Sunday, November 16, 2008

They say there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind divides the world into two kinds of people, and the kind that doesn't.

The temptation is to make the story in today's Gospel have clear good guys and bad guys. It's a parable, right? This isn't real life. If this is some sort of allegory, there must be clear roles. Is the wealthy man good or bad? Is the third slave a model of virtue or a lazy slacker? Who in this story is our role model?

In one telling, probably the one more familiar to most of us, the master is God. The first two slaves are good Christians, and the third slave isn’t.

The God figure gave each of his slaves a number of talents, “according to his ability.” What are these “talents”? In the literal story they aren’t abilities, because they are given “according to ability.” The talent was actually a weight of silver in the ancient world. Sources vary as to just how much a talent would be worth, but one book I read pegged a talent as about 15 years' wages for your typical peasant laborer in Jesus' time. Other sources have it worth more. In terms of today's relative purchasing power, my back-of-the-envelope estimation is that one talent would be equivalent to somewhere between $240,000 and $710,000. Not pocket change. Asking a slave to take care of ten talents would be equivalent to asking a minimum wage worker today to manage a portfolio of several million dollars. Even the slave with one talent would be managing far more than the net value of my assets.

But the Christian tradition allegorized this story. Talents, in this understanding, came to mean, well, talents: aptitudes or skills that people have. Because what does God give us? The ability to do things.

This allegory stuck so well that when we think about talents today, we hardly ever think about ancient near-eastern millionaires; we think about God-given skills. Our word talent comes from the Greek talanton, which meant a weight or sum of money; this story gave the word its common meaning today.

So two of the slaves used their talents and engaged the world with them, making more talents. But the third slave protected the talent he got. He didn’t take any risks with it. He didn’t use it.

When the God figure returned, the two slaves who engaged the world were rewarded, but the slave who didn’t use his talent was cast into the outer darkness.

This, then, is the stewardship story. God gives us talents, and we need to use them. We are to get out there and share what we have with the world.

Personally, I find this to be a very hard message. Essential, important, vital – but really hard to follow. I don't know about anyone else, but I really like my routine, and get really cranky when I get jostled out of it. But God challenges us to not get complacent. We need to take risks and engage the world. The slave who just went about his routine and protected what God gave him was condemned in this story. And we too need to embrace new opportunities for ministry, new and uncomfortable engagements with the world. This is a vital lesson. Don’t be like that bad third slave.

But there’s another way to read this story also.

In this telling, the master is a different master – Mammon, money, the lust for the things of this world. The first two slaves are obedient servants of their god Money, but the third isn't playing that game.

Let’s look at the character of the master. To start with, he’s rich. Really, really, really rich. The kind of rich you don’t become while following The Law, especially the parts about letting all your workers rest every seventh day, reverting land to its original owners and not amassing land, not harvesting the corners of your fields but leaving them for the poor, letting all your land lie fallow every seven years.

The master is a man who recommends putting money in a bank and earning interest – forbidden if that interest is collected from to others who are subject to The Law. The master “reaps where he hasn’t sown” and “gathers where he didn’t scatter seeds” – he amasses his wealth from the work of others. In this telling of the story, focusing on these details, the master isn’t a God figure. The master is greed incarnate. This is Mammon. This is the pursuit of profit and wealth above all else.

So Mammon leaves sums of money to three slaves of wealth. Two of them invest shrewdly, and make 100% returns on their money. 100% returns during the course of their master’s single journey. Might these gains be ill-gotten? Just what are they doing with the money? Predatory lending? Exploiting the labor of others? Fraud? The third slave says “No.” The third slave speaks truth to power, and tells the Master “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” He rejects participating in injustice. He won’t amass wealth at the expense of the poor. He gives the master back his money, but refuses to make his already-filthy-rich master even richer.

The story closes with the problematic aphorism “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.” But in this telling, we don’t have to attribute this to be a description of how God works. We don’t have to try reconcile this with the Sermon on the Mount; instead, this becomes a description of how Mammon works. This is precisely the opposite of the economics of the Kingdom of God.

So that’s another telling. Now what do we do with these? We're tempted to think either/or: who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, who are we supposed to be in this story. Is the master God or Mammon? Is the third slave the hero or the villain?

Which reading of the story is the right one? How do we find an answer?

Maybe we can look at the story in context. This reading from Matthew is just one in a series of parables Jesus told about the Kingdom of Heaven. In the story before this, which we heard last week, the wise characters didn't share their oil with the foolish ones, and in the context of that story, being prepared and fending for oneself seemed to be the course of action that was praised and rewarded. So maybe this week's story is about risk-taking and good investment strategy for the God-given resources in our lives.

But the story that comes after this, which we'll hear next week, is all about sharing: giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, drink to the thirsty, and so forth. In the context of that story, fending for oneself is condemned, and sharing is praised and rewarded. So where does that leave this story?

It leaves the story in a liminal place – that is, a place on the boundary or threshold between two other places. By the values and casting of the story before it, we are tempted to identify the master as God, the first two slaves as good and the third as bad. By the values of the story after it, we are tempted to identify the master and the first two slaves as evil, and the third slave as a hero who bravely resists evil.

But what if we let this story stand in its liminal place between these two other accounts, and take more than one lesson away from it?

With the treasure of this world, we are called to resist the temptation to increase our wealth through exploitation. In the face of a system that expects us to reap where we did not sow and gather where we did not scatter seed – that is, to make wealth off of the labor of others – we need the courage of the third slave to speak truth to power, and to refuse to play along. When Mammon is the master, we do not want to merit the words "well done, good and trustworthy slave" – we must not be the good and trustworthy slaves of the god Money.

But when God is the master, we are not called to bury God’s gifts in the ground, but to spread them abundantly. We are called to take risks, to venture beyond our safe habits and comfortable routines and dare to change everything for the sake of the kingdom. We are called to share God's blessings: feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. For when we do not bury God's treasure, but "trade" it – when we do these things in the world, we get the treasure back again and again.

But above all, we don’t need to look for heroes and villains in the story. We don’t need to put people in boxes. We can read the story and see what lessons we can take away when we identify with each character. Because it’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s about a multiplicity of moral lessons that we can learn when we strive to find the humanity, the noble heroism and tragic failures in each of the characters, and live our own lives in response.

God calls not to find good guys and bad guys, but to find how each character in the story can in some way be us. That is our challenge: not to vilify one character and praise another, but to find grace through all. Amen.