Title: Hope buried or planted?
Date: Nov. 16, 2008
Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Author: Ryan Koch
Chiapas, the southern most state in Mexico. To many, Chiapas might seem like one of the last under-explored, abandoned areas in the Western world. For those trying to picture the size of Chiapas, it’s about the size of South Carolina. As for it’s beauty, the mountainous landscape is stunning. There are Mayan ruins, hundreds of waterfalls, and in fact, the diversity of wildlife rivals no other area in Mexico. And if you want to get to Chiapas, only three roads will take you there.
But don’t let this under-development fool you, for hundreds of years, Chiapas has been one of the most exploited regions of the world. The Lacandon Jungle, the last significant rain-forest in Mexico, is flourishing with natural resources. For this reason, corporations have plundered it’s oil, natural gas, uranium, and exotic wood. More than 80% of the forest has been destroyed. Now that the oil and timber are running out, biodiversity and water are being exploited instead. Since over 40% of the water in Mexico is found in Chiapas, mega-corporations like Coca Cola have moved in to capitalize on this resources as well.
Not surprisingly, the majority of people in Chiapas have not seen the benefits from this exploitation. But, they have vividly experienced the side effects. 50% of the population suffers from malnutrition, and this figure is nearly 80% in the Lacandon Jungle. Over 70% of the children don’t finish first grade. Each year 15,000 indigenous individuals die of curable diseases while the Mexican government, the Western world pretends not to notice the blood. Instead, they continue to rape the land, lusting after the financial opportunities available.
Everything changed in Chiapas on January 1st, 1994. In response to the U.S. Government signing NAFTA, a group of indigenous people cried out Enough is Enough! Before NAFTA the one thing the indigenous people had was their land. Now, the community lands were yanked from the peasants, and American corporations were given access to resource-rich Chiapas. In response, a group called the Zapatistas took up arms declaring war on globalization. While by no means do I support their use of violence, tonight I wish to use the experiences of the Zapatistas to illuminate the parable of the talents.
Ultimately, I believe both stories are describing the same economic reality of the world which we live in. Let me read it again:
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, each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who 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. But the one who received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master came and settled accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; I have made five more.’ 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 came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; I have made two more.’ 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 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. 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. Take the talent from him, and give it to the one with ten talents. For to 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.
Here we have one of the most familiar texts in the New Testament. I’ve heard countless sermons usually on stewardship Sunday when the pastor urges the faithful to be grateful for God’s gifts, to use these gifts responsibly, and of course, to give to the church on behalf of God’s work. Individuals are called to be good stewards of their finances so that the church and God are glorified. So invest, spend, and use your money wisely.
Yet, the more I read this story, the more disturbed I am with this reading. Traditionally we equate God with the Master in the story. If we do this, the picture is unsettling. Here God is an absent land-lord who not only owns an extremely large piece of land, but owns slaves. And which slaves are faithful? Only, the slaves that maximize profit, that double their Master’s money. But the slave who abuses the master’s property, who resists the Master’s wishes is wicked. What about the Master’s character in the story? Here we find him as hard-hearted and ruthless for he sends the slave into darkness for failing to make more money.
But these are not my only concerns. The story seems to promote ruthless business practices and the view that the rich get richer while the poor become more destitute. Lastly, the story encourages usury for the Master states that the slave should have at least earned interest with the bankers. This should give us a hint that something different is going on here. For the Old Testament on numerous occasions speaks out against usury. Take for example Deut. 23.19 which proclaims: Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else. Yet the master, God, is telling the slave to make interest? How can this be? (Pause)
For these reasons, the traditional reading of this parable disturbs me. Even more unsettling is that this reading supports following the status-quo of our culture, it upholds a capitalistic world that allows us to make as much money as we can in order that we can be more productive. And like our culture, this reading diminishes anyone who is lazy and unproductive. Is it possible that living in our Western world has skewed our reading of this text and we have read it backwards?
So tonight, I wish to offer a different reading. Instead of looking at this parable as one specifying the behaviors necessary to inherit the Kingdom of God, what if this story describes the concrete realities of everyday life. What if Jesus is unmasking the oppressive economic realities of the world we live in?
If this is the case, let’s presume that the master is not God, but a powerful patriarch of the ancient world. We know that this man has an extravagant amount of money for a talent equals 6,000 denarii and a denarius represents a days wage. The landowner then gives an excessive amount of money to his slaves so that they can make huge returns on his wealth, so that they do the profitable dirty work for him.
Now usually, we read the first two managerial slaves as the faithful ones and we spiritualize the parable so that those who use God’s gifts appropriately are allowed to enter into heavenly bliss. But on a plain level, while the slaves may receive a promotion, the master still states: “Well done good and faithful slaves.” They are still slaves. And what reward do they get? They are given the power to make even more money for their master. In this regard, the two obedient slaves should be seen as the ultimate slaves. While the master makes them feel like they have power and influence, their actions demonstrate that they are completely dominated. All they do is follow the status-quo, they replicate their master’s wishes.
But the third slave acts differently. Rather than trying to turn his talent into another one, he buries it into the ground. While this action may seem odd to us, it is important that Jesus’ audience primarily consisted of farmers. Here we see some of Jesus’ humor. Farmers know that true wealth comes from God, the source of the rain, sunshine, seed, and soil. But here the slave plants the talent into the ground, and what happens. Nothing, nothing grows, the talent produces no fruit. (Pause)
The third slave is challenging the currency based system. By burying the talent, the slave states that money doesn’t grow the natural way, like a seed sprouting from the soil. No, money grows through participating in the oppressive system which exploits people. So the third slave refuses to participate. Instead the slave stands up to the power of the master and buries the talent in the ground to take the money out of circulation. Is this not why the slave proclaims: you are a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you did not spread seed? Here the slave calls out the powerful landowner exclaiming that his practices are exploiting the labor of others. Kinda sounds like the corporations taking advantage of Chiapas, doesn’t it?
After courageously speaking truth to power, the slave fearfully gives the talent back. And this fear is understandable. The slave knows that punishment results from standing up to the powers, the rich landowners. And he is correct, the master banishes the slave to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Now, typically we think of the weeping and gnashing of teeth as hell. But what if the outer darkness is a form of exile for those unwilling to cooperate, those who do not fit the mold of the dominate culture?
And I think this is especially likely given that the next parable is the famous story of the sheep and the goats. In this parable where do we meet Christ? We surely don’t find Christ as a wealthy landowner who has slaves. Instead we find Christ in the abandoned places of society. To those asking where did we meet you, Jesus says: “I was hungry, you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, you invited me in; I needed clothes, you clothed me; I was sick, you looked after me; I was in prison, you came to visit me.” Jesus can be found with the people rejected by the dominate culture. Would not the third slave be exactly the type of person Jesus says he could be found with?
Furthermore, isn’t Jesus, like the slave, the one willing to stand up to power? Isn’t Jesus the one who was willing to unmask the exploitative economic and political practices of his day? Jesus constantly challenged the Pharisees and Scribes, the religious and political leaders. And where did this willingness to stand up to power lead him? He is considered a threat, a terrorist who could disrupt the order of Israel. So, the political leaders sentence him to weeping and gnashing of teeth on the cross.
As I mentioned before, it is important to see this parable as descriptive, it describes the world that we live in. In my opinion, this is the world that the Zapatistas are trying to unmask for us – individuals of privilege, individuals who are implemented in this exploitative economy whether we want to be or not. (pause)
On the day President Clinton signed NAFTA, January 1st, 1994, the Zapatistas proclaimed Enough is Enough! They took up arms, they took over San Cristobal and a few neighboring towns. But they didn’t rise up to seek power. They rose up simply to say, “We are Here.” They wanted to send a message to the leaders that the forgotten indigenous populations of Mexico, those exploited for 500 years, are also entitled to political and civil rights. Like the third slave, they stood up to power, they made themselves present. Yet, twelve days after taking over San Cristobal, they declared a cease-fire and gave the town back. They made their statement. They exposed to the world the realities of the Mexican government and how the passing of this bill allowed the corporate interests of Europe and United States to enslave them.
But thats not all. The Zapatistas decided to resist aid from the government and the multinational corporations. They didn’t want the riches’ talents. Instead, they sought to develop their communal and economic life from the land they occupy. And much like the third slave and also Jesus, they knew that standing up to the powers would lead the military to attempt to isolate and destroy their lives. Let me read you these words coming from the Zapatista leader, Marco Subcomandante on the day they gave back the towns and retreated to the mountains:
The government doesn’t want democracy in our land. We will accept nothing that comes from the rotting heart of the government, not a single coin nor a single dose of medication, not a single stone nor a single grain of food. We will not accept the handouts that the government offers in exchange for our dignity. We will not take anything from the supreme government. Although they increase our pain and sorrow, although death may accompany us, although we may see others selling themselves to the hand that oppresses them, although everything may hurt and sorrow may cry out from the rocks, we will not accept anything. We will resist.
What the third slave and the Zapatistas remind us, is that our economy feeds off of violence and exploitation. It’s history is full of bloodshed. And the harsh truth is that we benefit from those violences, when we earn money, invest it and spend it. What are we to do about this? Let me conclude with two stories about church budget meetings.
So this summer, as many of you know, I worked in one of the largest Methodist churches in the state. The church is located in one of the richest cities in the Michigan and this church epitomized the wealth of the area. I mean there budget is multi-millions and they even have a tithing program where you could tithe stock from your portfolios to help with tax gains. Steve I’m sure you are happy that our church doesn’t have those capabilities.
So around my eighth week, I attended a budgetary meeting. To my surprise I had only met one of these men during my time at the church. So as I went around introducing myself, I heard where each of these men work. Almost all were CFO’s or significant financial advisers for the largest corporations in Detroit.
During the meeting, everyone discussed the economic slowdown looming. They knew that this church was headed for hard times, that precautionary measures were necessary for the church to stay out of the red. The 31 million dollars in assets weren’t enough for the board members to risk weathering through the storm. It was as if I was attending a business’ annual meeting. Their primary focus was the bottom line. While no conclusions were reached, the board supported freezing the budget, offering no pay increases, and even pay cuts for some. This church was intricately interconnected to the ebbs and flows of our economy.
A few months ago, we had our own budgetary meeting, and honestly, this was one of the most hopeful experiences I’ve had in months. Here we were, recently committed to making Isaac ¾ time, and yet we still valued taking on an intern, me and this put us in the red. Then we discussed Isaac’s retirement fund, or lack there of. As a congregation we decided that Isaac and Katie’s future is important to us. So we agreed to further tap into our reserves, not knowing where this action would lead us. But, we didn’t want our financial situation to dictate our decisions either.
And then, my favorite part of the meeting was when someone noticed that we had taken out of our budget money for the quilts for newborns. Because of the high cost of the quilts and due to the fact that some here have done a good job fulfilling the command to be fruitful and multiply, we realized that continuing this practice would be quite costly. Yet, as we discussed this practice, as a congregation we concluded that giving quilts for newborns was a meaningful act that had been practiced since the inception of the community. Here we decided to risk going further in the red over something that our world deems insignificant – Quilts. We are even willing to spend more money on quilts hand-made by fellow Mennonites instead of cheap ones made in some exploited region.
This gives me hope. These actions reminds me that we have not completely given ourselves over to the demands of our exploitative economy. We are not completely like the two slaves whose identities are wrapped up in making more money for their Masters. Instead, we are attempting to find ways to disrupt our society’s economic practices by using money as a tool to support our common life and the lives of our friends. This gives me hope. Amen.
1Much of these statistics are taken from Subcomandante Marco’s letter “A Storm and a Prophecy: Chiapas: The Southeast in Two Winds” written August 1992, released publicly January 27, 1994.
2This sermon is greatly indebted to Jeff Nelson, associate pastor at Birmingham First United Methodist. His unpublished paper “Hope Buried or Planted?” is the framework for this sermon. Numerous conversations from the summer of 2008 on Matthew 25 also formed my thoughts on this passage.
3Jennifer Glancy presents a haunting critique of Christianity and Slavery in Slavery in Early Christianity, in the fourth chapter she focuses on slavery in the saying of Jesus an how Jesus seems to be upholding a status-quo understanding of slavery. Her critiques are in the background of my questions.
4Ched Myers, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics See in particular pages 40-45 where he deals in depth with this parable.
5Here I am drawing substantially on the work of Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. In particular see his 11th chapter on the Ultimate Slave, it is truly haunting work where Patterson argues that free slaves who are given power are really the most dominated slaves because all they do is recapitulate the desires and wishes of the master. Their freedom is a false freedom. This definitely seems to be the case in this parable for the two subservient slaves.