Friday, November 11, 2011

Pentecost +22 - Talents!

We’ve seen a bit of disgraceful behaviour on the corporate scene lately.  The News Ltd phone-tapping scandal for example, or in Australia a Qantas executive voting himself a $2million pay rise while locking out employees and disrupting the travel plans of the rest of us to avoid a reasonable pay claim.  In fact it’s hard not to have sympathy for the Occupy movement – Occupy Wall Street with its spin-offs like Occupy Melbourne, Occupy Perth. They are protesting against the corporate greed that gave us the first global financial crisis and may be tipping us over into the next round of financial and economic insecurity that is causing real pain in Europe, the United States, and threatening the rest of the world.  Increasingly, the connection is being made by even main-stream economists between global financial woes and the basket of ecological issues that we face besides the much argued-about global warming – issues coming to a head like peak oil (the fact that the world’s readily available oil reserves are over half gone), energy insecurity, rising food consumption coupled with the actual reduction in arable land as the world’s population hit the almost unimaginable 7 billion mark sometime last month.  The basic problem is that with its fantasy of unlimited growth – on a finite planet with finite reserves and a population doubling every 40 years – the modern economic system has gone just about as far as it can in borrowing from future generations to fund the unsustainable lifestyles of today.  The fact that the retirement savings of working people everywhere keep going south is just the tip of the iceberg.

This, I think, has got everything to do with the Gospel reading for today.  Which, if I may, I’ll just summarise in case you missed the main points.  ‘It’s as though’, Jesus tells us – it’s as though a wealthy man –not just a well-to-do successful business owner, we’re talking Rupert Murdoch or James Packer – had to go on an overseas trip so he leaves his local managers – really, he owns them, so we might as well call them slaves – to make him even more money in his absence.  I looked up the value of a talent the other day – in this story a talent isn’t a skill or a God-given gift, it is a serious amount of money, anything up to six million dollars in today’s terms.  So he gives one of his lackeys $30 million, another one $15 million and the junior employee he gives $3 million and tells them to do their best.  If you’ve ever seen the TV show, ‘The Apprentice’, with Donald Trump, then you get the basic idea.

Well, the first lackey is as cunning and ruthless as his master, so he doubles his money by wheeling and dealing.  In the ancient world, poor people – which is to say about 95% of the population – the people Jesus is telling this story to - knew very well that the only way for the rich to get richer was by somehow screwing a bit more out of them.  So he increases the rents, buys from the peasants even cheaper and sells their produce on at a rip-off margin ... in today’s language he probably leveraged options on a falling share market – and he doubles his money.  Someone else, somewhere else, loses.  It’s the same logic we use today, the fantasy of unlimited economic growth that nobody ever has to foot the bill for.

The second lackey doesn’t have quite as much to start with but he is also shrewd and so he doubles his stake as well.  But the third lackey hasn’t got the stomach for this.  He gets what is going on, he gets that his master is ruthless and expects to make money out of other people, and he doesn’t want to play this game.  He is prudent, so he does what the peasant population of the ancient world did all the time, and he buries it.  He keeps his master’s money safe.  He doesn’t rip anybody off, he doesn’t double his money.

So the rich man comes back, and like all seriously rich people he wants more, and he expects others to make it for him.  The first two lackeys have made him heaps of dough, so he gives them good positions in his organisation.  Now they are wealthy and important wage slaves.  The third lackey – well he isn’t a lackey any longer, in fact as soon as he refused to act like a lackey he was effectively back at being a peasant, and that’s where he now finds himself.

Have I got the story about right? Yes, I embellished it a bit – but this is basically the story Jesus told?

Preachers the world over struggle with this story.  Built into our assumptions when we read it are, firstly, that Jesus is telling us this is how God’s system works, or should work, and the second big assumption that has kept preachers up late the night before is that the boss in this story is meant to be God, or maybe even Jesus himself.  But I’ve read the story closely, and Jesus doesn’t say God’s kingdom is like this, he says ‘for it is as if’.  Or, ‘this is how things are in this world’.

Like all of Jesus’ parables, we can get different things out of this one by looking at it from different angles, and one angle is to ignore the fact that it is about money and focus instead on the modern English meaning of the world ‘talent’.  Which makes it a warning story about using your natural abilities, or the skills that you have, instead of letting them lie dormant.  If you’re a good organiser, then be a good organiser for God’s kingdom – don’t sit there hoping nobody will notice you – tell the Rector you want to be on Church Council.  If you are a secret pianist, then you need to use your musical ability to make our worship joyful and uplifting, inside of keeping it to yourself – there aren’t any secret pianists here, are there?  If so, we can use you.  If you know how to use a vacuum cleaner or a lawn mower or you can make an amazing vanilla slice – we can certainly use those talents in our parish.  And there’s also a serious point to this, because – well, nobody is going to cast you out into the outer darkness if you don’t volunteer, but when we don’t use our abilities and God-given gifts to build others up, then we ourselves are also curiously unfulfilled.  If we ourselves want to grow, if we want to be happy, then we need to focus on what we can do for and with others.  On this reading of the story, the harsh boss is ... yourself, really.  Being the sort of person who holds stuff back has got a cost.

Well, it’s not what the story says, but it’s a good lesson to draw from it.  There’s another lesson that traditionally we can draw from this story and it goes like this.  That the talent represents what Jesus has entrusted to us.  Yes, he has gone away, and yes, as Christians we have the hope that all things eventually will be fulfilled, both in our own lives and in the life of the world, and we know deep down that we are accountable for what we do with the treasure we are holding.  But what is the treasure?  What have we got that is so fantastic that it is worth millions? It’s the Gospel itself, isn’t it?  And we can keep it to ourselves, we can be private Christians, our spirituality can be self-serving and we can enjoy the community of faith like it is a private club – but if we do, then we stop growing, and we are not living like Jesus told us to live.  Or we can trust God enough to take a few risks, to live – both individually and as a parish – in a way that others can see our faith in action, and we can learn to multiply our faith in service to others and in spreading the good news of God’s love.  See, that’s an even better lesson, and as soon as we say it we know it rings true.  Yes, let’s learn to live like that.

Except neither of these interpretations are really true to the story, or to the God that Jesus consistently points to in his own ministry and his own actions.  We don’t have the sort of God who commends wheeling and dealing and sharp practices, and even more fundamentally, we don’t have the sort of God who is just waiting for us to be not good enough and then punishes us.  God isn’t like that, but Christians often live as though God is like that because we learn to project our own insecurities, and our own fear of punishment, onto God.  The God of Jesus is the God who sets us free from all that.

And the way I think the story demands to be read? We get it wrong, I think, whenever we assume Jesus isn’t into politics.  This story demands rather a lot of us.  And the key is to look at what happens next in Matthew’s Gospel, which is the story of the end of all things, and the giving of accounts to which of course today’s story is pointing us.  This happens straight from the next verse, and the Son of Man divides us up into sheep and goats – those who are fit to enter the kingdom of heaven and those who have opted out.  And what is the criterion?  What are we judged on?  Certainly not on how much money we have made, not even on how regularly we come to church or how well we know the Bible or whether we believe the right things about Jesus – but only on how merciful and compassionate we have been.  We are judged on whether or not we have noticed and responded to the needs of others.  If we have given food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, comfort to those in prison or in hospital.  Have we given dignity and hope, have we raised up those whom our society pushes down.  That’s it, really, and Jesus says if you do these things – if you learn to stand on the side of those who have nobody on their side – then you do it for me.  So, in today’s Gospel story, which of the three lackeys does that?  Which one allows herself or himself to be pushed aside out of solidarity with those who are always on the outside?  Which one behaves like Jesus himself, who, though he was rich, became poor for us?

In a world which, as Jesus says, is like this – how then, should we live?