When I was a little girl, 4 years old, my parents divorced. Now, I lived with my mother in those early days, but I was a daddy’s girl through and through, and I desperately needed to be near him. I cherished any amount of time we had together, and I remember being so very anxious without him, and so much more centered when he was able to be around. We lived near an amusement park which would later be Six Flags over Georgia but at the time, it wasn’t called Six Flags quite yet. But I remember watching the fireworks from the park every night in the summer from our apartment complex’s parking lot, and my dad allowed me to believe the childish fantasy that those fireworks were a bedtime story just for me.
I was a lucky kid; I had the privilege of having a wonderful father. He was steady and reliable. He was loving and kind, and even though my parents couldn’t live together anymore, I knew that I was the most important thing in his entire world, and I knew that he would never abandon me.
One day, dad took me to Six Flags. It was a coolish day, and I remember distinctly that my dad was wearing a pair of light brown corduroy pants. Remember, I was little…pants were about the only thing at eye level! At the ticket booth, there was a crush of people and somehow I managed to get separated from my dad. Once I realized he was gone, total panic swept in. My heart raced, my eyes welled up with tears, I got this terrible knot in my throat, and I remember sweeping my head back and forth over and over trying to see him…this father I knew so well who loved me so much. In that 4 year old moment of panic, my whole world stopped. I was trapped in a sea of legs which were all bare or denim-clad.
And then, I saw him. Saw those brown corduroy pants and raced up behind my father, put my arm around his leg and breathed a big, gulping breath. Tears of joy and relief replaced those burning tears of panic, and I looked up…and realized that the man wearing my father’s corduroy pants was not my father at all. He was a total stranger who took one look at me and laughed. Laughed at me…at my mistake…at my tears.
After all these years, I still remember the absolutely sick feeling that accompanied the realization that the man I thought was my safe place was actually an imposter, someone I didn’t know at all. Someone who didn’t care for me in any way. And someone who behaved like a real jerk.
That sick feeling of mistaking someone who doesn’t care about me for someone who treasures me is the same feeling I used to get when I read today’s Gospel lesson.
I grew up hearing this parable interpreted in perhaps the same way that you have. That the master in the story is God, and we are all his slaves. We are given a great many gifts and responsibilities, and if we don’t perform the way we are expected to perform…with some great and magical multiplication of those gifts …we will be banished from the arms, from the house, from the love of God.
When the parable is explained to me that way, I can’t help but think some jerk is wearing my God’s corduroy pants.
You see, the traditional interpretation calls God a ruthless business person. A slave owner. A man who is more concerned with profit than with people. Who is cold blooded and merciless.
But over and over in the Gospel accounts, Jesus tells us that God is exactly NOT like that.
What if we scrap the usual interpretation that says this story is about how we should manage ourselves in order to earn God’s favor and instead look at this as a story about the state of the world? An indictment of a society and of a financial system which says more is more and however you have to go about it, get ahead at all costs…no matter who you have to step on to get there.
In this new interpretation, the master is a very wealthy man. The amount of money that he possesses is vastly, insanely, incomprehensible. He has so much money, in fact that he can casually hand over a large sum to three of his slaves as he heads off on a journey. Carla Works is a New Testament scholar and she tells us this, “Although the first receives five times as much as the last, each receives a significant sum of money. A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer's daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years’ worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money.”
This is important to understand because there is no ethical way that a slave in that age could double that amount of money in the time it takes to make a journey. Yet, we are told, slaves numbers 1 and 2 do in fact double the amounts handed over to them. Something unscrupulous must have happened here. The master returns and is so proud of their ability to make such a huge amount of money in such a short time. And he welcomes them into “the joy of your (their) master”. “Awesome,” the master says in what I imagine to be the voice of Marlon Brando in “the Godfather”. “You did very well. I got another job for you.”
But slave #3 refuses to participate in this immoral behavior. He removes himself from this financial system. He takes the amount delegated to him and he buries it. When the master returns, the 3rd slave turns on the bravery and speaks a difficult, terrible truth, “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 talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” He digs it up and gives all of the money back. The master is furious because he wanted the slave to make a larger profit even if it comes at the expense of another through unethical trading or gambling or goodness only knows how! And for what? We don’t know for sure, but I think it is purely for the sake of having more.
The 3rd slave is our parable’s hero. He refuses to participate in a system that will injure others. He speaks up about this unjust system, and he suffers the penalties. The slave is cast into outer darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing” of teeth which sounds like a special kind of hell. One marked by the rejection of the culture which says that you are valued by your financial worth and by your ability to contribute to the advancement of those who are already in power.
AND this sounds more than a little bit like an autobiographical account. For soon, Jesus will be summoned before the powers of his day. He will continue to tell the truth about a broken society and about the relationship that God wants us to have with God and with one another. And then, Jesus will suffer the consequences for telling the truth as he dies on the cross—that horrifying symbol of a powerful and merciless society.
But here is the Good News…we encounter the risen Christ in the margins of society, in places of deep pain and rejection and separation…God-with-us as we suffer through tears and anxious tooth-grinding.
This is the God I recognize. The man cast out because he stood up for truth. The man who refused to be complicit in the abuse of another. The man whose kingdom values got him killed. God in God’s own corduroy pants as it were. The God who commands me…who commands us…to do the same.
Can we do it? Can we be brave enough to look at our own financial practices and relationships and figure out who is hurting because of the ways we want to get more instead of giving more? Can we publically call out those whose money-grubby hands place a strangle hold on the poor? Can we speak the truth on behalf of those who are not given voices in this powerful and merciless society? Can we venture into the anxiety and sorrow of the outer darkness and meet Christ there?
Greg Ronning was my pastor at Texas Lutheran University. He is also a song writer, and all week I have been hearing his song “Exorcism” running around in my head. Greg writes,
And most of the world sleeps with that whore
On and on and on, day after day
Doesn’t anybody see …
It’s time to exorcise the demon away
God is not in heaven with all well on the earth.
God is with the oppressed and the poor and all hell’s breaking loose.”
Use your voice. Use your words. Use your dollars. Use your gifts. Use your possessions. Use your land. Use whatever you have. Take all of those things that make you powerful and use those things to stand with those who live in places of pain, separation, and vulnerability. Give them your voice.
Greg is absolutely right. God is not in heaven with all well on the earth. God is with the oppressed and the poor in the margins of society… and those margins are not limited to money…God’s people are ostracized or disregarded because of poverty, homelessness, substance dependency, abuse, race, gender, sexual identity. But God is there. God is there in the outer darkness.
We are called to bear truth in the world. And sometimes being a truth bearer is a frightening role to play. It might get us banished.
But the God we know is there in the outer darkness. And we do not have to be afraid.