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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Losing interest (A33O)

or, "Use your talents, but not because of this parable."

The contentious chapters of Matthew between the entry into Jerusalem and the passion-resurrection narrative serve both to amplify the tensions between Jesus and the Temple authorities and also, as they lead to the disappearance of Jesus from the visible presence of his disciples, serve to heighten the question, "When is Jesus returning, and what should we do in the meanwhile?" God, says the apocalyptic tradition, is going to clean things up one way or another on the way to a new heaven and a new earth.

But it's a bumpy road, and this apocalyptic writing is one human literary expression of the dissonance between the promise of a new world and the quotidian quagmire of this one. We hear a lot of it, from both Jewish and Christian scriptures, on the weekdays and Sundays of November. On this penultimate Sunday of the church year, we have the parable of the talents, paired with a reading from Wisdom literature about the qualities of a good wife, and a psalm extolling the blessings of those who walk in God's ways. It doesn't seem very promising, and I think the homiletic temptation will be to default to the easy interpretation of that parable: use your talents, if you have a lot, a lot will be expected from you, but no one gets to slide. In the worst cases, and hopefully these will not be in church, the text will be used to say that "God helps those who help themselves," and that the bright, creative, and entrepreneurial deserve more than the rest of us.

But modern parable study warns us not to move too quickly to a Bannion-esque interpretation, glorifying profit and condemning indolence. We are encouraged by scholars to hear the parable, if we can, with Jewish ears, first-century Jewish ears, and not be too quick to associate the parable's master going on a journey with God. After all, the third servant identifies the master as "severe," a man who "reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he does not scatter." And to seal the deal, the master agrees with the servants assessment. Do we really want a God like that? Would a God like that be good news to the 99% who get the one talent, or less?

First of all, the word "talent" in the parable is an unhappy cognate of our English word meaning "gift," and prejudices our reading. In reality, the amounts of money entrusted to the servants are ridiculously huge. It's like Jesus would start the story, "A man went away, and gave his servants millions of dollars to take care of while he was gone." As 21st century christians in a capitalist culture, we think the guys who invest and make interest on the investment are doing good work, and the third guy is a loser, because all he manages to do is not lose any of his boss's kale.

But how would Jews hear the parable? In all of the Jewish scripture, every reference to interest is a negative  one. The Torah forbids the charging of interest on loans, particularly to fellow Israelites, particularly the poor. Psalm 15, referring to the "just" person, that is, the one who does God's will, describes him as not lending money with interest. (Dominic Crossan, in The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, cites, for instance Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23, and Leviticus 25, as well as Ezekiel and 2 Maccabbees). Further, consider the structure of the story and the rule of three. Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where we have first a levite then a priest passing by the injured man and not lending assistance, and then the third, the Samaritan, coming by. What is expected is that the third character will provide, finally, some decisive action that will turn the story around. Both pieces of evidence, the Jewish restriction against interest and the story of the structure itself suggest that the third servant, the one who hid his master's money, is the good one, and he is the one who gets punished. What can we make of this?

Well, it's hard to be definitive, of course, but the first step is to hear this story as a parable and not an allegory. The parables of Jesus are meant to open up our hearts to the reign of God, that alternative Way wherein the values of the dominant society are seen for the empty promises they make, and a different empire with a different rule, specifically, rule by a father (Abba) over a household of equals who take care of each other, is lived out. The Romans, and certainly empires ever since that have been built on the foundation of money and power, had no problem with lending money at interest. Might this parable, like the rest of Jesus's preaching, have been a summons to choose between empires? What world, in other words, do we want to live in? The world of Caesar, debt and interest, violence and threats, or the world of the empire of God? "How's that working out for you?", all those threats expectations of profit and gain from structures that "reap where they don't sow and gather where they do not scatter"? Can we be OK with the ones, right now, who just say "no" to the world of credit cards, life insurance, and funny money created by speculation, and who imagine another way? 

I'm pretty sure that the framers of the lectionary used a "we should use our talents" reading of today's parable whn they chose the first reading. But let's read it the other way for a moment: now, the reading from the Old Testament stands as a corrective against a quietist reading of Matthew, in case one were to plead the case of the third servant and aver that it doesn't matter if we use our gifts or not. Surely we understand that all of scripture is read in a context, and that Pauline admonitions to use our gifts for the good of the community, particularly those in need of them, are among the foundational texts of the church's self-image. The woman of value cited in Proverbs, or any person of value, is praised for many attributes, including the fact that she "reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy."

The responsorial psalm is from Psalm 128, which celebrates the home of those who "fear the Lord," that is, those who know and respect God and God's law. I'd like to suggest that we sing it this week, we accentuate the word "Lord" in the refrain, "May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives." Not wealth, prosperity, possessions, status, but a sense of God's love at work in our lives, participation in God's project of uniting all creatures on this planet, men and women, neighbors, strangers, and enemies, living now and yet to be born, in a family of mutual nurture and self-gift. Those who do so will "eat the fruit of your handiwork; happy shall you be and favored." (It strikes me that the framers of the lectionary may also have chosen this psalm for its equating happiness with "fear" of the Lord. If so, maybe they did foresee a day when the quaking third servant might indeed be the happy one, who did the right thing in spite of his spiteful master!)

What we're singing this weekend:

Gathering: All That We Have, (Dameans) 
Psalm 128 All the Days of Our Lives, (Cooney) 
Prep: These Alone Are Enough, (Schutte)
Communion: You Are All We Have, (O'Brien)
Sending Forth: Find Us Ready, (Booth)