November 15, 2020

Not my favourite parable


Zechariah 4:6-8
He said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. 7 What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’”

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30
[Jesus said:] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”
What is your favourite parable?
Parables as you may know are stories… metaphorical stories with layers of meaning. Jesus used them as one of his preferred methods of helping people to think about God’s realm.
I don’t know that Jesus invented parables, but if he didn’t he certainly is the one who took the form parable and developed it.
And most of Jesus parables were not just stories with meaning, but stories that were jarring, or had a twist, or a surprise.
One image of a parable is like a parable is a holy hand grenade of the god’s realm of grace, that you take and turn over and examine and one day it just explodes with grace in your mind, so that you have a totally new vision of God’s realm of grace.
Another person said it a parable is like a plough, that ploughs up your mind.
I am reminded of a story that that late great Minnie Pearl used to tell. Minnie Pearl was a country comedian who used to appear at the Grand Old Opry over 30 years ago. She actually debuted on the Grand Old Opry in 1940 and appeared fro 50 years.
She would appear wearing a straw hat with flowers on it and the price tag still hanging off it for a dollar and ninety-eight cents.
And she would usually start by saying “hooowwwddddyy”
One story she told was about her cousin, whose husband was sent to prison.
This cousin wrote to her husband in prison saying: “With you shut up in prison how am I going to get the north field ploughed this spring for planting corn.”
The husband wrote back from prison: “Don’t worry about it because I buried treasure in the north field.”
She wrote her husband: “I think the authorities have been reading your mail, because all kinds of people showed up here and dug up the whole north field looking for treasure.”
He wrote back: “Plant the corn.”
And that is what a parable is like. It is an unlikely way to get your mind ploughed ready for the seed of grace.
So, what is your favourite parable.
I think for me, my two favourite parables for years were these two. The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.
The prodigal son is about the son who wastes his half the inheritance on booze and prostitutes and parties but when he comes home his father greets him with open arms and unconditional love.
The good Samaritan is about a Jew who is travelling and is beaten up by thieves and left for dead. And while those of the Jewish community who represent the Religious, political and legal leadership walk on by and ignore him, there is one who comes to help him, a Samaritan, and yet Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews.
Each of the gospel writers actually put their own spin on the parables of Jesus. John doesn’t tell any parables of Jesus. Mark makes the parables like riddles. Stories for the insiders who get it, but the outsiders to grace don’t get them.
Luke makes the parables more transparent and they are more example stories.
The twist is not so great and the two examples that I used as my favourites, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan are not that hard to understand.
The real wrench in those stories is when you try to do likewise.
I know a parent whose fourty year old child took the parent’s credit card and went to the casino and somehow managed to rack up a $50,000 debt, which the parent was now responsible for…
Now try and forgive your child and welcome them back with open arms.
Or the story of the black woman in the United States who one night is stopped by white policemen and they give her a bogus ticket and when she complains they put handcuffs on her and frisk her and put their hands all over her in a sexually suggestive way. She knows if she complains nobody will listen so she just ignores it. Several months later she is in a car accident, the car is burning and a police officer saves her life, and it one of the police officers who sexually abused her.
So my favourite parables are in Luke. They are not too difficult to understand, the twist is in the actually doing of them, not in the understanding of them.
And then there is Matthew’s gospel which in some ways had some of my least favourite parables, because on the face of it, it looked like God was mean, or vindictive or harsh, or not that graceful.
Phrases like: “throw him outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”
And case in point is the parable of the talents that we read in scripture today.
A talent was a huge sum of money. And scholars differ on what that might be in today’s dollars, but as a rough estimate, you could read it as the three servants were left 5 million dollars, 2 millions dollars and one million dollars respectively and the rich man entrust three servants with the money and then goes on an journey.
When he comes back the one who had the 5 million has made 5 million more. And the one who made the two million has made two million more.
And they are both commended.
Then the third servant comes and says: Hey I knew you were tough and I was afraid that if I invested the money I might lose money and you would be angry, so I buried the money in the ground and here it is. I didn’t lose a single penny.
And this servant is called wicked and lazy, and the man says: take his million dollars and give it to the one who had ten million.
And then these chilling lines: For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

Maybe you can see why this has not been my favourite parable.

I suppose historically one of the chief ways to understand the parable has been to use the word talent not as a monetary unit, but to use it as our gifts and abilitites. In fact the word “talent” came into our English language from its use in the bible which had nothing to do with skills and abilities, but eventually became known as a word to represent our skills and abilities through the interpretation of the parable.
And so the idea is that we are all talented. We all have skills and abilities and if you do not use them you will lose them.
When I was in bible college, one of the professors had been a missionary in Egypt with her husband. They went and adopted an Egyptian orphan and when their term as missionaries was over, they moved back to their home in the United States. Their son who was adopted could not speak English when they adopted him. He spoke Egyptian Arabic. His adoptive parents also spoke Arabic and that’s how they communicated at first, but when they moved to America when the boy was still quite young, their son decided he would not speak Arabic any more. He wanted to be an American like all the other boys in school. And so he literally stopped speaking it until he could no longer speak it at all.
His parents when they wanted to converse and him not know what they would talking about could speak Arabic and he had totally forgotten Arabic.
If you don’t use it, you lose it.
And that is the way the parable of the talents has often been interpreted.
And maybe there is some truth to the assertion that we are all gifted and talented and that we should use out talents in the realm of love and grace, because if we don’t use our talents they will wither and decay.
One of the problems with this interpretation is that God is seen as harsh and punitive and lacking grace. And while this parable had often been used as a stewardship sermon, saying that we need to give and work hard for the realm of Jesus and use our talents or else…I am not sure that this is an accurate picture or metaphor of the God of Love, the God who sends Jesus to the cross even while we are yet sinners.
But there are other understandings of this parable as well, and one of them takes a totally different tack.
And in this understanding of the parable, the man who is wealthy and goes on a journey is not necessarily a good guy. The man is not necessarily God or Jesus, and in fact the man may well be  a metaphor for the Kingdoms of this world that oppress the poor and increasingly take the money of this world and put it in the hands of the rich.
So, think. Who had eight million dollars to invest with managers?
Not poor people, not the middle class. But the very elite. And who were the elite in Jesus’ day.
They were wealthy landowners who bought up or stole almost all the land and leased it out to poor people. They would charge high interests rates to poor farmers who couldn’t pay bills and when they couldn’t pay back their loans the rich would confiscate their land, even if it was their ancestral land and had been for centuries.
And these rich owners who hire managers who would run their lands for them and these managers would make their money by charging the poor farmers a little extra and so some of these managers gouged a lot and some gouged a little.

Maybe you don’t remember but in the Torah Jews were not to lend money with interest and specifically they were not to take advantage of the poor with charging them interest.
The prohibition was not against lending money to Gentiles and there is a history of how Jews got into money-lending in the middle ages in part because they were often barred from other jobs.
So, you can actually read the parable as a parable against the rich and wealthy.
In fact, in Luke’s gospel when you read Luke’s version of the parable, the man is a Nobleman and the people of his kingdom hate him and want him gone.
And the Nobleman at the end kills a bunch of the people who don’t like him or hate him.
So maybe we can see this isn’t necessarily about Jesus who is the master entrusting us with abilities.
Maybe it is a story about the rich in Jesus’s day who were taking advantage of the poor and two of the managers do exactly as expected. They take the wealth of the Rich man and manage the farms and double the wealth of the rich man at the expense of the poor.
But along comes a third manager. This manager realizes how tough and hard the rich man is and how he loves his money and his high expectations of doubling the money off the backs of the poor and this manager doesn’t play the game. A game of injustice and oppression.
Maybe this manager is the hero. Maybe this manager is Jesus who is thrown in the outer darkness of the cross and the grave and hell in order to try and save the lives of the poor whom the rich the powerful and even the religious leaders have exploited for their financial gain.
Maybe this is what Christianity is really about, or what Jesus is really about.
Speaking truth to power and saying that all people have to be treated equally.
The world loves to take from the those who have little and give it to those who have much.
The 26 richest people in the world have about the same wealth as the poorest half of the world. 26 people have the same wealth as 3.8 billion people, and according to Oxfam the gap is steadily growing.
That is in part to laws and policies passed by the rich that lowers the tax rate on corporate tax and on personal income tax for the rich. Oxfam suggests that universal free health care, and universal free education and other public services are part of the ways to help, and in addition tax the rich more.
That is another way to look at the parable, but I wonder too about yet another way.
We have looked at it as a parable about talents and abilities. If you don’t use them you lose them.
We have looked at the parable as a parable against the injustice and oppression of the rich and powerful and how maybe Christians should emulate the third servant and not buy into the same unjust economic system, but try to change it for the poor and disadvantaged.
But maybe we could also look at this parable as a parable about grace.
I know you  all have my sermons memorized now and realize that Jesus opposition to the Scribes and Pharisees and Religious Leaders has very much to to with grace.
Jesus presents a realm where grace is available to all, in opposition to a limited grace, to those who deserve it most.
What if the parable is about grace?
Maybe Jesus is the man who give out grace to his followers. Huge sums of grace. A lifetime’s worth of grace. He give his own life. He give his blood. Jesdus give his swaet his tears.
He give unlimited forgiveness, seventy time seven. He writes down the debt of our sin to zero.
He loves us even when we take his credit card and go to the casino and blow all the grace we have.
And some people respond to this grace by themselves being graceful. They pay it forward.
They forgive. They. Love their enemies. They help the poor and needy. They work for justice. They share. They lose their lives for others….
And yet there are some who have received unlimited grace and they are afraid.
They are afraid to forgive because the person might not change or might still treat them badly.
They are afraid to share, because they might not have enough themselves.
They are afraid to love the unlovely, the criminal, the terrorist, because of what others might think of them…’or because we have to teach the bad people a lesson..
Or because they the fear in their lives makes them want to hurt those they considered bad.
And where do those who have received lots of grace and yet who cannot share it, end up.
They end up in the darkness of their own hell. That is living far beneath their best lives.

Jesus has come to give us a life that is abundant and free and joyful and full of grace and love…
And most of us know it isn’t found in money and power and in control of others, but in sharing and giving and loving and sacrificing.
That is when we feel the best and are probably even happiest, when we are doing something for the people we love.
And Jesus tells to love everyone. Grace for everyone.
There was a movie out twenty years ago called “pay it forward.”
And the basis for the movie was about a boy who for a class project came up with the idea that when somebody does you a big favor, you don’t pay them back, you pay it forward and do big favors for others.
His thought was that for every big favour done for you, you should do three big favours for others, and if each of them did three big favours and so on, then the movement would grow and pretty soon everybody would be doing good things for others.
Maybe you know what it is like. I remember when I was first married and my car broke down, two guys jumped out of a truck, lifted up my hood and fixed my car, and jumped by in their truck and were gone and I never knew their names of even really had a chance to thank them.
That is grace.
And then I remember when I learned about a guy named Jesus who loved me unconditional, who welcomed me home into his family even though I had screwed up, who bandaged up my broken soul even though at times I was an enemy of grace…
Who forgave my sins and didn’t charge any interest on the debt I owed. In fact wrote my debt down to nothing.
Who was thrown into outer darkness because he stood up for equality and truth and sharing and justice and grace for all.
It is my fervent wish that I could pay this grace forward and that the unlimited grace spent on me would grow.