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A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The parables of Jesus can be divided into two general categories:

  • parables that attempt to unmask and critique the way things really are (think about the “there was a certain rich man … and a certain beggar …” parable in Luke 16:19-31); and
  • parables that offer a vision of the way the world could be (think about the ones that start “the kingdom of God is like …” and others that use “kingdom of God” or kingdom of heaven” language, for instance in Matthew 18).

Jesus used recognizable scenarios in plain language; he didn’t talk over the heads of the illiterate peasants who were his primary audience.  His parables use farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labor, banquets, being excluded from banquets, rich homes, and poor people.  That doesn’t mean the parables were easy to understand.

I had a professor in seminary who said that interpreting parables (and he was mostly talking about the parables of Jesus) is challenging at best.  He suggested that perhaps they should best be understood as a cross between a riddle and a zen koan, a cross between a joke, a puzzle, and a pool of wisdom.

The thing that makes the parables like riddles is the surprising twist at their endings.  He used things like miraculous harvests, enemies being friends, and unexpected vindication.  The thing that makes the parables puzzles is how challenging it is to figure out the wisdom Jesus is trying to impart.

In our quest for the wisdom of the parables, we often interpret them as morality tales, as moral fables, and in the process, we obscure the real wisdom they have to offer.  This happens much too easily when we forget or simply ignore the socio-cultural context in which the parable was originally told.  When this happens, we often end up recontextualizing the story in our own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions.  And within our unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, the parable ends up domesticated.

And that does the parables of Jesus a disservice.  They are much too wild to be domesticated.

The parable told in today’s reading is a wonderful example of this.  In the King James Version of the Bible, the story begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants …”  The only problem is that there is no mention of the kingdom of heaven in verse 14.  There is back in verse 1, to open up the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, but the line that opens up today’s parable does not mention the kingdom of heaven.

King James

Why did King James’ translators add these words?  In the best case, they were trying to help make the parable understandable and, contextualizing the story in their own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, stuck those words in.  They assumed that this was a parable about heaven or about the last judgment, so they added these words.  In the worst case, they purposefully tried to weaken the power of the parable (given that they worked for a king).  In either case, this addition wreaks havoc on an accurate understanding of the parable.

When we assume (or are told) that this parable is about “the kingdom of heaven,” we too easily allegorize the story.  When we do this, the Master in the story ends up representing God, and a pretty darn ugly picture of God at that.  This God is an absentee landlord who cares only about profit maximization.  This God is hard-hearted and ruthless.  This God is nothing like the God I hear Jesus talking about elsewhere in the gospels.

Despite these concerns, pastors (no doubt myself included) read this story and preach on how we Christians should gainfully employ our “talents” for God.  But “talents” in this story have nothing to do with individual gifts and everything to do with economics.  I don’t think the original audience would not have allegorized this parable to make sense of it.

They would have heard and immediately recognized Jesus describing a great household, a huge household – the closest thing in his day to the corporation in our day.  It was quite common for the patriarch of a great household to be away on business, be it economic or political business.  His affairs would have been handled by slaves, who in Roman society often rose to highly responsible positions in the household hierarchy as “stewards” – though they were still clearly slaves.

We know we’re talking about a great household because of the sums of money used in the story.  A “talent” was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world.  “A silver coinage, it weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds.  One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii.”[2]  One denarius was a subsistence wage for a day’s labor, the wage a peasant would earn for a full day’s labor if he were lucky enough to find employment.  That means that a peasant might earn one talent 16 or 17 years – if they don’t take any Sabbath days of rest.

If you worked 8 hours a day for 365 days a year (no Sabbath days of rest) at California’s current minimum wage,[3] for 16½ years, you’d earn something over half a million dollars.  That means the eight talents in the story represent over $4 million.  And this is just the money he wants these three slaves to take care of while he’s gone.  This story is about a man with a lot of money!

The first two slaves double their master’s money.  A domesticated interpretation of this parable lauds these slaves, though this feat would have elicited disgust from Jesus’ first century audience.  They knew all too well how the Imperial economy works, and who suffers as a result.  The parable doesn’t say how long the master is away, but with compounded interest it would take 6 years to double the money at 12%.  I’ve read[4] that in Jesus’ day, 12% was the highest legal interest rate and I wasn’t able to confirm if interest was compounded or not.

More likely than expecting his audience to know the rule of 72[5] to calculate how long it takes to double an investment, Jesus knew that they knew the story of how the rich get so rich in the Empire’s economy.  The large landowners made loans to peasant small landowners based on speculation about future crop production.  With high interest rates and possibilities of poor weather conditions, farmers were often unable to make their payments and faced foreclosure.  Once in control of the land, the new owner could continue raking in the money by hiring laborers to farm cash crops.  (This process of economic exploitation and wealth accumulation is all too recognizable in today’s global economy.)

In the parable, the first two of the master’s slaves do this profitable dirty work all too well.  In the Empire’s economy, people who make money like these first two slaves are extolled.  These slaves are seen as “good stewards” of the master’s resources.  The third slave is seen as “unproductive” and a failure.

But in God’s economy, there is such a thing as too much and too little.  It is an economy based on abundance and self-restraint, not scarcity and greed.  When we only gather up what we need and share the rest, there really is enough for everyone.  God’s economy recognizes this.

When you look at the parable through the lens of Sabbath economics, the third slave is, in fact, the hero.

When the master returns to settle accounts, he says the same thing to the first two slaves:  “Well done, good and trustworthy slave … enter into the joy of your master.”  When we hear the parable allegorically, we hear an invitation to enter heavenly bliss.  But rub that hearing out of your ears and hear it how I think it would have been heard by people around Jesus.  These two slaves get promotions (“I will put you in charge of many thing”), but at the same time they’re reminded that they are still slaves.  They are still stuck in a system that uses the have-nots so the haves can have more.

Then we turn to the third slave.  Jesus’ audience knows what’s going to happen to a slave that doesn’t play the game.  But before he has to face the music, he gets to be a whistle-blower.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  He unmasks the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the toil of others.  The master profits from the backbreaking labor of those who work the land.

Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, the third slave took the money out of circulation where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.  He repudiates the system, giving the talent back to his master with a curt, “Here, you have what is yours.”

I wonder how many people heard Jesus tell this story and thought, “I wish I could do that.  I wish I could speak truth to power.”  And they would have understood this third slave’s fear.  He’s about to meet the prophet’s fate.

I find it interesting that the master does not refute the third slave’s analysis of his world.  The master simply castigates him as “evil and lazy,” the favorite slur of the rich toward those who don’t play the game.  In suggesting that the slave could have at least gotten the market rate by investing it, the master reveals that he’s not interested in “what is my own.”  He appreciates only appreciation.

He then turns to make an example of the third slave, dispossessing him and giving the spoils to his obedient colleague, in order to illustrate how the “real” world works:  “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.”

The consequence of the third slave’s noncooperation with the Empire’s economy is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Traditionally, we assume that means he’s sent to hell.  And so perhaps he is.  Just not a hell that comes after this life.  No, he is sent to the hell that so many on earth experience, rejected by the dominant culture, exploited and rejected by the economy of the Empire.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by the famous story of judgment that suggests that we meet the Christ by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  In other words, in the places where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The whistle-blower’s punishment may dispossess him of material things, but it brings him closer to Christ.

When I posted this story[6] from The Washington Post on Facebook Friday night, I didn’t realize I was thinking about today’s sermon.  By Saturday morning, I did.  The headline does a good job of summarizing the story.  Greta Lindecrantz, a 67-year-old white woman, is in jail for contempt of court.  Her contempt?  She refuses to testify in a criminal appeal.

She refuses to testify because the State of Colorado is seeking to kill the defendant.  The case is an appeal of a death sentence, and the prosecution wants Lindecrantz to testify on their behalf, to testify supporting their efforts to have the death sentence stand.  Lindecrantz, a Mennonite, is refusing to testify because she refuses to help the state kill the defendant.  Mennonites, a small denomination in Christianity, have opposed the death penalty since their founding in the 1500s.

Some are interpreting the court’s decision to jail Lindecrantz as an attempt to break her will, to make her violate her conscience, to make her abandon her faith.

The case raises some interesting questions for me.  These questions have nothing to do with the specifics of the case.  The questions are about me.  The chief question is this:  Am I willing to go to jail for refusing to participate in a system that I believe violates the gospel of Jesus Christ?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching on how the Imperial economy is not the Sabbath economy God’s desires for us.  I have insinuated that the economy of the United States is closer to an Imperial economy than a Sabbath economy.  Like ancient Imperial economics, ours was built on slavery.  And while we may no longer have legal slavery, minimum wage is not a living wage, and the racism that justified slavery is still at work, disenfranchising people of color and imprisoning people of color at staggeringly disproportionate rates.

The Imperial economies of the ancient world put huge portions of wealth in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population.  Here in the United States, the wealthiest one percent of the population owns 40% of the country’s wealth.[7]  That’s more wealth than the bottom 90% own.

The wealthiest 1% of the population controls more wealth than the bottom 90%.

Under Sabbath economics (in pietopia, as the Washington Post calls it), if you have a community of 100 people, everyone gets a slice of pie.  But in the United States, the wealthiest 20% of the population get 4½ slices of pie each.  And the poorest 20% of the population owe a slice of pie to the people at the top.  The average net worth for the bottom 40% of the population is negative.  They owe money.

   

I know all this.  Still, I participate in the system.  I participate in it because I haven’t figured out how to resist it without being cast out to where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And I don’t want to go and live this hell.

Still, the moral conviction of Greta Lindecrantz haunts me.

And I am thinking that it’s time to confront the system with the moral power of our faith.

So, the question our gospel lesson and the news pushes me to wrestle with is this:  Am I willing to go to jail for refusing to participate in a system that I believe violates the gospel of Jesus Christ?

_______________

[1] This sermon is based on Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 38-45.

[2] Brandon Scott, quoted by Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 41-42.

[3] California’s minimum wage for corporations with 26 or more employees is currently $11/hour. See http://www.dir.ca.gov/iwc/mw-2017.pdf.

[4] See Richard Rohrbaugh, “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents/Pounds,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23:1, Spring 1993, pp 32ff; cited by Ched Myers, op cit.

[5] See http://financialplan.about.com/od/personalfinance/qt/Ruleof72.htm.

[6] Meagan Flynn, “Mennonite woman jailed for refusing on religious grounds to testify in death-penalty case,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/01/mennonite-woman-jailed-for-refusing-on-religious-grounds-to-testify-in-death-penalty-case/ (posted 1 March 2018; accessed 2 March 2018).

[7] The following statistics are from Christopher Ingraham, “The richest 1 percent now owns more of the country’s wealth than at any time in the past 50 years,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/06/the-richest-1-percent-now-owns-more-of-the-countrys-wealth-than-at-any-time-in-the-past-50-years/ (posted 6 December 2017; accessed 2 March 2018).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 23, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Genesis 28:10-19
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

We had a red brick walkway that led to the front door of the house I grew up in.  It had been laid decades before I was born and had a few small dips and humps in it, but very little space between the bricks.  And yet, somehow, grass managed to grow between the bricks for about a third of the walk.  Getting sent out to weed the walk always seemed like punishment.  It was boring and there was no shade and the grass hung on tenaciously.  Half the time the stalk of the grass would break, rather than the root, and only on the rarest of occasions was it possible to actually pull out the full grass, root and all.  I suspect I got to weed the front walk because the one time my mother asked me to weed the garden I pulled up the daffodils that had been growing there for years.

The memory of pulling up the daffodils came flooding back as I studied today’s gospel lesson.  It is so easy for the untrained gardener to destroy what is wanted in an effort to extract what is not.  I like the definition of a weed that says, a weed is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it.  I also like the advice, “To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything.  What grows back is weeds.”[1]  This approach to gardening works for me.  Maybe it’s obvious that the characters in the parable I most identify with are the slaves who ask if they should rip out the weeds.

In Matthew’s narrative, this parable comes right after another parable, one that is probably a little more familiar, that is also about seeds.  In that parable, a planter goes scattering seed and the seed falls in four different kinds of soil – on a path; on rocky, shallow soil; on weed-infested soil; and on good soil – and only the seed that fell on the good soil produced grain.  Then Matthew has Jesus explain the meaning of the parable to the disciples.  And right after explaining the parable of the four soils, Matthew has Jesus tell the parable we heard today.  And then a couple short parables, almost aphorisms.  And then Matthew has Jesus explaining today’s parable.

Most biblical scholars think that the explanations are from the early church, not Jesus.  I actually find it reassuring that Matthew includes his explanation (he includes one for the parable of the four soils, too).  I think these parables are pretty obtuse by themselves and the fact that Matthew’s early church community created these explanations is reassuring because it means the early church found them obtuse as well and needing an explanation.  But that’s not too surprising.

Parables are, as David Lose put it, “suggestive, evocative, sometimes disconcerting, offering glimpses into the kingdom of God, but not explanations or definitions.”[2]  Accepting only one explanation of a parable does it a disservice, in my opinion.  So, while they may have captured a meaning of the parable for them in their day, I want to set aside their explanation and see what we can harvest from the parable today.

The first thing that I notice is that farmer is not a sharecropper.  He is rich enough to own slaves, so he probably owns the land as well.  This might not make him part of the 1 percent, but he is part of the top 10 percent.  So, like me, the people listening to Jesus would have identified with the slaves – but for different reasons.  They would have identified with the slaves because 90 percent of the population was peasant class – farm laborers, sharecroppers, day laborers, fishers, miners, construction workers, servants, slaves, the disabled, and the untouchables.[3]

If they identify with the slaves, might they have been rooting (if you’ll pardon the expression) for the weeds?  Having more agricultural sense than I have, could their suggestion to rip up the weeds be subversive, knowing full well that doing so would ruin the crop as well?  So, I’m left wondering, what if the kin-dom of God is like the weeds or the one who sowed the weeds – subversive and undermining the domination system?

Laurel Dykstra says that the weeds sown in this parable are a specific species: darnel.  “Darnel looks very much like wheat when it is immature,” she writes; “its roots intertwine with those of the wheat and its toxic grains are loosely attached to the stem.  The problem of what to do with an infested field does not have a simple solution – pull up the shoots and you pull up the wheat; wait until the harvest and you poison the grain and contaminate next year’s crop with falling seeds.

“For the landless peasants who were Jesus’ audience, the economic loss represented by a contaminated field could mean the death of a child to malnutrition.  To the wealthy landowner in this story, it means loss of profit.  A rich man who imagines that simple bad luck must be the work of some enemy, and who stands to lose only income, might not have been a sympathetic character to peasants.  For him the kingdom of God is a noxious weed.

“The kingdom parables ‘put before us,’ in stark relief, the conditions of life under empire.  The rich risk their profit, the poor their lives and the lives of their children.  The few live in luxury sustained by enmity, scarcity, profit, and accumulation, and they are supported by the labor of those who struggle with poverty and constant vulnerability.”[4]

Another way to look at the parable is to ask, “When have I felt that way?”  I doubt the experience of the servants is foreign to you; it certainly isn’t for me.  I’ve been frustrated when things have gone the way I thought they would.  I’ve thought I’d prepared the soil and planted good seeds (metaphorically speaking) for some plan I have, and then something goes awry.  I want to correct it, like the slaves, to make it right – even if that means risking damage to something important.  It feels like life has ganged up on me, as if some enemy has done this.

I bet you’ve felt the same way at least at some point in your life.  “When the cancer returns, when the job goes away, when the relationship ends, when depression sets in, when addiction robs a loved one (or ourselves) of life, when a congregation is divided, when a loved one’s life is cut short, when war forces thousands to flee as refugees, when the world turns its back on people in need.  At these times, the sense that this world is not what God intended can be almost unbearable, and you don’t have to believe in a red-suited devil with a pointy tail and pitchfork to name the reality of sin, brokenness, and evil in the world.  … [T]he temptation to use this parable to explain evil probably won’t turn out that well.  But can we at least acknowledge [the reality of evil]?

“And, having acknowledged it, can we then also acknowledge that this is not God’s design or desire?

“I have witnessed time and again how difficult it is for many of us to avoid the temptation to explain evil – quite ironically! – by assigning it to some greater plan God supposedly has for us.  ‘Don’t worry, it’s part of God’s plan,’ someone says to another after tragedy.  Or, ‘Don’t worry, God never gives us more than we can handle’ [as if such hardship is something from God].  Or, ‘God’s purpose for this will reveal itself in time.’  All of these words of supposed comfort end up assigning God responsibility for tragedy and brokenness …

“I think one of the things this parable suggests is that God does not will evil for us, not in any way, shape, or form.  That our tragedies are not part of God’s plan.  That God never, ever wants us to suffer.  Rather, according to Paul, ‘God works for the good in all things” for those God loves.’”[5]

“Are there ways to find ‘healing’ amid devastation?  Yes.  Can one be ‘transformed’ by the hell life thrusts upon them?  Absolutely.  [In fact, I believe it is God’s desire that we find healing and transformation when tragedy happens.]  But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve.”[6]  So, rather than these platitudes that end up blaming God for tragedy, we can sit with our friends when the weeds are growing in their crops and simply be, giving them the space to grieve.

It’s important to remember that we don’t all grieve in the same way.  In fact, we don’t necessarily grieve in the same way as we respond to different tragedies.  Different weeds need different ways of dealing with them.  According to Todd Weir who learned cutting weeds at age 13 in Iowa, “A cockle burr had shallow but widespread roots and had to be pulled out to get all the roots.  If you hacked it off at the ground level with a hoe it would be back in a week.  A milkweed had a very long tap root that could not be pulled out.  If you did try to pull it up, three separate sprouts would be back in a week.  Milkweeds had to be hacked off with a hoe and would ‘bleed’ and die as the sap ran out.  If you didn’t handle the weeds right, hours of backbreaking work in the sun would be completely wasted.”[7]

On the other hand, sometimes you can’t tell the weed from the crop.  Or maybe you can tell the difference, but it’s impossible to eradicate the weeds without destroying the crop – as the parable suggests.  “Since good and evil commonly inhabit not only the same field but even the same individual human beings, the only result of a dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.”[8]

If this parable makes you ask, “Am I wheat or weed?” let me tell you the answer.  You’re both.  We all are.  And our church is both wheat and weeds.  We may think we know who’s who, as if one could simply put a sticker on each person’s nametag so we could accurately identify them.  Ooooo.  Weed sticker.  You need to sit in the back on the left.  Wheat?  Up front, on the right, please.[9]

Luckily, God is not only just.  God is also merciful.  So, while we are both wheat and weed, when the final sorting comes, we will be transformed into a bumper crop.

I was walking home from church one day last week when I noticed a blackberry.  I kept walking, maybe a couple steps, when I decided to go back and take a closer look at its beauty, hanging there right next to the sidewalk.  I thought about eating it, but decided instead to just enjoy its berriness.  And I took this picture.

There’s a poem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that includes these lines:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.[10]

I didn’t take off my shoes, but I marveled at the berry’s majesty.  And that night, reflecting on the day, I wondered who would end up communing with God, feasting on the berry’s goodness.  Would some child skipping by pluck its juiciness and feast?  Would some lucky bird or squirrel dine?  Would the berry just revel in its own berriness and eventually go to seed?

On the west side of the mountains in Washington State, blackberries are typically considered a weed.  The climate is, it seems, perfect for them, and if you disturb the ground, they will grow.  And you will spend the rest of your days trying to get rid of them.

Still, they produce these berries…

As I reflect on the parable of the wheat and the weeds, I have one more thought:  In addition to everything else the parable might mean, might it not just be an invitation to notice both the wheat and the weeds, the farmer and the slaves, and see in them both an invitation to an awareness of the presence of God?

Like Jacob at Bethel, as I walked home from church that day, God was there and I didn’t know it – until I stopped and noticed the blackberry.

Amen.

[1] From a sermon illustration that was provided in an email dated 18 July 2017 from sermons.com.

[2] David J. Lose, “Pentecost 7 A: On the Question of Evil,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/07/pentecost-7-a-on-the-question-of-evil/ (posted and accessed 20 July 2017).

[3] See Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 83.

[4] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Seeds and Weeds,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/seeds-and-weeds (accessed 18 July 2017).

[5] Lose, op. cit.

[6] Tim Lawrence, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” The Adversity Within, http://www.timjlawrence.com/blog/2015/10/19/everything-doesnt-happen-for-a-reason (posted 20 October 2015; accessed 15 July 2017).

[7] Todd Weir, “Wheat and Tares,” from the emailed dated 18 July 2017 from sermons.com.

[8] Robert Farrar Capon, quoted by James C. Howell, “Weekly Preaching: July 23, 2017,” MinistryMatters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8303/weekly-preaching-july-23-2017 (posted 19 July 2017; accessed 22 July 2017).

[9] Howell, Ibid.

[10] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “86. From ‘Aurora Leigh’,” Bartleby.com, http://www.bartleby.com/236/86.html (accessed 22 July 2017).

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