In the slow unwinding of this wild and crazy election season, one thing keeps standing out to me: the citizens of our country, and the media we use to communicate to one another, offer dramatically competing narratives about what is happening. Scrolling around various news sites on the internet, or noticing what people of different political persuasions share on social media, I am struck that there are wildly divergent claims being made about the state of our democracy.
Take your pick: the United States has undergone the most secure election in its history, and the peaceful transfer of power is once again a hallmark of our system of government, an assurance that free and fair elections work and serve the interests of the people.
Or is it
that one major party is attempting to steal the election through voter fraud and the interference of our electoral process by means of trachery and deceit?
Or is it
that the other major party has become hopelessly corrupted by money and foreign influence, and is grasping for straws as it loses its tenuous grip on power, which despite being hollowed out by corruption still manages to speak for some 70 million Americans?
Regardless of what story you prefer, or where your attention is drawn, one thing may be said to be true: we are experiencing a period of low trust, in our institutions, in our government, in our media, and in one another as fellow citizens. And the reduction of trust means an increase in agitation, maybe even hostility, maybe even violence.
All these conditions and characteristics of life in human community are at the heart of God’s concern for God’s people — but God does not step in as referee to save us from ourselves! The freedom we enjoy to act on our best or worse impulses are not unconnected from the hope and promise that God has given to us; but the choices we make belong to us, as do the consequences of those choices.
This morning’s lesson from the Gospel — known colloquially as the parable of the talents — famously invites us to imagine ourselves each as recipients of some measure of God’s providence, each earning divine favor or disfavor depending on how we use the gifts God has given us. It’s easy to see why: the parable features a powerful figure whose servants do his bidding,
and who issues commands to care for his possessions according to his instructions. The principles of reward and punishment in response to a command from authority are so familiar to us that it’s understandable why Jesus would want to use them as a way to teach us something about the kingdom of God.
But just as with the parable that precedes this one — and which we talked about last week — our familiarity with such a system of reward and punishment might cause us to miss the actual lesson that Jesus offers us. Among other things, if what Jesus came to teach us about God is that we should be obedient to God’s authority lest we incur God’s wrath, well, it wouldn’t be all that different from what the world has already taught us. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
And if we think just any powerful figure in the Bible is a stand-in for God, we set ourselves up for some inexplicable conclusions: the man in the parable is described in terms that we might not want to associate with a loving, liberating, life-giving God: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your money in the ground.” The harsh man who reaps what he does not sow and gathers where he did not scatter isn’t God — he’s a mobster, running rackets and shaking people down, and threatening with violence those who do not accept the terms he offers.
The one who hid his money for fear was right to be afraid, even if he played his hand all wrong. So why does Jesus offer us this story as a way of illustrating something about the kingdom of heaven? Why would he show us a violent mobster to teach us something about a loving God? As with the parable we heard last week — about the bridesmaids and the conventions surrounding first-century wedding ettiquette, I would propose that this parable seeks to teach us something about the kingdom of heaven by using something from the world, with which we are all already very familiar, and which offers a principle that we already understand, and which we can be apply to our life of faith to help us learn. But I would also propose here that the lesson is NOT that we should be afraid of God as we would a violent mobster — but that WE SHOULD BE AS CLEAR ABOUT OUR OBLIGATION TO GOD AS WE WOULD OUR OBLIGATION TO A MOB BOSS TO WHOM WE OWE MONEY.
For those of us who have pledged to seek and serve God’s kingdom, our commitment requires active participation in the terms of the agreement. You know how it is: you get a piece of the action, you better be prepared to pay the vig. Of course, not everyone participates in organized crime, but even the ordinary agreements that shape our world include terms like this.
Clancy and I are in the process of refinancing the house we own in Oakland. We bought the house in 2005 using a lot of FHA loans from the City of Oakland and the State of California, and we’ve already refinanced once. The current refinance is giving us an even better rate than we had before, which we didn’t think could happen, and it means we’re on our third round of lender to whom we pay our mortgage. And regardless of whether our lender is Chase Bank, the State of California, the City of Oakland, Citibank, or any other instiution, the basic rules remain unambiguous: we owe them a lot of money, and if we don’t pay the money, we can’t keep the house.
Sometimes churchy people like to imagine that illustrations drawn from the secular worlds of finance and business are “profane,” and shouldn’t apply to spiritual things. But the clarity of agreement we all share about money is so unambiguous that Jesus returns to the subject again and again: lots of his parables and teachings about what he calls the kingdom of heaven use money as an illustrating principle.
I think the reason for this has to do with where we started off this morning: trust. Financial transactions are fundamentally expressions of trust, but they assume that we all share the same understanding of what a dollar is, and how much you can get for it. If we disagree about that, we lose trust, and communication breaks down, and we become susceptible to agitation, even hostility, even violence. We might have thought that a vote was like a dollar: everyone agreed what it was worth. Turns out there’s disagreement, and we’re seeing agitation, and even violence, in the absence of trust.
As it is with economics, so it is with politics, so it is with the kingdom of heaven. To be faithful is to trust: but where are we putting ours? God has been, and continues to be, faithful to us — just like that mobster who continues to be wicked, and we should not be surprised — God continues to be faithful to what God has made; God holds up God’s end of the bargain. The question for us, the point of Jesus’ teaching, is that we, too, need to be faithful, to hold up our end of the bargain.
WE SHOULD BE AS CLEAR ABOUT OUR OBLIGATION TO GOD AS WE WOULD OUR OBLIGATION TO A MOB BOSS TO WHOM WE OWE MONEY. And what is our end? What did we agree to? It’s not a trick question, though it’s not easy: love for God, love for ourselves, love for God’s creation, and love for one another. And you can take that to the bank. Amen.