It was Mark Twain who once admitted, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture that they do not understand. But the passages that bother me are those I do understand!”
The Parable of the Talents is not hard to understand. What is hard is massaging the parable enough to make it say something other than what it says, so it won’t bother us. Ah, but then that seems to be the theological task these days…making God’s Word say something other than what it says…making sin not sin…so it won’t bother us anymore.
Now that’s not just the game that is currently being played with human sexuality. It’s also a favorite pastime with money. Why, the number of Christian financial planners has increased astronomically. And no…I don’t mean a person who is both a Christian and a financial planner, that’s something else; something actually helpful. No, I mean that strange beast who claims that there is a Christian method to financial planning.
Oh and these folks will stir in all sorts of Bible verses, so-called Biblical principles of financial planning, sprinkled with a lavish layer of sayings from Jesus…when stirred together and baked thoroughly, it’s supposed to provide supernatural success. In the old days they called them “Snake oil salesmen.” But these days, well, in some congregations their favorite financial guru gets more press than Jesus! But hey!, what’s the cost of your soul so long as you gain the world…or at least a bigger slice of the world’s pie?! The theological trick is how to make greed not greed…shades of George Orwell!
After all, there’s a lot of anger these days about greed. Understandably so. The unethical actions among the infamous 1%, bowing down before the god of money, have the 99% boiling with righteous indignation and taking to the streets. Ah…but to see how deep this rot runs…all you have to do is point out to the 99% that in the eyes of the bulk of this world’s population, we are the 1%. “Oh but you can’t call our complaint greed…call it entitlement, call it our rightful due.” Yeah, potāto/potăto…
But all this deep anger, coupled with an equally deep-seated sense of fear and helplessness…well, it is not the seedbed from which good things are bound to come! In the words of one of my favorite poets, Wendell Berry: “If we have become a people incapable / of thought, then the brute-thought / of mere power and mere greed / will think for us. / If we have become incapable / of denying ourselves anything, / then all that we have / will be taken from us. / If we have no compassion, / we will suffer alone, we will suffer / alone the destruction of ourselves. / These are merely the laws of the world / as known to Shakespeare, as known to Milton: / When we cease from human thought, / a low and effective cunning / stirs in the most inhuman minds.” Oh, indeed it does…indeed it does!
Now it is very true, as they say, that our Lord speaks about money more often than any other subject…except the kingdom of heaven. But what they do not say, is that when Jesus speaks about money, He does not sound like an economist or a financial planner. He does not sound like a Marxist or a Capitalist. Jesus’ words about money are equally foreign to the language of the corporate banker as well as to the manifestos of the occupiers of Wall Street. For them, money is about money. For Jesus…it’s always about faith.
In His parable He employs 3 servants. One is given 5 talents to manage in the master’s absence, another 2, and the third man gets 1. No equalized wealth distribution here, because God gives His material gifts for very different purposes than we may covet.
Two of the well-endowed servants act in faith with the wealth they have been given. A talent of gold would be worth, to us, about half a million. “At once,” Jesus says in His story. “[He] went at once…” That’s the language of faith. Faith simply acts, at once, without coercion, without entitlement. The first puts his 2½ mil to work, while the second puts his 1 mil to work, neither begrudging the other for the inequity of what they were given. They simply act in faith, already sharing the master’s joy even before their investments yield a return (or suffer potential loss). That’s faith, freely acting in the joy of sharing the Master’s life with us, and ours with Him.
The 3rd servant…no faith…no faith, only fear; fear about his own ability to manage the master’s gift, a half million; fear of the master who sets a mighty high bar: “You…must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48]
And his fear consumes him…in more ways than one. It’s what fear always does. It consumes him, shuts him down, buries the wealth in the ground. In trying to hang on to the little he has (little by comparison with the other two, but vastly more than those who have nothing)…in fear, trying to protect what he has, he loses everything…loses the gift, loses his place…loses his soul.
Wendell Berry again: “By its own logic, greed / finally destroys itself, / as [King] Lear’s wicked daughters / learned to their horror, as / we are learning to our own. / What greed builds is built / by destruction of the materials / and lives of which it is built. / Only mourners survive. / This is the ‘creative destruction’ / of which learnèd economists / speak in praise. But what is made / by destruction comes down at last / to a stable floor, a bed / of straw, and for those with sight / light in darkness.”
Greed and Fear. Fear and Greed. They are the flip sides of the very same coin for that “inhuman cunning” which works insidiously these days. Yet right here…here in the darkness of the chaos and void created by the twin gods of our greed and our fear…right here the Lord God says, “Let there be light.” Mr. Berry, a man of faith, sees Christmas: a stable, the straw, the light shining in the darkness. Faith is born in the midst of the chaos.
While the assorted voices wrapped up in that dogfight on Wall Street are trying to claim Jesus for their side, Jesus Himself always creates His own side. His side is not about the money. It’s not about creating some sort of divine preferential treatment for the poor, or about pouring out divine wrath upon the rich. In this world, His world, some will always have more, some will always have less. And many will be the one rather than the other. But Jesus’ side is not about the money…it’s about faith…the faith of Jesus Christ which reveals itself by the use of the money.
Because only faith—the faith that comes to us from Jesus—only faith can cast out the fear and the greed that consume us these days. Faith, a greater wealth than anything the master gives us; faith from Christ to us by His Word and Spirit, and from us to the world in the work of our hands…sharing the Master’s joy.
Because our nation is seizing up right before our eyes, like a brilliantly conceived machine that has been poorly maintained for more years than any of us cares to admit. The oil of her invention has thinned out and broken down. And piece-by-piece, gear-by-gear—economically, politically, socially, spiritually—our nation is making an ungodly noise and it is grinding to a halt. [Elizabeth Scalia]
One more piece of Wendell Berry: “We set ourselves / free in an economy founded / on nothing, on greed verified / by fantasy, on which we entirely / depend. We depend on fire / that consumes the world without / lighting it…” So people clamor for optimism…a leader! They look to religion for escape.
But we who are here in this time, in this place, we must give the world something better than optimism or escape. It must be something that will bear us up when everything around us collapses. Something that will endure even as one government after another, one nation after another, one economic trend after another, is swept away in the tide of time.
Not optimism. Not escape. We are here to give the world…as we ourselves have been given…Jesus. He alone is the Light who shines in the darkness. The Jesus who alone, even in the agonies of crucifixion, prevails over that darkness. The Jesus who alone lifts us up from the hell of our own making, who gives us new life when fear and greed have beaten us to our knees and show no sign of relenting. The Jesus, whose presence with us and for us, makes whatever we have—little or great—makes what we have the means by which His faith may act in us with joy for good.
In a world that certainly seems more and more each day like God has gone away on a long journey…still we have, from Him, one great gift—we have Jesus, and our faith in Jesus. Yes, we also have our fear…fear and greed, enough of it to say “Bury Jesus, keep Him safe,” while we go off in fear to buff up that golden calf.
But this same Jesus tells us a parable, and by it He gives us Himself, so that faith may be born again in us in the midst of our fear, in the midst of busy hands polishing our greed; Christ and, with Him, the faith to go at once…investing ourselves—our lives, our callings, our prosperities and our poverties—investing ourselves at once with this Christ in joy for the good of our greedy, fearful world!