Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
RCL – Proper 28 A – Sunday 16 November 2008
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
I dedicate this sermon to my dad, Jacques Delcourt, who "God willing" (possibly his favorite phrase) will turn 80 by the end of November. I dedicate it in honor of his willingness to search and struggle with difficult ideas; a useful tool for a sociologist.
Lord, you desire that we use the gifts you have endowed us with to build up your Kingdom. Give us the faith to recognize your gifts and help us fight back the fears that may keep us from using them.
Well, I wrote that prayer yesterday on the basis of the traditional interpretation of today’s parable. The traditional interpretation is that God wants us to use our god-given abilities to the most; and that denying our abilities or sleeping on them is sinful. I don’t disagree with that ethical statement but I disagree that that is a conclusion we can draw from today’s parable.
It’s not a bad ethical guideline to go by; it has helped generations of Christians to pull their socks up, roll up their sleeves and get to work. Unfortunately, in the process of being busy until Jesus came back, some might have lost their focus on building the Kingdom of God rather than buttressing their own earthly success.
But the traditional interpretation of today’s parable relies heavily on the idea that the Gospel was written for to speak to our context; that of readers of the Modern Times living in capitalist economies.
The traditional interpretation of our parable would seem to support the early 20th century German economist and sociologist Max Weber who wrote a series of essays titled “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Be a good Protestant and your ethics will make you amass capital is a proximate summary of Weber’s thesis (forgive me, my sociologist father, and my human sciences teachers, for the simplification).
So yesterday, I took my prayer seriously and decided, in a very Anglican fashion, to show respect to scripture by using my gift of reason even if it ruffles the feathers of a tradition that I respect.
First, I owe you a bit of disclosure on my methods here. I have to tell you that my reading of the Bible has been transformed by an approach that could be termed contextual.
The New Testament was written in the first century and a half after the death of Jesus, in the Eastern Mediterranean. That’s a time and place -- a context -- that offered much more homogeneous living conditions to everyone than today’s complex, multi-layered and multi-faceted societies in which we live.
In Jesus’ time, most everybody is based in the agrarian economy, most people are peasants. There is no middle class as we understand it and there are very few highly powerful people. These also happen to be the rich. But money and wealth are not the standard by which one is measured; honor is. If you have a lot of honor, you might be graced with wealth; but, not the other way round.
As a result of the homogeneous life experience, the writers of the New Testament did not need to explain a lot of context to their stories. They assumed (correctly for their own time) that everybody knew the socio-economic context of their stories. And so we are left with low context stories that take a lot for granted from the reader.
As a result of all this, I now always try to find out what would have been the unstated context of the stories I read in the New Testament. I will pass on an explanation of the methods of contextual analysis here, but they are fairly well established and respected, even though their use often yields controversial results.
And before I review today’s parable in light of context contemporary to its telling and its recording by Matthew, I ask you to question your own heart. When you heard the parable, did you wonder if the master’s behavior was how the God Jesus knew would behave? Did a part of you wonder about the master’s glee at capital accumulation and at his vengefulness on the clueless?
In Jesus’ time, goods and goodness are seen as finite quantities. It’s like a pie, the bigger your piece of pie, the less there is for the others. That’s very much unlike our vision of permanent expansion of wealth.
I can’t help but invite you, though, to ponder if recent and ongoing events such as the economy’s degeneration and the climate change crisis don’t question the sustainability of our economic model of constant financial and material growth.
In Jesus’ time, the highest value in life was honor. Acquisition of wealth was seen as necessarily occurring at the expense of others and therefore, not honorable.
That’s why, throughout the gospels, we have the utter disdain for tax collectors (who take a cut for themselves); and for usurers (or bankers) who take a cut (or interest) on providing you with resources that you were unable to provide for from your own network of relationships. By the way, that’s a definition of poverty in Jesus’ time; not being able to take care of oneself thanks to an honor-bound network of relationships.
Often, rich people would have had slaves conduct their business. Slaves were seen as without honor anyway. They would therefore be able to conduct business to the profit of their master in ways that would have been unseemly for the master himself to do.
So, in our parable of talents, the slaves are given economic means to fructify for their master while he is away. In Jesus’ time, this would have not sat well with most of his agrarian listeners.
Absent landlords were despised as having amassed too much wealth at the expense of others and as not being present to protect and take care of their network of charges. The richer you were the more responsibilities for others you would be expected to exercise; being away was a cop-out on your honor responsibilities.
The slave who does not invest, or trade his share of wealth up, is doing the honorable thing in his social context; he is preserving what has been entrusted to him in what is recognized as the safest way. He is not participating in undue enrichment schemes that are seen to cost to the community.
This slave’s description of the master, validated by the master himself is a picture-perfect description of the dishonorable wealth-grabber in Jesus’ context. The master is described as cheating on those who sowed next to his field by encroaching on their harvest and as abusing other people’s threshing floors (where grain is separated from chaff).
The master’s suggestion that the slave should have deposited the money with bankers is also seen as shameful since it would involve usury (the use of interest).
So, in the end, why is this parable present in both Matthew’s and Luke’s report of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
I don’t know the answer to this. It is worth noting that the Gospel of Matthew moves on to Jesus’ telling of how he will recognize the goats from the sheep -- how he will recognize those who helped the “least of these”.
Who is the “least of these” in our parable of the talents; the shrewd, business-savvy slaves who hit it big in trading and investing or the fearful honor-bound slave who does no harm?
I’m reminded in closing today’s sermon that any metaphor is only as good as the point it’s trying to make. If flogged like a dead horse, it ends up losing its sense.
I believe that Matthew’s rendering of the parable of the talents was a metaphor that naturally worked well for his original audience. And it led the way to the separation of the sheep and the goats in the next passage.
For present-day American listeners, it is fraught with cultural interferences; the least of which is the use of “talent” which was originally a measure of weight representing about 15 years’ worth of work.
And so, why did I bother using your time to de-construct a well-loved parable and turning it on its head?
I believe it is crucially important for us 21st century Christians to re-discover our scriptures with new eyes and hearts.
I hope you will be stimulated in looking at scripture anew and letting it nourish your soul as it was intended to; but without blind faith to unquestioned tradition, or without the recourse of God-given reason. I’ll be happy to share my sources of reflection with anyone interested.
Let us pray.
Lord, we are grateful for the Gospels that report your doings and sayings to humanity. Help us discern the truth and depth of your message within and through the texts that have come to us. Help us pay attention to what Wisdom is whispering to our hearts as we read and pray the Gospels. May we be graced with understanding that prompts us to right action and righteous being.