Scripture introduction for Matthew 25:14-25. The lesson for today is the very familiar Parable of the Talents. Very familiar but over-interpreted. The 25th chapter of Matthew contains 3 parables, which are called the Parables of Judgment because the conflict is reaching its climax, and Jesus wants to portray the consequential nature of the Gospel. Know that a “talent” was worth 30 pounds of gold, by approximate estimates of the scholars. It is only used to measure wealth at the scale of rulers or monarchs. So right away Jesus’ listeners knew that the characters were not people banking, and we should know to put this parable into the “fairy-tale” category. So what meaning for real people does that leave us with?
What is wealth?
I. What is wealth? Where does wealth come from? How does it grow, and spread? Who owns wealth? Does wealth belong to anyone? Why? Could wealth be something held by a person in trust for all? Is wealth real? Don’t we all have to agree something has value in order for someone to be wealthy? Isn’t wealth just some trees and minerals and grain in another form? Don’t those who had a hand in changing that form have a share in that changed form?
I worked on an assembly line of a John Deere factory in East Moline, IL, one summer in college. Down the conveyor belt came former trees and minerals that had been transformed into wires, cables, and engine parts by somebody. I was the next somebody who put together all the electrical parts of the engine, which days before were trees and minerals, so that it would run. Somebody further down the line would put gasoline that once had been a mile underground in the form of oil into a tank, that permitted the engine to pull a plow made of steel, formerly iron ore, that could turn over the soil to plant seeds from which would grow the grain we would later eat out of a cereal box.
All wealth comes from Nature plus Labor, but there is an extra ingredient in there. Can you name it? I think the extra ingredient is Necessity. Necessity, we are told, is the mother of invention, and it is dire necessity that drives our will to provide food and shelter for ourselves. We have to make something to sell or we don’t have cash to buy what we need. What’ll we make, who will buy it? Let’s grow something, or manufacture it, steal it, or work for someone who does these things. We can sell our time, or the labor of our bodies, even our own bodies. We are our own most saleable natural resource.
In the face of disaster or possible disaster, human beings have resorted to all kinds of desperate schemes. Beginning with the Industrial and the post-Industrial era, with population expanding and land shrinking, mass societies had mass needs that necessitated mass solutions. Enter: the corporation–it’s a story, like many a horror story, wherein a nice young man turns into a vampire. At their inception in the 17th century, corporations were conceived for a given project, for a stipulated time, with particular participants. The charter was reviewed regularly and expired with the project. But one day, actually it was in 1886, corporations were accorded a status as a person by the U.S. Supreme Court, thus to hold a status in perpetuity as a person which shielded the persons in charge from culpability for error or malfeasance. The corporation is accountable externally to the law, of course, but internally it was only to the stockholders and the bottom line. Then the issues became productivity, market share, and the bottom line. Competition is good because it drives prices down, but competition also drives false economies in labor and natural resources and creates products utterly unnecessary to a society.
I’m not engaging in corporation bashing here this morning, although it may sound like I am. Principally because, not all young men turn into vampires. Nevertheless, corporations are as susceptible to sin as any persons are. And since corporations sought the status of persons and got it, they must come under the same judgment that persons before God do, just as the three servants in the Parable this morning do. I’ll come back to them momentarily.
About the same time I had that job in the John Deere factory, a movie came out about a guy who just came home to his graduation party, and a man takes him aside and tells him, in very personal and confidential tones, “One word, son, one word–plastics.” The movie, you will recall, was “The Graduate.” It makes practically a straight line from that opening scene to the picture on the cover of your bulletin this morning. How did that happen? Very little social accountability. They know it, they say it, they are proud of it. It took Mother (Mary Harris) Jones to go out in the 1870s and 80s and 90s to the coal fields of John D. Rockefeller to exhort the miners to fight the low wages and dangerous working conditions. She became known as the “most dangerous woman in America” at the time. A hundred years later, Senator Elizabeth Warren earned the title “most dangerous woman in America” for daring to insist on consumer protection laws and start a consumer protection agency. In between there were the Norma Rae’s, the Karen Silkwoods, Erin Brockovich, Naomi Klein, and Michael Moore who documented other real-life versions of them.
II. I know it’s a “catch as catch can” world that demands of business people ingenuity, innovation, extemporizing, improvising, risking, imagining, praying, collaborating, cajoling, some conning, unfortunately a lot of conning of consumers, investors, and lawmakers–. But when “catch as catch can” becomes a “catch me if you can” world, in other words, the world of Enron, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and Donald Trump, when hutzpah rises and scruples drop, we have a right to claim self-defense and demand a reprieve from this Babylonian captivity. There is nothing wrong with capitalism that a little government regulation and a lot of biblical self-regulation wouldn’t fix.
Corporate America has fed and clothed and fueled and armed and overmedicated the country, all the while betraying investors, employees, customers and the whole community–particularly in its obstructiveness about the environment. What to do about it all–at this late stage it has to be through the law and the lawmakers. Nothing short of the Vote will be sufficient. Please follow the CREATION JUSTICE MINISTRY of Eliot Church as it unfolds during Lent toward Earth Day.
We need to reclaim our identity as citizens, and Christian citizens at that. When Pope Francis proclaims that nothing short of an ecological conversion is called for, he means a conversion rooted in Christ’s Gospel, as you heard this morning. If you want to apply this parable to corporate performance, remember that the referent of “talent” is the love of God, which only lives in multiplication. This little playlet of Jesus should prompt us to think of the uselessness of unfaith, the needlessness of fear, the superabundance of love, and the joy of fulfilling our responsibilities. Jesus teaches not proselytizing, but multiplying. This parable does not tell you to be either an investor or an evangelist, but to become a big risk taker for the sake of others. John Chrysostom (d. 407 CE) wrote about this parable, “All must use all possessions, material or spiritual, for the good of others. Let us offer all things–wealth, knowledge, influence–for the benefit of our neighbor. Here, those things are called talents that are within the power of a person.”
If we don’t heed Christ, we are warned in all three of those Parables of Judgement in the 25th chapter of Matthew, that we will end up in a straight-jacket like Dabney Coleman in “9 to 5,” cast into outer darkness for the lack of the love of God at the hands of Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin. Dabney Coleman’s character simply lacked the courage of the gospel to resist the corporation-man mentality.
If we ask all this of corporations, and churches are corporations, too, non-profit ones, we should ask how we at Eliot Church measure up on the moral conversion scale. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE) challenged his clergy to ask themselves, did they expend the talents of God wholeheartedly in their preaching, almsgiving, intercession, and advocacy? That would be a perfect question to guide an Interim Minister review–do I take the risks for Christ I could or should in my ministry? And how about the congregation–do your hearts overflow with the gospel for all people, in how you articulate yourselves, in how generous you are, in your prayer life and in your public demonstration? That’s for you to say. And you'll have that chance next Sunday when we call for a dialogue following Worship to learn what it might mean to be faithful as a SMALL CHURCH.
What is wealth? Where does wealth come from? How does it grow, and spread? Who owns wealth? Does wealth belong to anyone? Why? Could wealth be something held by a person in trust for all? Is wealth real? Don’t we all have to agree something has value in order for someone to be wealthy? Isn’t wealth just some trees and minerals and grain in another form? Don’t those who had a hand in changing that form have a share in that changed form? Let love abound that life be enriched!