Flipping the Parable

Read Matthew 25:14-30 FIRST.

For years women have been denied their place where I stand now. For years they have been forced to bury their gifts and calling. The passage from Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12 has been used to keep women silent in public and became like a plague throughout European Colonized areas, strongest during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In that era, a virtuous woman was chaste, silent, and obedient. Can you imagine a world without the voices of women? Can you imagine half a choir silenced? Half your speakers in your car working? Half of God’s very intentional creation muted by misunderstood and misplaced law?   And yet that is exactly what happened. After centuries of being forced into the role of the 3rd slave in our readings, they revolted. Even women had a reformation. And they took this parable and flipped it.   Finding ways to subvert the system completely, they refused to participate in the system of oppression anymore. They wrote and learned and shared and grew and passed it on to new generations secretly until women could find the time to stand against the system and refuse to participate in the patriarchy anymore. And they paid for it with their lives. Burned at the stake as witches, divorced and left to prostitution and poverty, beheaded for their opinions and faith.

 

Sally Jennings knew what it was to enter into the joy of her master. She lived a life that increased the wealth of her owner. She bore his children, giving him more slaves to own, slaves who would work for free and increase his wealth. She loved those children. They were hers, too. So yes, she entered into the joy of her master. But she never got the chance to enter into her own joy. The joy of her creator. For centuries, people with brown skin have entered into the joy of their white masters- even after slavery ended. In fact, they are still forced into the role of the 3rd slave, to bury their given role to keep it intact rather than risk losing what little they have. But there is a rising change happening and they too are beginning to refuse to participate in the system of oppression our nation was built on. And they are paying with their lives.

 

This parable has historically been understood as one about burying our gifts from God- that we should not do it and that if we want to please God we will do as the first two slaves and multiply what God has given us. Except that doesn’t work. We simply cannot rely on the history of ideas. We have to explore the social and cultural context of our texts.

 

In this Matthew text, the historical idea has the master as God and the talents or gold as our blessings. It is used for stewardship and a goad for good works. But it really feels like a threat and I have to say in my experience, if something feels like a threat, it generally is in some way. But this parable is only good news for the wealthy, the white, the man, the owner. For the poor, the woman, the brown skinned, the slave, it is threat, extortion, expulsion and death. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor or worse, have what little they have taken away. Worse, for the Christian, it assumes that Christ, eternal salvation, God’s pleasure, and God’s blessing are something we can earn or increase. But the historical idea never once implies freedom. It never once implies personal joy. It never once implies love and value of each human created in God’s image.

When we open up the proper social and cultural context though, this parable becomes a can of worms to a stewardship sermon. Historically speaking, this parable is spoken in ancient Palestine and the people understood the wealth of the world to be limited and already distributed. They believed in a finite economy. That meant that if one person became more wealthy, someone else become poor.   For them, the Master was a thief- not unlike the owners of the payday loan shops of today. This master exploits the system and worse, he acknowledges that he does. When he hands his money to the slaves and the first two increase it, they not only participated in a system of corruption, but they helped their master become even more wealthy and encouraged that system to thrive. But they never actually gained by it personally. Hmm… Sally Jennings, anyone?
Further, the master labels the slave who refuses to participate in a corrupt system as wicked. Why? Because he dared to challenge the system and thwart the greed of his master. Now you ask, but wasn’t the master fair in saying the money at least could have been in the banks? Well again, proper context teaches us that no, that also was a sin. The interest earned was from usary-the practice of unfair lending- that was a second hand thievery. Not unlike the folks who manage today’s payday loan stores or run them as a franchise.

When placed correctly, suddenly the 3rd slave is the righteous one. He is the one the rabbi’s honored. The one the people understood. He was the one who refused to participate in a system of oppression and corruption. He was a lone voice of non-violent protest and he paid for it with his life.

So let me ask you this. If we keep the historical idea of this parable, and God is no better than this master, we no better than these slaves, who needs God and doesn’t Jesus just become God’s hit-man? This is not the Jesus I know and certainly not the God I know. Jesus sided with non-elites and challenged the oppressive economic and social status quo everywhere he went. He was reviled by the elite for this. God is not the kind of Master who limits us and holds us captive to increase God’s own kingdom. In fact, God sets us free, again and again and again- in fact, to God’s own devastation through the Son dying for our freedom.

This Parable is not prescriptive of how to live- how to use our blessings as much as it is descriptive of a deeply flawed world and system, and of the cost to refusing to play along. In fact, the more we examine it, the 3rd slave could very well be Jesus. The one who refused to play along with the corruption of the time and called out the system, paying for it with his life. There are some that argue this was Christ using prophesy once more for us. In fact, in an interesting literary lens, we find that the end of Matthew 24 points right back to the beginning where it says, “then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.”

Here is the point. Christ is not an economy. Faith and blessings are not an economy. We don’t exchange and gain. We don’t exchange and lose. There is no exchange except for the one Christ made for us- his death for our sin. But we offer nothing up in exchange, in fact, we have nothing to bring and unlike the third slave what little we have will not be taken from us- we will not be shunned by God for being poor of spirit or talent or gift. We will be welcomed and loved, forgiven and set free. Christ is not an economy. Christ is pure gift.

Then what are we to do with this parable now that we have flipped it? Well, our Thessalonians text reminds us today, there are many Kairos moments (thin places) of decision in our daily living. Will you participate in the system of oppression? Or will you take a risk and subvert the system here and now, participating in God’s kingdom come to us in every moment of our lives? Even at the cost of death? Because let me share this last thought with you- that 3rd slave did not die. That 3rd slave came into eternal life. That slave was freed from oppression, the system of corruption and the limitations of slavery and human sin. That slave was freed into the promise of Christ and the kingdom of God where we are valued, precious, created, and chosen people. A system of love, worth, redemption, and joy. We have choices to make. As Mary Oliver once pondered, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”

 

*credits:  mark davis @ politicaltheologytoday.com, bruce epperly @ processandfaith.org, the social justice lectionary, and carol thysell at journal of feminist studies in religion for your thought provoking papers and blogs that stood out among many as I sought to understand why this parable HURT so much as a historical idea.

 

 

Author: mistressofdivinity

Pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Riverside, California; a congregation of the Pacifica Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Even though the diploma reads "Master of Divinity," the learning continues. I lean into this pastoral role more each day, learning to balance vocation and family, life and passion, living and loving.

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