards?

It isn’t money. Remember what can happen to IRAs and endowments, and recognize that this wealth that Jesus bestows upon us is not fragile or fickle or flimsy: it has an eternal weight of glory about it, it is kept in the heart and not in the bank, it grows not by hoarding it but by giving it, putting it to use. We have been given the contents of the vaults of heaven, the love that will not let us go, the hope of eternal life, wisdom that teaches us to sing in harmony with God, unlimited partnership with God in the new creation. We’ve been given certainty and confidence in our place at the table of perfect community. Sacraments, scriptures, prayer, mission, passion, eternity.

What are we to do with this wealth as we await the return of Christ in glory? The one other remaining answer made by many in that first century world was to exercise responsibility, take initiative, run risk that would help God establish the priority of Jesus’s love, Jesus’s values, Jesus’s radical and iconoclastic egalitarianism right here and now on earth as in heaven. Such is what this parable shows two of three stewards doing, and being affirmed for doing, while one is reamed-out for what he has allowed fear and anxiety to do to him, to his freedom and his integrity. Each manager has been free to decide how to use the gift of time and opportunity during the master’s absence, how to live in his stead, by his vision; and yet just two of these three have claimed that freedom and made decisions. The third has dug a hole, a grave, and tried to bury in it the way, the truth, and the life.

But he has apparently never accepted these powers, these gifts, as his. Hear how he blames the master for his own problem of fear. He hasn’t discovered the inner nature of gift and opportunity that animates the new life of grace: “Here you have what is yours,” he grumbles, unaware of what is his own.

We could still ask, why the intensity, the deep feeling that the master expresses, banishing this third steward to outer darkness. And a responsible handling of the Word of God most likely requires us to test the spirit of such rejection and exclusion. Is this the spirit of the kingdom of God? Or might it be the partisan spirit that a divided society can display when leaders don’t lead, the anger that surfaces when some try so hard and others walk away from their responsibilities?

Have we been teased enough by this parable? Enough to see a symbolic case study in the creation not of financial capital, but of social and spiritual capital? Teased enough to ask ourselves what we are generating for God, for the world, for the kingdom of Christ, from the vast wealth that has been entrusted to us?

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, volume 8, was helpful in preparing this sermon.)