April 19, 2011

Traders for or Traitors of the Kingdom, A Sermon

Here's a sermon I preached during FBC's noon day Holy Week services, reflecting on the "Parable of the Talents."

As we explore the theme this week, , “Give Me Jesus [Question Mark],” I’m reminded that we needed to be unsettled in our faith journey, in order to ask hard questions.

“Is it Jesus that I really want or do I prefer the Jesus who helps me feel self-fulfilled, the Jesus I use to make me feel good.”

And in order to unsettle us this afternoon, I want to offer up, what some may consider to be an uncommon reading of this common parable about talents. I want to explore a different interpretation that steers us directly into the heart of: “Give Me Jesus?”

Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the common interpretation of this parable, it goes something like this. Everyone has God-given talents or abilities, and what this parable teaches us is that God wants us to use our “spiritual gifts” or talent to grow his kingdom while we wait for Christ to return.

But the more I studied this parable, the more I became uncomfortable with this way of reading it. And so, I ask you to listen again as I offer up a modern reading that I hope will make the meaning plain.

He stumbled into the room, resting on the door frame in his usual drunken stupor. The Owner of the land, or Lord has he liked to be called, eyed his workers with hopeful greed and piercing hate. It had been several months since the Owner left, leaving these three day-laborers in charge of his estate.

As migrant workers with no papers, and thus no rights, these three men were no better than slaves to their Lord. They were hostages to this life now. If they’d known what kind of man he was, maybe they wouldn’t have jumped into his truck to work for him.

He is known among many of the migrant workers for his cruel spirit. On several occasions he has been known to deliver his workers to the border patrol if they anger him or try to leave.

Among the day laborers, who live in daily fear, the border patrol is commonly referred to as the dark place, or the “place of weeping and gnashing of teeth,” because it is there families are torn apart, forced from the country, forced from their wives and children.

Yet, the Owner was very wealthy and could offer work, which was hard to come by these days as families grew hungrier. So, these three men remained, unable to leave because of their own need for work, and their fear of the Owner.

Disappearing for months was a common affair for their Master. They had grown used to being left to manage the fields and estate while he lived a life they couldn’t imagine, one of luxury and extravagance. But this time was different. Before wandering off, the Owner, probably as a cruel trick, left each of the workers an inexplicably large amount of money.

To one worker, he gave five talents, to another two talents and to the third he gave one talent. One talent. These men knew, a single talent was enough to feed one of their family’s for 20 years. It represented lavish wealth, almost an entire life’s worth of work balled up into one, large piece of metal.

Familiar with their Lord’s avarice, they inferred his intent.

It was his common practice, without a blink of an eye, for the Owner to cheat people. Anyone. Everyone. His singular goal was to build his wealth, and of course that meant building on the backs of others. His practices were harsh, always reaping where he did not sow, making money off of his neighbor’s crops, and gathering where he did not scatter seed.

Uncertain what the reward would be, if there would even be a reward, these three men knew the Master would arrive expecting a plentiful return, reaping where he had not sown. It was a perfect plan, for the Master at least. Go on vacation, live it up, and come back to an even larger amount of money or talents.

With the fear of their Master’s cruelness haunting them in his absence, two of the workers fought diligently to make his money grow, allowing theirs hearts to grow cold long enough, hopefully just long enough, to make it past this malicious ordeal. They only wanted to work. Their families needed them to work. What choice did they have? And so, for week after tireless week, they scraped, stole, created false investments schemes, ponzi schemes, triangle schemes, whatever it would take to make the money grow.

But the third, who was given 20 years worth of wages instead of 40 years or 100 years like the other two, went off early one morning and found a safe place in a field and buried the talent. He was there to live and help his family live. But he knew, life could not be found in this injustice. There was simply no excuse to do his living off the backs of others, and so he buried the treacherous demand of the Master.

Holding himself up on the doorframe, the drunken Master waited perversely to hear the news of how the workers had carried out his longing for gain. When the first two told him how they’d made to make his money expand, he grew elated. No longer needing the door frame to hold himself up, he declared just how much Joy they had given him and they would both be given even more responsibility than they already had, of course, more responsibility, but not more pay.

Then he noticed the third worker, sitting in silence. He demanded to know how he made the Owner richer. The meek man rose to his feet and clearly said, “I know you reap where you do not sow. You take from the poor and live like you’re the only one that matters. You cheat, you steal, and you harvest where you don’t plant seeds. I was afraid of losing the talent due to your harshness, but I was more afraid of becoming like you because of your harshness. So, I didn’t steal or cheat, but merely hid the money.”

“Don’t you understand boy,” raged the Owner, “this is how the world works. Those that have will be given more, even in abundance. But the “have-nots,” like you, they’ll be stripped what little they do have, because they’re not even worthy of that tiny amount. You’re type don’t deserve the scraps from my table.”

With vile, the Master loaded the single, resolute worker in his truck and drove to the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” sending him away from his loved ones and their only source of life and income.

Well, I’ll be the first to admit this reading of the parable isn’t very warm or fuzzy, but it is certainly more unsettling. And it needs to be unsettling, because the older, more common interpretation, for me at least, is too comfortable, too self-fulfilling. “God gives to those that help themselves.” But As Walter Wink and other Biblical scholars have noted, this way of thinking, this older interpretation, goes against the social conventions of Jesus’ time.

Jesus’ audience in the Gospel of Matthew was comprised mostly of those at the margins of society. They were familiar with the practices that profited the prosperous, as they were the victim’s of fraud, exorbitant rates with ambiguous contracts (much akin to predatory lending in our time), and sidebar taxes that allowed the collector to skim off the top.

Moreover, in first century Jewish culture, individual pursuit of wealth, especially at the cost of others members of society, was looked down upon as a violating communal and religious loyalty. Therefore, to even be able to own a single talent, much less several, was seen as anathema, a sinful cheat among Jesus’ audience. Thus, for the villain in this story to represent God, wouldn’t have made any sense to the first century listener.

Besides the common interpretation being nonsensical to its audience, another reason I think we should read this parable in this new way is that it fits with the larger picture of Jesus’ agenda. Unlike some theologians who would have us believe that God sent Jesus to earth for the sole purpose of being a divine punching bag, or the only reason Jesus was sent to earth was to die, we must remember that Jesus had an agenda, in other words, Jesus had a mission.

Sewn throughout the Garment of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ mission. And this thread of mission is that Jesus is bringing about a movement of God’s justice and love here among us now through costly follower-ship.

Jesus came proclaiming the good news, “the Kingdom of God is near, repent and come join the movement.”

And the readers of Matthew knew that Jesus’ kingdom proclamation was being united with a very powerful, hebrew concept: tsedawkaw translated to greek, dikaiosune.

Dikaios and dikaiosune are the Jewish and Christian answer to the perennial human question, “what does it mean to live a full, and good, and righteous life before one dies? What does it mean to live life eternally beginning now? What does it mean to be truly human?”

If there was ever a word appropriate enough for something as mysterious and beautiful as God’s kingdom, Dikaiosune is that word.

In the greek, dikaios or dikaiosune is a word so pregnant with meaning that if it were to inhabit the heart, it would birth God’s kingdom. You see, dikaios is one of those words that’s hard to render into English because it’s so full of meaning.

Often interpreted in the New Testament as “Righteousness”, Dikaiosune means three things all at once, never mutually exclusive: justification, righteousness, and justice. In Jesus’ dikaiosune movement, we find that God is restoring our relationship with him (justification), restoring our inner selves as God’s image bearers (righteousness), and the restoring human relationships/community through equity (justice).

So we see in Jesus, that God is setting and restoring our humanity in righteousness in order that humanity can be restored to itself through justice.

In the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, we read in Genesis that “Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as dikiaosune.”

In Isaiah we find that “all our dikiaosune is like filthy rags.

And in Amos, the verse forever heard in my head through the voice of Martin Luther King Jr, “But let our justice roll down as water, and dikaisune as an ever flowing stream.”

Thus, Jesus’ mission was to establish God’s dikaiosune among us now. And he expected this endeavor to be costly.

In the beatitudes Jesus declared, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosune for the will be filled.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for dikaiosune’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom belongs to those who like the third servant in the parable object to unjust practices that destroy justice even to the point of being persecuted or cast from society. And certainly the persecution Jesus is talking about here isn’t when we don’t get along with go workers or when we suffer some illness, but persecution is being marginalized and force to live uncomfortably because of our faith in this Jesus way of restoration.

But of course we shouldn’t seek out suffering for suffering’s sake, but rather we should seek out life and justice for God’s sake.

In the parable directly following this one in Matt 25, we learn that God hides himself among the poor and the forgotten, those who will never make history books. Thus we must stand for dikaiosune’s sake and resist evil practices that misuse and abuse God’s very self found in the thirsty and oppressed.

This week we need to be unsettled, because the injustices born on the backs of the poor are unsettling. And what is even more unsettling is these injustices are born on the back of God’s very self.

Jesus was and is the embodiment of God’s kingdom come. To meet Jesus, means to bump into God’s Kingdom. Thus, we have to remember that the cross wasn’t God’s sadistic torturing of his Son, but it was the ultimate cost of Jesus’ mission. Jesus was crucified for bringing a new way, God’s way of life on earth, because when God’s kingdom of dikaiosune confronts the evils and injustices of our world, the world convulses and pushes it out to the margins, even to death.

But as Jesus said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So, Dikaiosune is the unsettling vision that all might not be well with the way the world works, the way we live, the lives we exploit, the poor we neglect, the voiceless we hush, the enemies we murder, and the pain we hide our faces from.

Dikaiosune is the unsettling vision that all are created equal and deserve a chance to live while we go on living lavishly and not just beyond our own means, but the very means of the our earth.

Dikaisune is the unsettling vision that we may stand alone, and be cast aside, we may be put to death, but at the core of following Jesus is a vision for restoring the world until dikaiosune flows down as an ever flowing stream.

The answer to the perennial question for all of humanity, “what must I do to be good and live the fullest possible life now,” is found in Jesus’ Kingdom of dikaiosune and a life devoted to bringing it about no matter the cost.

So may today be about coming to Jesus in a new way, and giving up our pretenses, declaring our desire for him not because of what he can give us, whether earthly or heavenly rewards; but rather may we learn to desire Jesus in our lives for our own restoration as well as the restoration of the world. May we desire Jesus, because this dikaiosune vision is the hope of the world, and there is nothing, not even death that can conquer this Kingdom.

May we be like the third servant, knowing this is a kingdom worth being put to shame for, worth being marginalized for, and worth being persecuted for, knowing that in the end it is not death that prevails, but life everlasting.


Here these words from Jesus,

Matt. 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his dikaiosune, and all these things will be given to you as well.