November 19, 2017
Christ Church, Exeter
The Moral Issue around Who Gets,
Who Keeps, and Who Gives
Let me just come right out and say that today’s parable is not one that is easy to tie up with easy lessons or takeaways. Nevertheless, like every gospel, we look for good news -- shades of light to help us on the journey.
What we are to make of Matthew’s words put on the mouth of the master at the very end? For to all those who have, more will be given, and they have in abundance; for from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away? It doesn’t at all sound fair or Jesus like.
In the debate that is taking place in the halls of congress in Washington, which is called both tax reform or tax cuts, people are asking: who would it favor and who would it hurt? The conversation is so complicated that it is hard to know how it might impact us. We hear often how the rich get richer and the poor are getting poor and those in the middle are being left behind. Rising income equality is in the headlines. The 1% vs. the 99%. The Donor Class, the Middle Class, the working poor. This is a conversation going on “out there.” What does it have to do with what we do here: who we are, what we care about and how we pray.
The New York Times reported this past week that in the United States, “the richest 1 percent have seen their share of national income roughly double since 1980, to 20 percent in 2014 from 11 percent. This trend has resulted in stagnant living standards for most Americans. No other developed nation is as unequal, and none have experienced such a sharp rise in inequality.”
Sounds political. Edgy. Should we care? I believe we should. Does God care? After spending weeks and weeks reading through the story of the Exodus, this one thing should be clear. God hears the cries of God’s people. So when people suffer, God cares. About the oppressed. The harassed. The bullied. The poor. Victims. Those abused, forgotten, deported, imprisoned. When it comes to watching how riches are shared, our faith should tell us that we have a dog in this fight. It becomes a moral issue.
Again: For to all those who have, more will be given, and they have in abundance; for from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away? How is that right?
A master entrusts great sums of money to three of his slaves. The five talents the first slave received was worth, in modern terms, about $2 million. Even for the slave only given one talent, it was an enormous amount of wealth. More than he could ever imagine.
I mentioned a few weeks back in the sermon that when you hear a cloud mentioned in the Bible, the presence of God is not too far away. The same if true when it comes to over-sized numbers: our radar should be alerted. A master gives out more money than anyone can imagine. 5,000 people are fed with a few pieces of bread and some fish. A host opens up a wedding banquet to anyone who would like to come. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind to look for the one that wandered away. A message of grace lays behind this tough parable that looks to be about all judgement.
Poet Mary Oliver wrote this: “You can have the other words-chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I'll take grace. I don't know what it is exactly, but I'll take it.” Writer Anne Lamott puts it another way -- “I do not understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
Let’s play out one traditional way of hearing this story. If Jesus is the master, it will require us to shake off the images of our Savior blessing children, healing lepers and carrying a lamb around his shoulders. The long journey the master went on and the eventual return to settle the accounts was the time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and his Second Coming that all of the disciples were expecting to come in their lifetime, then the absurdly high currency of the talents have been understood as the many gifts that believers are given to the good of the Kingdom of God.
So, we have been given many gifts for the good of the faith and the world. Use them. Lift them up. Express them. Give generously. Share. Don’t hid your light under a basket and your treasure in the ground. Give. Risk. Dream. Invest in the future. When the End does come and with our days numbered, wouldn’t it be better to have made something of what we’ve been given?
Like the first two slaves who are praised, we will receive our: “Well done.” “Enter into the joy of your master.”
This view of the parable plays well of course during stewardship season when our challenge is to connect all of this with God’s work in and through us in the world.
And then there is the rest of the parable.
The master has another side: darker. More exacting and firm. To the one who, out of fear, returned only with what was first given, one talent, He said: “you wicked and lazy slave!”
For centuries, the Church spoke of Cardinal, or deadly, sins – the big ones: they were:
In our country, where the Protestant Work Ethic still dominates, to called lazy is perhaps the worst thing one can say of another person.excessive laziness or the failure to act and utilize one’s talents.
We react differently to someone who appears uninterested in using the physical or other gifts given to them: the gift to play music, or run, build things. The squander or not used one’s gift is seen with much greater sorrow than not having been given anything to begin with.
And that could be the more redeeming message here.
I commend the book that we’ve been reading here and in town: $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. It challenges our stereotypes of those on welfare in this country for putting faces to statistics. Debunks the false caricature of the so-called Welfare Queen of the 1980’s. It looks into failure of welfare reform of the 1990’s. And it chronicles the lives of real people who cannot find good work or earn enough to support themselves for the low paying jobs they can find. It shows how millions of people in this country who can qualify for SNAP, or food stamps, exist on little to no cash income. Millions of children in homes living, barely, on $2 a day. These are people who have not buried their treasure in the ground, but feel buried and passed over by a system that continues to fail them.
This coming week many of us will sit down at a table to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. A special holiday in this part of the world as we are only miles away from that first meal shared by the Pilgrims. The meal we share each week in the Eucharist has thanksgiving to its core. It is what Eucharist literally means: to give thanks. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give God thanks and praise.
The nature of God is to give in abundance: life, breath, food, water, love: all that is needed to live and be. How will we respond?