Our gospel today puts the parable of the talents out here for us to look at. I don’t know about you, but on the face of it, I don’t like this parable. I particularly don’t like the ending, which seems unjust. So I went looking in my favorite commentator, Kenneth Bailey, to see what he might have to offer. Just a note as to why I like Bailey, and why I turn to him so frequently. Bailey was born in Palestine, to missionary parents. He attended school there until, like most missionary kids, he was sent back to the US to go to college. From there, he went to seminary, and there, he ran into trouble. The land, customs and people he knew in Palestine did not correspond at all with the teaching he received in the very western seminary. He finished his studies, got ordained, and went back to Palestine. He studied with the Arab Christian scholars, and he studied the texts in Arabic that we do not have access to, because they have not been translated.
He also did a curious thing. He took the parables of Jesus to the villages. Why was this important? Because, until the advent of TV (and when he did this, there was no TV), “change” was considered to be evil. Think about what this means! If change is evil, then you do not change. You do things the way your parents and grandparents do, and they did things the way their parents and grandparents did, and what that means is that the customs that you do are the same as they were a very long time ago. Even more important, the understandings of what things mean have not changed. So when Bailey took the parables of Jesus to the villagers, he could ask them what they heard in the stories, what the different pieces meant, and so on. The answers he got were very different from what he had heard in seminary.
When he put together these answers and the explanations of the context for the different parables, he then put them together with the Arab Christian linguistic formulas, and suddenly you have an amazing wealth of material to work with. I am not going to go into the linguistic formulas, although they are fascinating, but what he points out is that Jesus tells stories in a particular way that goes A, B, C and then there is the climax, then we see C, B, and back to A again, with a twist, of course. If you are interested in these kinds of things, I will be glad to lend you books!
But you have heard me before talking about how important the context is, and this parable is no exception! To get the real import of this story, we must go over to the Luke version. It reads pretty much the same, with a couple of important additions – and it is these additions, Bailey says, that make a huge difference in the understanding of what is going on here. This is what he says: The general context is the Roman Empire, and Herod and his son. Herod goes to Rome to ask the emperor to give him the kingship of Israel, and he gets it, and comes back as the king. His son goes, and does not get it. The people who backed Herod “won” politically. The people who backed his son later, did not win. So it is a wildly volatile situation politically, and that is what is important as the context.
The first reading of this passage must be done with the understanding that Luke and Matthew both are writing in a time when the master, Jesus, has gone off, leaving the “treasure” in the hands of his servants. The question is not how much money they make with it, it is a question of whether they will be faithful even when it is politically unwise to do so. Today we might think of Christians in Iraq who are faced with being killed if they insist on calling Jesus the master.
But I think that it is difficult for us to relate to that, even though it is happening now, because it certainly is not the situation here. Perhaps a better example for us today is the one that was raised in the film Chariots of Fire. One of the two protagonists was a devout Christian, and when the race he was supposed to run in was scheduled on a Sunday, he said he could not run, even at the direct request of the Prince of Wales. I have this lovely cartoon of a child dressed in a football uniform, saying to the coach, sorry, I can’t play this Sunday, I’m scheduled to be an acolyte.
It was easier for us back in the 1950’s, when sports teams would not have dared to schedule anything on a Sunday morning – but they did on Saturday mornings, which meant that the Jewish kids were put in the same situation that our kids are now. And some of us have jobs that insist that we work on Sunday mornings, making us choose between having a job in a difficult economy or being with our church family worshiping God.
I do not know what the answer is. I’m not sure that insisting that people attend church on Sunday morning is the answer. One church I was at had worship on Sunday evenings, because people could, and would, come then.
The bigger question, I think, has to do with allegiance. What holds our ultimate allegiance? When we have a chance to invest, do we invest in the things that are simply going to make us money – or do we have ideals that may change that simplicity? This was one of the big topics at convention this year. The church, as a diocese, and nationally, has a lot of money in investments. We saw what power those investments had when we got together with other religious groups and started pulling our investments out of South Africa, and letting that government know that the reason that we were pulling that money was because of apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has labeled the current Israeli regime as engaging in apartheid, and so of course people are looking at the idea of divestment as a strategy to make change happen. At the same time, other people at convention were looking at where our money is invested, and they were not pleased to see that we have invested with companies that are connected with tobacco, fossil fuel, and firearms. It was interesting to watch the debate, who was more interested in making sure that the invested money made money and who was more interested in making sure that the invested money made ethical money. It may cost more to make ethical money, at least in the short run. However, already ethical money groups have made major inroads in areas that were previously unimaginable.
This business of the unimaginable is important. We think we understand how banks work, there are certain necessary principles. But one of those principles is that poor people are a bad risk, and not worth working with. Grameen Bank has turned all of the “necessary” principles of banking upside down. Grameen works with poor people, mostly women, all of the money is public, that is, everyone knows how much someone has as a loan, and so on. And it works, and works well. I just read an article about a retrofit Craftsman house that would be a Platinum LEED retrofit. Unless you are up on the latest “green” building, you would not know that no one has done this. Until now, no one has had the imagination to see how important this is, to use the retrofit as an opportunity to make a seriously “green” house look like a normal house, or, to make a normal house act in a very ecologically sound way. And the people doing it are doing so precisely to make it “imaginable.”
Lifting up this question of what is unimaginable is critical. No one could have imagined that a few dozen followers of a man who was killed by the government for sedition would in a few short years be called “those people who are turning the empire upside down with their teachings.” And yet, that’s exactly what happened. No one could have imagined that Jews would ever eat with Gentiles. No one could have imagined – and so it goes. Jesus says to us: God has given you talents, are you going to be creative and do the unimaginable – or are you going to bury them and stay safe? I was just reading that one reason Google is so successful is that it specifically allows its employees to make mistakes. The disciples of Jesus made mistakes all the time. Why should we be any different? When I came back to SKK, Mary Vargas gave me a card that said essentially, if we fail, let it not be for a failure of imagination.
So back to the question of the gospel reading: Where is God’s claim on your life? Are you being faithful to God’s call to you? Are you “seeing” God in your everyday life? Are you allowing others to see God in your life? It is very easy to get into cliches here, but I still find them relevant. If I look at “the other” as holding the face of God for me, if I can remember to do that, then I “see” God in everyone. It is relatively easy for me to see God in the world, and more difficult, and more important, to see God in other people. God gives us this trust, and says, here, see what you can do with this. Can we be faithful in the little ways that we are with others? Can we be respectful in all of our relationships? Can we imagine that this person that we seriously disagree with is also a mirror of God for us, and therefore someone with whom we engage with respect? That is a hard call, and yet perhaps critical in this time of crazy politics. The master says, here, here is a piece of my wealth, see what you can do with it. What will you do? What shall we do? What can we not imagine? Let’s try, now!