Capitalism doesn’t come off very well in the Bible. Some Americans would be not only surprised but insulted by that statement, believing as they do that capitalism is a system that God particularly favors. Capitalism is not the same as wealth, of course. There are many wealthy people in the Bible—Abraham quickly comes to mind. But they are sometimes a part of agrarian economies, sometimes what we might call feudal systems, and sometimes wealthy by virtue of their status as, for example, royalty. This must be greatly disappointing to modern politicians who clearly believe that the fortunes of the whole human race are dependent upon increasing the assets of the wealthy so that they get to be to get more and more wealthy.
No, the Bible, including Jesus, takes a generally skeptical view of money and the accumulation of wealth. The Early Church, as pictured in the Book of Acts, practiced a kind of communism—or, if you don’t like the sound of that word, a kind of communal or shared ownership of goods and resources.
So it is little wonder that people who are generally enchanted by capitalistic impulses would adore the parable that lands on our bulletins today, the parable of the talents. This is a story of investment, of earning, and it seems to sanctify the accumulation of money. It apparently praises shrewdness. And what is more it seems on the surface to validate taking away what little the relatively poor have and giving it instead to those who already have abundance.
And if we aren’t pleased enough by the implicit praise of capitalism in this piece of gospel, we have the notion of “talent” to cheer us. “Why,” some say, “this isn’t really about money at all, is it? It’s about talent. Everyone should use his or her talent for the glory and benefit of the Master,” who of course is God.
Meanwhile, those among the have-nots of the world must hear this story and wonder where the Good News is in it. At the end all they get is weeping, wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. Not a very promising scenario to say the least.
In point of fact the story is not in praise of capitalism at all, nor for that matter any economic system. First, remember that “the kingdom of heaven” is not an otherworldly place in some other life but rather the condition of living in what we might call the “kingdom of right relationships.” That is the main thing to pay attention to. And what happens in this kingdom or territory? Someone is taking a trip. He leaves entrusting his property to his slaves. Matthew has taken a story that other New Testament writers, notably Luke, also tell, and he uses it to shed light on what the Church ought to be doing as it awaits the fullness of Messiah’s reign, or the return of Jesus at the end of time.
"I was afraid, and I hid..."
Now, the spotlight falls inevitably on the man who had the one talent. And what was the matter with him? He was afraid. And there you have the point of the parable. Or rather you have the diagnosis that serves the point. Because if the issue is what to do until the Messiah comes, the obverse of whatever that is is to be paralyzed with fear. One can make a lot of connections and come to a bunch of conclusions about the talents, these huge sums of money that represent something like 15 years worth of wages. Get creative. Run some risks. Get cracking on some projects. Take your own assets, which are gifts to begin with, and use them wisely. Look for possibilities. But whatever you do, don’t just sit around and worry, fret, or fear—because that will most assuredly be the very thing that will come between you and the potential joy that the kingdom of right relationships promises—call it “the joy of your master.”
When we put the issue in those terms, it readily becomes apparent that money is incidental to the point. Whether you are a one-talent woman or a multi-talented rock star, the challenge is the same. Take what you have and use it creatively and aggressively.
I am not a worrier. Many people are. And if you are one who is a worrier, especially if you are looking for a way to justify the fact that you are, I’ll tell you right now that what I am about to say will quite likely make no sense to you at all and at worse will make you downright mad. But let’s try to see what it is about the realm of God—the life of the eternal NOW—the reign of Christ—that puts it squarely opposite a life of timidity and fear, not to mention worry. It comes down to one little five-letter word: trust. Trust is the heart of faith. Faith has far less to do with what you believe than whom you build your life around. It has far less to do with what you give intellectual assent to than whom you give your heart to. And it has far less to do with what you accomplish than the love with which you do whatever you do. It is interesting that the one-talent guy has the master all figured out. He thinks of the master as always driving a very hard bargain—reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he didn’t scatter, and so on. In short, he lives in fear—fear of what might happen if he lets go and begins to live life trusting that all will be well in the end. He is scared that when the day arrives and he will be called to account that he won’t have what he should, so he hides his talent. And he probably hides it in the same place he hides everything else: his desires, his body, his deep sense of shame, his guilt, his thoughts and dreams and feelings. He feels none are good enough, not important enough to claim. And what would happen if he let go? People might laugh at him. He might get fired. His parents or his children or his few friends might disown him and desert him. The one-talent woman who lives in terror of what would happen if she let her guard down can’t bear the thought of sharing her fondest dreams for fear of looking stupid or feeling foolish. Every once in awhile when she is alone, she tries on some silly outfit that she keeps hidden away in a closet, and even dances a bit before a mirror, feeling a little girlish and snickering at herself. But the prospect of him showing up unannounced, the thought that her mother might walk in on her little scene: it is too much—or at least enough to shut down her fantasies. And so it goes for the man who is afraid to fail, for the academic who is afraid of what the critics might say, for the boy who can’t imagine telling even his best friend what he really loves.
|Parable of the Talents|
None of that leads to the joy of either you or your master. None of it is life-giving. And the saddest thing of all is that a whole lot of religion has fine-tuned the art of repression to the point that instead of freeing us up to enter the joy—the joy!—of the Lord it keeps us fearful of his own very talent, his life, that we hold in trust.
So this business about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in outer darkness is not so far-fetched at all. These are not descriptions of life after death. They are descriptions of the decrepit spirit that is weighed down right now from being scared to death of being oneself.
What to do? That is the question. Especially if you find it difficult to be your real self, or if in fact you don’t even know who your real Self is, or if you have no clue as to how you might even begin to learn to imagine trust. Well, the irony is not to hop up and go out and invest a bunch of money—necessarily. It is in fact not to do anything. The kingdom comes not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but at the still-point of acceptance. And if you are looking for something to accept it is right there too close even to be in front of you. It is in fact you yourself. Begin with a daily practice of loving yourself, because to do so is to exercise the very thing that God lavishly gives you—a huge talent, you might say. Love yourself as God loves you. And when you begin, or begin again, to do that, you will find yourself doing deeds of love and mercy and kindness and forgiveness to others as well.
And one day, I promise you, you’ll look up to notice that there is a Presence that’s shown up in your life, one that has been absent for awhile. And you’ll be able to say, “Here, my Lord, here am I. I took your permission and your freedom to be wholly me. And look what I’ve made of it!” And despite all your old misgivings there’ll be an answer: “Good job. Well done. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
A sermon based on Matthew 25:14-30.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017