Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sabbath Economics 101

13 November 2011/Proper 28A – Matthew 25:14-30
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven will be as when a man, going on a journey,
summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them….”

Not exactly. We have long been mislead about this parable. It has been misconstrued as teaching a lesson about the coming reign of God, as praising venturous investment and diligent labor, and encouraging rapacious taking of that which is not ours and reaping that which we did not sow! Please note, at the beginning of this parable, Jesus does not say, “The kingdom of heaven will be as when a man, going on a journey….etc.” The lectionary crowd borrowed this from a place much earlier in chapter 25 of Matthew. You can look it up yourselves. (p.860 in our pew Bibles)He is describing the sad and shameful reality of life in this world as it was and is.

The sequence in chapter 25 is the parable of the ten maidens which ends with the imperative: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Then follows our story, often called The Parable of the Talents, when it should be called The Parable of the faithful servant who woke up! The kingdom of heaven will be like those who wake up to what is dreadfully wrong with the dominant economy.

Well, you might say, that has become rather obvious as we continue to witness the disintegration of the world economy, to say nothing of our own, at the hands of a few “masters” of wealth like the one depicted in our parable.

We just cannot get it unless we understand the magnitude of what is being handed out. A talent was somewhere between 54 and 75 pounds of silver, sterling! One talent was 6,000 denarii, or 6,000 days wages for one laborer (16 years per talent, 128 years wages handed out to the three slaves!). This has been conservatively valued at approximately Two and One-Half Million Dollars in today’s dollars! And the master does not deny that he did not earn or in any way merit this wealth. He took it from others through a series of credit arrangements, mortgage foreclosures, and land-grabs (since wealth was measured in land at the time).

Further, in Mediterranean society then and now, anything over a 12% return on your wealth was considered rapacious, obscene, and immoral. To double your investment is to participate in patently unfair economic warfare on the working and middle classes.

If in fact the kingdom of heaven demands that we wake up, the hero of the story is the slave who buries the talent as a non-violent protest: “I refuse to participate any longer in your unfair system of economic warfare on the poor! Take your talent and shove it!” he seems to say.

Now the Biblical literate among us will have read, marked and inwardly digested the scriptures, as our collect for the day urges us to do. Having done so, any number of other scriptures come to mind offering an alternative view of what some have called God’s Sabbath Economics. In Exodus Chapter 16, the story of Manna, the basic economic view of the God of the Exodus is laid out: everyone is to get enough, no one gets too much, and if you store it up it sours – it goes bad, it will be crawling with worms, maggots, and vermin. In Leviticus 25 is the prohibition against usury and profiteering off the poor. In Isaiah chapter 5 those who participate in unfair real estate dealings are condemned. Jesus recalls the Manna Season principles when he urges us to pray for bread that is given daily. And in the very next story in Matthew Chapter 25 we get the story of the sheep being separated from the goats in which it is made clear that when you serve those who are hungry, thirsty, in jail, naked, sick and strangers, you are serving the Lord Jesus himself. When you do not serve the poor and disadvantaged, you have aligned yourself with “master going on a journey” and his toady-slaves who prop up his wealth at their own expense.

Not being agrarians, evidenced by our corporate lack of concern for the earth, the land, from which our food comes, we miss the punch line of a hilariously funny joke here: the protesting slave buries the 70 some pounds of silver in the ground. There, see if it can grow anything meaningful there! The peasants listening to Jesus and who work the land all know that all true wealth comes from God, the source of rain, sunshine, seed and soil. Like those in the wilderness who build a golden calf and worship money cast as religion, the taunting cry is, “Go ahead, pray to all the money you want, plant all the talents you have in the ground, multiply your gold and silver ten times over, and it will never get you out of the system of economic slavery to which you devote your every waking hour!”

It is a clash of world-views like that which we witness on Wall Street and in cities all around the world today: the traditional agrarian notion of “use-value” and the elite’s currency-based system of “exchange-value.” Money can grow naturally like seed, but only unnaturally through usury and swindling. This symbolic act of planting the talent is a case of prophetic tricksterism to reveal that money is not fertile.

And like all the prophets before him, our hero-slave, what some have called a “whistle-blower,” having unmasked the master’s wealth as entirely derived from the toil of others, is cast out. Much as when Jesus unmasks the unholy powers in Jerusalem is cast outside the city walls and crucified. Our hero-slave keeps good and honest and faithful company. What has long been presumed being sent to “hell” turns out to be his exodus out of the hell of the rich man’s system and closer to the true Lord who dwells among the poor. It is the same Lord who teaches us to pray for daily bread (manna), and to forgive debts (n.b., sin and debt are the same word in Jesus’ native Aramaic) – that is, Jesus teaches us to pray for a return to Sabbath Economics.

What an extraordinary parable to get as the world’s economy appears to be melting before our very eyes, while those who pretend to manage it have run out of ideas on what to do next. The pundits will mock the Occupy Wall Street crowd as offering no new ideas, but this charge rings hollow as those same pundits, experts and elite money managers appear to have no coherent strategy themselves.

The late Bishop Bennett Sims once said, “The only thing that can save us from a culture of increasing violence, greed and rapacious consumption will be an increase in Christian Giving.” Which brings us to Christ's altar today, where we are invited to place our sacrificial pledge right beside his sacrificial body and blood. Christ gives it all for the salvation of the world. He invites us to join in the Sabbath Economics of his Father’s dream of shalom for all mankind. May the Lord bless us this day as we seek to be as faithful as the hero-slave in today’s parable. Amen.

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