Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sermon: The Wrong Hero

Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is one that on the surface seems pretty straightforward. When the master gives you money, make more. If you do, you will be rewarded. If you don’t, you will be punished. It is a very businesslike exchange. But what if the story isn’t about business?

You see, several biblical scholars say that we have for too long made the wrong people in the story the heroes. What they point out is that in classic storytelling, even in Jesus’ other parables (like the Good Samaritan) when there are three people responding to a situation – the first two are almost always the bad examples. We don’t start out with the hero and then end with a boring failure – that just isn’t the way you tell stories to build tension. You start out with the failures and then you hear about the hero.

I spent a couple of months reading 25 volumes of fairy tales collected by Andrew Lang between 1889 and 1913 from all around the world. What these bible scholars say is true. Always there are three brothers or sisters, or three men, and the first fails to do the task. Then the second fails in the same way. Finally the third does what he is supposed to do and wins the day. That is how these stories work.

But if we apply that method to this story, the first two servants who make money are the failures, and the lazy one who just buries it in the ground is the hero. And to most of us today, this approach to the parable doesn’t make sense to us. We are simply too business minded. We have bought into the idea that more is better, no matter how it is done, no matter what the cost, no matter who gets stepped on.

You see, there is a key phrase in the parable that tries to tell us that the last person is the hero. Near the end when the master is berating the servant, he says,

“You wicked and lazy servant! 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 by money with the bankers and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” Those lines would have made Jesus’ hearers know that the master was a bad man. He is unfair, he is greedy, and worst of all collecting interest was against Jewish law. Deuteronomy 23:19 says, “Don’t charge your fellow Israelites interest—whether on money, provisions, or anything one might loan.” In fact, in the bible there is not a single positive reference to collecting interest. None, zero, zip. When collecting interest is mentioned it is always a bad thing. Always.

So Jesus’ disciples and the people listening to him that day would have heard that and they would have had to consider the risks of resisting what their masters told them to do and instead doing what God wanted.

Believe it or not the fourth century bishop Eusebius actually tells the parable that way.

The parable goes like this: a master had three servants, one who squandered his master’s money with the wrong crowd, one who multiplied the money and made more, and one who hid the money. So what happens? Well, the first one gets what we expect, the one who wasted it all is thrown in prison for misusing the Master’s money.

But here is where things get interesting, the second one, who multiplied the money is rebuked. It might not make sense to us, but to Jesus’ listeners it made complete sense. We have to put aside our American ears, which have been caught up in Wall Street for generations, and instead hear things like 4 Maccabees 2:8 that say, “As soon as one adopts a way of life in accordance with the law, even though a lover of money, one is forced to act contrary to natural ways and to lend without interest to the needy and to cancel the debt when the seventh year arrives.”[1] So in that early bishop’s retelling, the one who multiplies the money is rebuked for loving money too much.

So what happens to the third servant, the one who hid the money? We are told that that one is accepted with joy. Yes, you heard that right, accepted with joy. The hider is the hero.

Why? What might Eusibius have really been trying to say, and what does it tell us about what Jesus was saying? It is likely that Eusibius is contrasting being a Christian with being a Roman. You see, Romans did collect interest. This was their normal operating procedure, like ours today. But as I have said the Jews did not.

And it is likely that Jesus was also challenging people to think about what practices they were going to follow – the outsiders, the Romans,– or the ways that are practiced in the kingdom of heaven, where there will be no collecting of interest. He may have been asking, “Will you follow the emperor who claims to be a god, or will you follow the God of Israel?”

Perhaps you will remember that last week, I said that when Jesus taught parables the idea was probably to get us started in discussion about all things Godly. If that is the case, then he has come up with a great story with which to do it. Clearly there will be people coming at it from all sides. Some people will be supportive of making money and listening to one’s master, some people will know the Jewish law, and want to emphasize that. His listeners would immediately enter into a debate. I found this retelling of the story that uses a mother with three daughters that could create a similar feeling.

“In The City, there was a mother with three daughters whom she loved very much. The mother had many gifts that the city relied on, so she entrusted these gifts to her daughters while she went to another city to share her gifts there.

To the first daughter, she gave the gift of farming. She taught her about the land and how to care for it. The daughter cherished this gift and taught anyone who would listen how to water and care for the earth. The entire city blossomed with the gift of farming and had a bountiful harvest of every good fruit of the earth.

To the second daughter the mother gave the gift of reading and writing. The daughter cherished this gift, and taught anyone who would listen, how to read, write and create beautiful stories of the city. Soon schools were built, and people of all ages gathered to read, learn and tell stories. The city created a library so that everyone had access to this amazing gift of reading and writing.

The third daughter received the gift of music. The daughter cherished this gift. She would go high into the mountains to practice this gift of music where she thought no one would hear her. She practiced singing and playing the harp day and night, but never felt ready to share her gift with the city, or with anyone but the birds.

One day, when she was up on the hill practicing, she saw her mother returning, and she started to cry. She looked out over the city and saw the lush and green farmlands because her sister had shared the gift of farming. She saw the beautiful library and people reading stories to each other because her sister had shared the gift of reading and writing. And she felt ashamed because only the birds were singing, and no one was playing music.

When the mother returned, she celebrated and congratulated her first and second daughter on the splendid work they had done. When evening came, she asked her daughters, “What is that sound coming from the mountains?” We do not know, there has been a beautiful sound coming from the mountains since you left, we assumed that it was the birds, but today it sounds different, it sounds like wailing.

The mother went up the mountain, and there was her third daughter crying so violently that she was gnashing her teeth. The mother was disappointed in her daughter, but clearly not as much as the daughter was in herself. She informed the daughter that she will be going to a new town, and will be bringing her two sisters. The daughter pleaded with the mother to go with them, but the mother said no. “Everyone in The City is in love with the music of the sky; you must remain and teach it to them.”[2] Who is the hero of the story? Who gives the most? The two who intentionally share? Or is it possible it is the one who gets no recognition for her work? You could have a great lunch time discussion on this story! Which is the most like God’s kingdom?

Parables are meant to make us think, to challenge us to find God and godly living. They are not meant to be easy. If the bible scholars are right, then in this parable God stands with the one who is given the least, and has the integrity to do what is right – even in the face of economic pressure.

God is not the harsh master or the greedy master. God does not reap where God does not sow. God does not reward people monetarily in heaven for what they have done one earth. The billionaires here are not super-billionaires in heaven. God does not cast out one who follows the Jewish law. Rather, God’s hero may be cast aside by the world, hated by the world, despised by their masters. The good news is that they are not slaves to money, instead they are servants of the Most High.

It is very possible that we have read this passage with the wrong hero and the wrong message. It is not about making more, or even about giving more to the church, but about serving God first even at the cost of our jobs.

So what does that look like today? When you step out those doors, where might following God put you at an economic risk? Where do Judeo-Christian values class with those of the business world? What would you need to change to put yourself in line with God’s ideals? Because we have a choice to follow the god of the greenbacks or the God of Israel.

[1] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (p. 102-105). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017

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