On The Parable of the Talents
Here we are - the week before Thanksgiving. We are in the midst of a pandemic, a Constitutional crisis and an economic crisis, but we - or at least I - have much to be thankful for. Before I start writing, I want to thank those of you who reached out after the post about Trucker. I am still sad, and angry that his little life was so hard, but feeling much better.
Two weeks ago, the lectionary was the parable of the talents. I think I've written before about the lectionary - it is the program of study that many pastors and churches follow so that within three years we've basically covered the Bible. The thing is, we leave out some of the icky parts, but that is for another post.
So I read the parable - Jesus is talking to his disciples and tells them the story of a wealthy man who went on a long journey. To three of his trusted slaves he gave talents - a Greek word for money. The first slave got 5 talents, the second slave got 2, and the third got 1. When the wealthy man returned, he called the slaves to him. The first slave returned the 5 talents, plus 5 more that he had earned by putting the talents to good use. His master was pleased and put him in charge of "many things." The second slave came with his 2 talents, plus 2 more. Again the master was pleased and put him in charge of many things. The third slave brought his one talent. He had buried the talent in the ground because he was afraid of his master. "I know you to be a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter. I was afraid." So of course the master is unhappy and casts this slave into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I have always heard this parable interpreted as a call to take God's gifts and multiply them. The master is God, who entrusts us with his riches and expects us to multiply them. We tell ourselves that if we are good stewards of our money, use our spiritual gifts wisely, are nice (that is what I have told the kids) God will be happy and we will be blessed. But if we don't use our "talents," then God will be unhappy and we'll be cast out.
That is a nice capitalist interpretation.
But this year, I was troubled. THESE are the verses that jumped out at me this year: Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 25: 24-30).
So God is a harsh master and reaps where God did not sow? Isn't everything that is sown sown by God? OK, we do need to do our work. We need to plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but aren't all good gifts from God? I learned that in Godspell, but it is actually from a hymn titled "We plow the fields and scatter," adapted from a poem written by Mattias Claudius in 1782 (wikipedia).
You know, social media is getting a bad rap these days - I have to agree that much of that rap is well deserved. But sometimes there are good things on social media. Last night I was scrolling through Twitter - I do not know why because I pretty much think we all have a good idea of what is going on, we all follow people who support our way of thinking and are disturbed by people who think differently - actually I don't mind the people who think differently, its the ones who call others filthy names that I can't tolerate - again, a blog post for another day.
Anyhoo, I was scrolling through Twitter and I found a post by James Martin, SJ. James Martin is a Jesuit priest who I follow because many of his posts advocate for social justice. This tweet caught my attention because it is about the parable of the ten talents. Fr. Martin says, "Usually the 'moral' is about being prepared or using one's 'talents' (though the Greek 'talanton' didn't have that meaning). but in a provocative 'minority reading' ..."
I want to apologize to James Martin if "Fr" isn't the right title for him. I am not Catholic, and writing "Mr. Martin" didn't seem appropriate, but I'm not sure what is.
In the tweet thread, Fr. Martin references Barbara Reid, a New Testament Scholar. Ms. Reid says that the third servant, the one who buried the talent and who we usually interpret to be the bad guy, was actually the "intended hero" of Jesus' story, because only he, "refused to cooperate in the system by which his master continues to accrue huge amounts of money while others go wanting."
She doesn't see the "master" as God, but as an unjust system.
Let me just pause here to say that this is why we need to be reading authors from other traditions and cultures, and those who we have traditionally been marginalized. Their experiences and interpretations are so different from the faith of our fathers, and we MUST hear them. Also, I really wish I were doing a children's message about this parable this week!
In her article, "Unmasking Greed," published November 7, 2011 (during the Occupy Wall Street protests), Ms. Reid writes that we must interpret this parable based on the culture at the time. Jesus did not live in a capitalist society. Apparently people at that time understood wealth to be finite, so one person accumulated wealth at the expense of another. A "normal" person would only hope to garner enough material goods to care for his family. A person who accumulated vast amounts of wealth, therefore, would have been considered greedy and sinful.
Assuming that this is true, then, only the third slave would be following in God's ways because, "only he has refused to cooperate in the system by which his master continues to accrue huge amounts of money while others go wanting." (Reid) The parable, then, is a warning about how easy it is for us to fall into the traps of an unjust system, and encourages us to stand against injustice. If we stand against injustice, many of us are cast out into the margins - how many people have been silenced? Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and so many more were assassinated. So many people were lynched, and I don't know their names. Women have been and continue to be ignored. Native peoples are suffering as the systems in place overlook their rights. Black men, and to a slightly lesser degree, black women, are incarcerated at rates unheard of in the rest of the world. Can we at least agree that our system is unjust? We have gross inequities of wealth, systemic racism, and a capitalist system that leaves many behind.
I can just hear some people screaming, "SOCIALIST!"
Well, maybe. It's a term that is thrown around a lot by conservatives, so I want to explore that.
First off, I made it through high school, two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree without ever taking an economics course. All I know about socialism is what I have read, and what I just looked up. Am I uninformed? I don't think so. Naive? Maybe.
Merriam Webster defines socialism as an "economic or political theory that advocates collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods." No, that doesn't define me. I like "owning" my farm, although I admit that in the grand scheme of things I am more a temporary resident caretaker than owner.
Definition #2 in the M-W dictionary is "a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state." Nope- although I do believe that the state must regulate some activities, otherwise what is to keep me from making my neighbors' lives miserable?
And the final definition: "a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done." That isn't me either- I believe in hard work, and that those doing the hard work should be adequately compensated.
So don't scream SOCIALIST at me, you snowflake (just kidding). I am as capitalist as the next person. But that doesn't mean that I think unrestrained capitalism is a good thing.
Since I read Fr. Martin's tweet and Ms. Reid's article, I've been thinking about that third slave and what the message might be for us. The third slave ended with exactly the talents he started with. Our system of unrestrained capitalism doesn't allow that.
Have you ever considered how expensive poverty is? It is cheaper to buy groceries in bulk, but if you can't get to the suburban big box stores you are confined to buying more expensive groceries at your local market. And if that local market sells only lesser quality produce and goods with higher sugar, salt and fat contents, then that is what you buy. That can lead to health problems, and if you don't have health insurance (don't get me started), then you pay a higher price out of pocket than those of us with insurance. If you decide you can't get to the doctor then you wait, until at some point a health issue that could have been addressed with an office visit and a prescription now requires an ICU stay. Expensive. How are people living in poverty ever to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? They don't even have boots. Our capitalist system fails them.
Now, I feel a little hypocritical here, because I have investments. Jay and I saved money when our kids were small - there were things that we didn't get or do because we couldn't afford them. Now, however, we are quite comfortable. I am content without the things we didn't get or do. At my age I am starting to worry about the cost of long-term care if and when that becomes necessary. We have money invested so that we can afford the care we might need without burdening Jeff and Julia too much (at least financially!). I am reaping what I did not sow.
We have 56 solar panels on our house. They weren't inexpensive, but in 10 years they will have paid for themselves by reducing our electricity costs. The panels came with a really cool app that tells us how many trees we have "planted." By spending money we are saving money and helping the planet.
So I am not saying that we should not spend and save, as appropriate. But what is appropriate?
There is an article in this morning's Washington Post that I think illustrates this quite well. There is a bill before Congress, sponsored by Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, that would strengthen penalties for importing goods manufactured using coerced or forced labor. Apparently this is already illegal, but officials look the other way and penalties aren't enforced. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would require companies to guarantee that goods they import are not manufactured using forced labor. Now, China has imprisoned approximately a million people in the primarily Muslim region of Xinjaing, and there is evidence that these people have been coerced to manufacture goods imported by Apple. Lobbyists for Apple are advocating that this bill be watered down. (Reed, Nov 21, 2020).
I looked up Tim Cook's salary at https://www1.salary.com/APPLE-INC-Executive-Salaries.html. In 2019 Mr. Cook's total compensation was $11,555,466. Luca Maestri, the Sr. Vice President and CFO was awarded $25,209,637.00 (I added the .00 to emphasize that this is over 25 million dollars). Angela Ahrendts, the former Sr. Vice President, retail, received $22,278,242. Kate Adams, Senior VP, general counsel and secretary had a compensation package of $25,231,800. There are several others who are receiving around $20-25 million in compensation, and plenty of others who are compensated at over $1 million. So these people are receiving obscene amounts of money, and they are trying to reduce penalties for people unjustly confined to concentration camps?
To me, the Apple executives and lobbyists are the first and second slaves in the parable. They are doing what they have to do to earn more money for their masters - people who neither sow nor reap.
What if Barbara Reid is right? What if the third slave embodies God's will? What if the master in the story isn't God? SOCIALIST! But I don't think it is socialist to say that there is a level beneath which we will not allow people to go.
My dad was an airline executive, and as I was growing up "union" was a dirty word. When I became a nurse in Washington DC, and the nurse's union was threatening to strike because of poor pay, working hours, and patient loads, it was a crisis for me. I decided to join the union because I was benefitting from some of the sacrifices the union members had made. When I moved to Virginia, a "right to work" state where there was no nurse's union, I realized that people want a seat at the table and to be fairly compensated for the work they do. I did not expect to make the same amount of money as a cardiac surgeon, but I expected that my work would be valued, my time respected, I would be given the tools I needed to care for my patients, and that I would be heard. When I became a teacher I had less reservations about joining the union, and when they called for us to "work to the rule" to demonstrate how much teachers do on their own time, I willingly participated. When Chicago teachers struck in 2016, even my Dad had to acknowledge that what they were demanding was just.
They were acting as the third slave.
On Thursday, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. We'll give thanks for all of our blessings - and there are many. And we will enjoy what we did not sow. Will we consider the people who planted and harvested the corn, green beans, potatoes and pumpkins? The people who raised and packaged the turkey - and the turkey itself who was once a living breathing creature? Will we think of those who have less, because they can't afford it, or because a turkey TV-dinner is easier for their party of one this year?
I'm not suggesting that we should not celebrate - God asks us to do so. But rather than just thanking God for our bounteous feast and the Alka-Seltzer that will follow and the food that will get thrown away, maybe we need to think about that third slave and refuse to support unjust systems that perpetuate wealth for those who already have, while taking away from those who don't. Where is the level below which we will not allow people to fall? If someone is content at that level, so be it. If someone else isn't, she or he can work hard and reap the benefits. But no one should be on the streets, or hungry, or cold. Everyone should have access to the same health care. Just because a poor person has a turkey for dinner on Thursday doesn't mean I can't have one too.
I am thankful this year for my family, especially my grandson who was born in April and enjoyed plastering beets all over his face when I was at his house yesterday. I am thankful for my home and alpaca farm. I am thankful for good health, especially this year as we struggle through this pandemic. I am thankful for you, who allow me to work out so much through my writing.
This year, can we figure out ways to channel the best of all three slaves in the Talent Parable? Can we figure out how to multiply our gifts to bring God's kingdom? Can we stand against systems that perpetuate injustice, as the third slave did? If we use our gift of intelligence to learn to recognize injustice where it exists, then we can use our sacred imagination to imagine a world where such injustice doesn't exist. And once we imagine that, we can use our God-given creativity to figure out how to stop it.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Albergotti, Reed. "Apple is lobbying against a bill aimed at stopping forced labor in China." Washington Post. November 20, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/11/20/apple-uighur/. Accessed November 21, 2020.
Bible (NRSV). "The parable of the talents." Matthew 25: 14-30.
Thanksgiving Fall Pumpkin. Hudsoncrafted. https://pixabay.com/photos/thanksgiving-fall-pumpkin-flowers-2903166/. Accessed November 21, 2020.
Martin, J., SJ. [@JamesMartinSJ]. November 18, 2020. Gospel: In Jesus's Parable of the Talents, a servant who does not invest his master's money is punished (Lk 19). Usually the "moral" is about being prepared or using one's "talents" (though the Greek "talanton" didn't have that meaning). But in a provocative "minority reading".... [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ/status/1329065915539972100
Martin, J., SJ. [@JamesMartinSJ]. November 18, 2020. Barbara Reid, a NT scholar, suggests that it is precisely the third servant, the one who fails to invest, who was the intended hero of Jesus's story: "The third servant is the honorable one—only he has refused to cooperate in the system by which his master continues to accrue... [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ/status/1329065917381292032.
Martin, J., SJ. [@JamesMartinSJ]. November 18, 2020. Here is Barbara Reid's original article, from 2011, called "Unmasking Greed." [Tweet] Retrieved from https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ/status/1329065920518610947.
Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/. Accessed November 20, 2020.
Reid, Barbara E. "Unmasking Greed." America: The Jesuit Review. November 7, 2011. https://www.americamagazine.org/content/the-word/unmasking-greed. Accessed November 20, 2020.
Rep. McGovern, James P. (sponsor). H.R.6210 - Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Introduced 3/11/2020. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6210. Accessed Nov. 21, 2020.
Wikipedia contributors. "We Plough the Fields and Scatter." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Oct. 2020. Web. 20 Nov. 2020.