Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Un-kingdom of the Un-god (11/21/2010)

The Un-kingdom of the Un-god
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Jesus the Un-king Sunday
November 21st, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 3:18-22 

Jesus would advise them, “Be as sly as snakes and as simple as doves.”

Jesus used to recommend, “Be passersby.”

Jesus would say, “Struggle to get in through the narrow door; I’m telling you, many will try to get in, but won’t be able.”

Jesus said, “When you are about to appear with your opponent before the magistrate, do your best to settle with him on the way, or else he might drag you up before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the jailer, and the jailer throw you into prison. I tell you, you’ll never get out of there until you’ve paid every last red cent.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 25. Thomas 39:3; 42; Matthew 5:25-26; 7:13-14; 10:16; Luke 12:58-59.

The Un-kingdom of the Un-god is a phrase I borrowed from the late Robert Funk in his book, 
A Credible Jesus. Funk points out that Christian tradition turned the human Jesus into an oriental monarch. We even give him a special Sunday, Christ the King.
I do like this poem by Muriel Spark, "The Three Kings". I used it during last year’s Christmas Eve service.
Where do we go from here? 
We left our country,
Bore gifts,
Followed a star.
We were questioned.
We answered.
We reached our objective.
We enjoyed the trip.
Then we came back by a different way.
And now the people are demonstrating in the streets.
They say they don't need the Kings any more.
They did very well in our absence.
Everything was all right without us.
They are out on the streets with placards:
Wise Men? What's wise about them?
There are plenty of Wise Men,
And who needs them? -and so on.
Perhaps they will be better off without us,
But where do we go from here?
We don’t hear too much about kings these days. Of course we do hear of dictators and warlords. Saudi Arabia has the House of Saud. They are a bit problematic, really. We don’t want to look too closely at human rights violations. It is their culture after all, we rationalize. Besides, whoever controls the oil spigot gets to be king. At least for a while. 

Of course there is the British royal family. I listened with mild amusement while NPR spoke about the upcoming wedding between Prince William and Kate “the commoner” Middleton. They still use that term, “commoner”. 

Writing in the L.A. Times, Michael McGough says that the antics of the royal family and of Hollywood celebrities in the United States are similar. For us, the joys and travails of the beautiful people in the tabloids and corporate news networks provide distraction from the news to which we ought to be paying attention. Perhaps the royal family does the same for the British citizenry. 

The royal family is symbolic to be sure. The queen doesn’t really run the navy. “But” says 
…symbolic or not, the monarchy enshrines in law a distinction between commoners and those who owe their prominence, not to mention their fortunes, to bloodlines. At least Hollywood stars earn their celebrity -- sometimes anyway.
The smart way is to have all the characteristics of Empire, and to keep those fortunes flowing for the privileged, while officially not being an Empire. It is to pretend to democracy but only offer choices that essentially are the same. Such as…
  • Two political parties that have little more than superficial differences.
  • Three or four corporate food producers that control virtually all food production.
  • Three or four energy corporations that control extraction and supply of energy.
  • Three or four media corporations that control virtually all media, which in turn is funded and whose message is provided by these other corporations.
Then provide virtually unlimited funding and access to elected officials by these corporations while distracting the populace with celebrity puff and infotainment, and you have won the day. 

You have sealed the deal.
 Give yourself a crown. It is American Empire that pretends otherwise. 

Boy preacher, you are meddlin’ this morning.

It is Christ the King Sunday. What am I supposed to do? 

It is in this world of empire that Jesus appeared. Different names, same Empire. 

The gospels are stories of conflict. The conflict is between Jesus and the authorities. The conflict ends in his torture and execution at the hand of established authority that is Empire. You can’t get any more political than that. 

According to these early rabble-rousers, the Gospel story does not end there.

The early followers of Jesus had the chutzpa to say that Empire did not win the day even though it had executed their hero, their un-king. They cobbled together metaphors (such as “getting up” from the dead, son of God, Lord and Savior, Peace, and Gospel). They took these metaphors that the Roman Emperor had used for himself and with tongue in cheek applied them to Jesus, this “peasant with an attitude” as Dominic Crossan calls him.

They said funny things like…

Jesus is the anointed one! 
Jesus is son of God.
Jesus’ message of “God favors the poor” is Gospel.
Jesus “got up” from the dead and is among us.
Jesus is Emperor and Savior.
Jesus offers peace but not as Empire gives.
All of this strange juxtaposition, this odd and creatively subversive application of the honorific titles of Caesar to Jesus, helped our early heroes resist the dehumanizing forces of Empire’s boot. They found dignity and power. They found community and with that support and alternative to Empire.

It is certainly true that empires and kingdoms and governments and institutions (including the institutional church) since that time have found ways to use Jesus to serve their interests.

They turned him into a king, who acts like a dictator, letting some people into his kingdom and sending others (most?) to hell. 

And this King Jesus has been used to justify, sanctify, and promote

  • inquisitions,
  • the oppression of women,
  • slavery,
  • religious intolerance,
  • wars for profit, resources, and territory,
  • fundamentalism,
  • persecution of Jews,
  • persecution of Muslims,
  • persecution of heretical Christians,
  • persecution of indigenous people,
  • persecution of gays,
  • psychic damage,
  • guilt,
  • shame,
  • superstition,
  • the squelching of doubt,
  • the silencing of science,
  • the abuse of Earth,
  • really tacky bumper stickers, and
  • bad praise songs.

And now the people are demonstrating in the streets. 
They say they don't need the Kings any more.
They did very well in our absence.
Everything was all right without us.
That’s right. We don’t need kings. Even King Jesus.

Instead, we are discovering and reclaiming Jesus the un-king. 

While all of this kingdom making has been happening over the centuries, at the same time there has been a prophetic voice that has been a voice for what Matthew Fox calls a Creation-Centered ethic. 

This is the voice of

  • Jesus the nobody.
  • Jesus the peasant.
  • Jesus the bullied.
  • Jesus the friend of Earth.
  • Jesus the healer.
  • Jesus the way of non-violence.
  • Jesus the gatherer of the outcast.
  • Jesus the teller of truth.
  • Jesus the voice of peace and compassion.
  • Jesus the way of justice and sustainability.

That is the voice we need to hear and to follow today.

This voice is not loud. It is barely audible. It surfaces then goes under again.
It is a voice that is sly as a snake and simple as a dove.It is a voice that learns how to settle with opponents rather than to be put in their prisons.(Although, it doesn’t always learn). 
It is a voice with patience.
It knows of change. 
This too shall pass so be a passerby.
It is a voice that speaks of the way of peace that is a narrow door few can enter because the broad path of violence looks so easy, tempting, and obvious.
It is a voice of parable and subtlety that stuns the mind and disturbs the soul.
  • It was heard in the cadences of Martin Luther King Jr.’s preaching.
  • It was heard in the edgy wisdom of Dorothy Day.
  • It is heard in the beat of an African djembe.
  • It is heard in the songs of women in the Congo.
  • It is heard in the songs of birds,
  • in the crash of waves,
  • in the words of poets, like Mary Oliver, who writes:

At the edge of the ocean I have heard this music before, saith the body.
It is the voice of the body, of bodies, of bodies diseased and beaten, of bodies tortured for greed and profit, of bodies who no longer have voices, but whose voice we hear from those who courageously carry their memory in their bodies.
It is a voice that says no to greed and lies and yes to life, yes to sharing, yes to cooperation, and yes to forgiveness. 

All over Earth, if we listen, we can hear the voice of Jesus the un-king. Known in many forms, known beyond all religions. Underneath the din and the noise of Empire, Jesus the un-king speaks peace.

The writer of John's Gospel heard this voice and repeated it in his own refrain. For him, he heard Jesus the un-king say:

Peace I give to you. Not as the world gives—not as Empire gives—not as the military machine gives—not as the profit and loss statement gives. Peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.
Peace. Peace. Peace. Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Jesus' Family Values (11/14/2010)

Jesus’ Family Values
John Shuck

November 14, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 11:1-18 

Then he goes home, and once again a crowd gathers, so they could not even grab a bite to eat. When his relatives heard about it, they came to get him. (You see, they thought he was out of his mind.) Many folks were saying, “He’s out of his mind and crazy. Why pay attention to him?”

Then his mother and his brothers arrive. While still outside, they send in and ask for him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they say to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside looking for you.”

In response he says to them: “My mother and brothers—who ever are they?”

And looking right at those seated around him in a circle, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother!”

Once when hordes of people were traveling with him, he turned and addressed them: “If any of you comes to me and does not hate your own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life—you’re no disciple of mine.”

Then he left that place and he comes to his hometown, and his disciples follow him. When the Sabbath day arrived, he started teaching in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astounded and said so: “Where’s he getting this?” and “What’s the source of this wisdom?” and “Who gave him the right to perform such miracles? This is the carpenter, isn’t it? Isn’t he Mary’s son? And who are his brothers, if not James and Judas and Simon? And who are his sisters, if not our neighbors?” and they were resentful of him.

Jesus used to tell them: “No prophet goes without respect, except in his home turf and among his relatives and at home!”

He was unable to perform a single miracle there, except that he did cure a few by laying hands on them. And he used to go around the villages, teaching them.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 53-57. Mark 3:20-21, 31-35; 6:1-6; John 10:20; Luke 14:25-26; Matthew 10:37; 12:46-50; 13:54-58; Thomas 55:1; 101:1-2

I am not an expert on family systems. The most obvious statement in the world is the following:

Families are difficult.

While many politicians and religious figures claim to be all in favor of family values, I wonder if those sentiments are little more than sloganeering. That is especially true when these same family values groups seek to set policy and pass laws that make it harder for some families.

It is even more curious when these family values groups attempt to base their ideology on the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. Jesus in particular. Here is a guy who left his family and lived with a bunch of men begging around the countryside. He urged his followers to leave their families. In fact he is reported to have said:
If any of you comes to me and does not hate your own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life—you’re no disciple of mine.”
I don’t think I have ever seen that verse of scripture on any Mother’s Day greeting card at Walgreen’s.

For mom on her day, a message from Jesus.

I am not an expert on family systems. That should make me less interested in judging others’ families.

Families are difficult.

We should be kind. We should be helpful.

My personal story is a fortunate story. I was lucky to be raised in a loving family that provided for me food, shelter, education, stability, and emotional strength. It was and is a loving family.   I like to think I passed some of that good on to my current family. From my life experience and from interacting with others in the ministry I know that families are very different from each other. All families, even the good ones, have their stuff.

So we should be kind.
Kind to ourselves.
Kind to others as we do not know what they received or did not receive from their families.
Kind (as we can be) to our own family members.

We should be kind as a society to families however they are configured.
  • There is no absolute stamp from heaven that says this is what a family should be.
  • Or...conversely, no stamp from heaven declaring that this is what a family should not be.
  • There is no absolute stamp from heaven that says this person does not deserve happiness or love.
We need families. Whether they are families based on kinship or families of choice, it is wise to be as connected as we can.

There are a couple of things to be said about Jesus and families.

The first is that Jesus did want to strengthen families.

This is from Richard Horsley,
Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor:

Contrary to recent individualist constructions of Jesus as having called his disciples to leave family and village to pursue an itinerant individual lifestyle, the Gospel sources portray Jesus as having sent his disciples into villages to work at the renewal of family and community. In Mark, Jesus repeatedly visits villages or “towns” and places” in Galilee and surrounding areas. Almost in passing, as if it would be obvious, Mark has Jesus teaching and healing in the village assemblies….’ P. 135
When Jesus and his disciples go into villages to heal, cast out demons, and teach, they are doing what we might call today, community organizing. They are helping the village peasantry bond together, resist oppression, and survive economic pressures.

Whenever Jesus does a healing in the gospels, the point is not magical curing of disease, it is about restoring people to community and to family.

The second thing about Jesus and the family is flexibility.

The things that stress families then and now are often pressures from the outside such as economic pressures. The more rigid a structure is when under pressure the more likely it is to crack and break. The more malleable and flexible the more likely it is to bend and to remain strong.

When I counsel couples who wish to be married or have a holy union service, I have them take a relationship inventory. We send it off to Minnesota where the computer evaluates it and send it back. It is a very helpful tool. Through it we talk about communication, conflict, finances, and so forth, those things that make up relationships.

We also look at family of origin issues. One set of questions helps the couple evaluate flexibility and closeness in terms of both their family of origin and in their current relationship.   Flexibility relates to how a family makes decisions and adapts to change. The optimum place on the scale is between rigidity on one side and no structure at all on the other.

Then the couple thinks back on their family of origin and I ask them to name some things that they want to keep from their family of origin and some things they want to let go or leave behind. A strong word for that might be hate.

When Jesus said:
"If any of you comes to me and does not hate your own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life—you’re no disciple of mine.”
What did he mean?

I think he was challenging his people to be flexible. We need to be flexible in defining what a family is who we are to care for and who is to care for us if we are going to make it. I think he was speaking in hyperbolic terms about things of which we need to let go in order to move ahead.

I do know that a lot of mischief has been done in the name of that saying of Jesus as well as this one:
“Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother!’
Many cult leaders and others with grand ideas have been able to convince people that they should leave responsibilities and family connections for some supposed higher calling.

The question that would need definition is, “What is God’s will?”

I think Horsley is right. Jesus did not intend to start a personality cult. He certainly wasn’t about superstitious metaphysical theories. Jesus was about how to make his people stronger and how to help them let go of unhealthy patterns and develop ones suitable for resistance and survival.

  • That meant loving the enemy,
  • It meant allowing the Samaritan who was as oppressed by Empire as much as the Jew, help you.
  • It was about sharing across family boundaries.
  • It was about creating flexible and strong kinship patterns that would connect villages and communities as opposed to dividing them.
  • Jesus was about caring for the widow and the beggar, not leaving them to starve.
At the end of his life, from the cross, the story is probably legendary, but still it captures his character, he tells the beloved disciple: “Behold your mother.” Whose mother is it? It is Jesus’ mother. Obviously, Jesus did not hate his mother. He provided for her in dramatic terms.

This is your mother. This is your son.
Care for one another as if your tie was biological.

I know many in this room have had struggles with family.
Some have been able to reconcile with family.
Some have not.
Some have been rejected by families.

On October 11th over 100 students gathered at ETSU for coming out day. After that event about 50 or 60 gathered at the Presbyterian Campus House to share their stories. I won’t share any specifics but it is safe to say that it was an emotional night. Many of the stories had something to do with religion. It usually wasn’t positive. Some students were shunned by their own family members. Not all. It did make me happy when someone said how important it was for them to be able to be in a house connected with a church where they were accepted.

Families are difficult.

An important book is entitled,
Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America.

The editor, Mitchell Gold, is from North Carolina, and many of the stories feature people from this area of the country. These are real stories by real people who have had to deal with families.

Families are difficult.

One of the things that is hurting families today is homophobia.
It is prejudice.

To put it in first century terms, homophobia is a demon.

Homophobia is dividing and destroying families and it is dividing our nation and our faith communities. It is preached from pulpits and courted by sleazy politicians who use it to get votes.

Homophobia needs an exorcism.
  • We exorcise that demon by naming it.
  • We exorcise that demon by education.
  • We exorcise that demon by being courageous.
  • We exorcise that demon by stepping out of our own comfort zones and meeting people.
We don’t allow homophobia a home.

It is important for our denomination and for our congregations to get this right. We need to be places of healing and wholeness not places of ignorance and condemnation. We need to be courageous and stand up to name calling and bullying and we need to show the world that it is not cool, it is not manly, it is not Godly to participate in this prejudice either openly or by silently allowing it.

We need to heal our families.

Families are important whether they be families of kin or families of choice.

May this community continue to be a community of courage and strength, welcome and hope to individuals and to families of all kinds.

And above all and in all,
Let us simply remember to be kind.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Whistle-Blower (11/7/2010)

The Whistle-Blower
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 7, 2010

Jesus would tell this parable:

You know, it’s like a man going on a trip who called his slaves and turned his valuables over to them. To the first he gave thirty thousand silver coins, to the second twelve thousand, and to the third six thousand, to each in relation to his ability, and he left.

Immediately the one who had received thirty thousand silver coins went out and put the money to work; he doubled his investment.

The second also doubled his money.

But the third, who had received the smallest amount, went out, dug a hole and hid his master’s silver.

After a long absence the slaves’ master returned to settle accounts with them. The first, who had received thirty thousand silver coins, came and produced an additional thirty thousand, with this report: “Master, you handed me thirty thousand silver coins; as you can see, I have made you another thirty thousand.”

His master commended him: “Well done you competent and reliable slave! You have been trustworthy in small amounts; I’ll put you in charge of large amounts.”

The one with twelve thousand silver coins also came and reported: “Master, you handed me twelve thousand silver coins; as you can see, I have made you another twelve thousand.”

His master commended him: “Well done, you competent and reliable slave! You have been trustworthy in small amounts; I’ll put you in charge of large amounts.”

The one who had received six thousand silver coins also came and reported: “Master, I know that you drive a hard bargain, reaping where you didn’t sow and gathering where you didn’t scatter. Since I was afraid, I went out and buried your money in the ground. Look, here it is!”

But his master replied to him, “You incompetent and timid slave! So you knew that I reap where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter, did you? Then you should have taken my money to the bankers. Then when I returned I would have received my capital with interest. So take the money from this fellow and give it to the one who has the greatest sum.”

Gospel of Jesus 4:24-38

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 29, 31. Thomas 41:1-2; Mark 4:2; Luke 8:18; 19:12-24, 26; Matthew 13:12; 25:14-29.

I could preach a nice sermon on this parable. I have before. It would be a sermon based on the summary I wrote for the bulletin:

In this familiar parable of the man who entrusts his servants with different amounts of money to grow upon his absence, we come to a question of the meaning of life itself. What do we do with what has been entrusted to us? How we answer that question depends upon how we view life itself. Do we approach it with fear or with joy? How do we see “God”? Is God a punisher, a “hard-hearted man” or is God generous and joyful? We can choose to live from fear and bury everything burdened with the task of having to have lived at all, or we can live from joy, recognizing that we came with nothing and we go out with nothing, so there is nothing to lose when we give it back or pay it forward as the case may be!
It would be a sermon that would be in line with the themes of stewardship. It would be a sermon about living life to the fullest, about taking our talents and sharing them rather than burying them. It would be a very good message. It would be inspiring.

You have talent! You have gifts! Don’t be afraid of losing them. Invest them and you will see them multiply! Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Let it shine! Don’t bury your talent in the ground. Use it to make the world a better place.

It would be a very good sermon.

I would be very subtle. “Talent” has that double meaning. It refers to currency, but in English it means skill or gift. So I would slip in just a little hint, a little reminder, that your favorite local congregation would be a great place to invest those talents in both senses of that word.

Boy that would be a great sermon.

This happened to me last year too.

I was supposed to give an inspiring stewardship sermon. I had a perfect text for it. It is the scene where Jesus is at the Temple.

He and his disciples are watching people put money in the temple treasury. Rich folks put in large sums. Then a widow puts in two mites—which amounts to a penny. Jesus says the widow gave more than the wealthy did because she gave everything she had to live on.

It would have been an opportunity to speak about percentage giving. I could tell the folks it doesn't matter how much you give, just give it all. I could talk about how valuable every penny becomes when we add them up.

The punchline to the sermon I was supposed to preach would have been:
“Be like that widow. Look how faithful and trusting she is. She loves God so much she gives everything.”
The problem is that really isn’t what Jesus was talking about in that scene. He wasn’t praising the widow for her piety and faithfulness. He was criticizing the temple establishment for ripping off widows.

This past weekend one of the Jesus Seminar guys told us about widows. Widows were not just women whose husbands had died. A rich woman whose husband had died was called a matron. A widow referred to a woman whose husband had died and who had no means of support. A primary function of the Mosaic covenant was to care for widows. Widows and orphans. Provide for those without the means to provide for themselves.

Just before this scene, Jesus criticizes those who are the keepers of the Temple and the tradition. Harsh words he has for the scribes:
‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
How did they devour widows’ houses? The temple tax. It wasn’t a voluntary gift like filling out a pledge card. You paid it or else. Or else what? Or else you lost your land. The scribes kept the records of who owed what. Rather than care for widows, they were sending them into abject poverty. If the temple were doing its job, it should have been providing for these widows, not taking their last literal penny.

Once you hear that, once you hear what is behind the text, it is difficult to use that text to preach on the importance of being like the widow and giving your last penny to the church. The last thing to which a preacher should want to compare his or her congregation is the temple as Jesus saw it. Jesus saw the temple as the epitome of collaboration with Empire.

The disciples gaze at it with open mouths,
What tall buildings!
Jesus tells them that not one stone will remain on top of another. All will be torn down. He tells them:
“If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to be cast into the sea and it will be done.”
He is referring to the temple mount. In other words,
“Have faith my friends and this oppressive system will crumble.”
The widow giving (or rather paying) her last penny to the treasury is not a stewardship text.

Neither is the parable of the landowner who entrusts his retainers with money to invest on his behalf.

The insights I am about to share with you come from a book by William Herzog, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. That book coupled with Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder are based on social context criticism of the New Testament.

How does the social world of Jesus inform our reading of the Gospels? You have layers of social worlds. You have the layer of each gospel writer and the layer of earlier traditions under that and the layer of Jesus’ world.

This parable of the talents is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark is attributed to a prior source called Q. We don’t have a text of Q. Q stands for the German word Quelle which means source. It is a scholarly reconstruction. Q is a theory, but it is a pretty good one. The theory is that there was a source that contained speeches and acts of Jesus that Matthew and Luke used. They also used the Gospel of Mark as a source. When Luke and Matthew use Q they shape it to fit their own needs.

By the time Matthew and Luke get a hold of this parable we are in the realm of advanced theological abstraction. Matthew and Luke see the parable as an allegory for Christ’s supposed return. Jesus is the landowner entrusting the gospel message to his disciples and when he returns at the second coming, the parousia, he will be checking to see what you did with your talent. Did you share the message of the Gospel or did you bury it?

That is not how Jesus’ audience would have heard it.

Whenever kings, judges, or landowners appear in the parables of Jesus, we should be very suspicious that they refer to good guys let alone God.

We read this parable through the eyes of modern capitalism. For example, our economy is based on lending money at interest. However the Torah specifically forbids lending money at interest. So it is rather odd for the God figure to tell the third slave that he should have given the money to the banker to earn interest.

But it is worse than that.

In this first century world you had a pyramid of rulers, landowners, and retainers at the top 15% and the rest--merchants, artisans, and mostly peasants--at the bottom 85%.

Landowners wanted to increase their wealth. You did that by controlling the bottom 85%. You kept them at subsistence living by taxing their produce. As money came into the system you could provide a symbolic value for produce. So you lend the peasant seed anywhere from 60-100% interest. In a bad year when crops were sparse, you could foreclose. The peasants would then become sharecroppers on their former land and that would make it easier for them to grow cash crops for you.

Now, to our parable.

A landowner makes no money if he just hangs around the house. They need to go make connections, travel, do business. So the head of the aristocratic household leaves for a long time. He entrusts his retainers, who the text calls slaves, with different amounts based on their power or status.

The first two get busy right away. How do they make money? They exploit the peasants. They lend money at interest, take as much as they can, foreclose when they can, and provide the landowner with an acceptable profit. They keep some extra for themselves.

In the ancient world the rich get richer by exploiting the poor.

Two of the retainers double their investment.

The third takes the talent and buries it, which is probably the safest thing to do.

He doesn’t play the game.

We might ask why?

When the landowner returns he demands an accounting. It is all very polite. The first two retainers show the handsome profit. They demonstrate faithfulness, which is loyalty to him, and enter the joy of their master which means,
“Congratulations, you are on your way up the aristocratic ladder.”
The third, who is the most interesting of all (and as stories of three go, is usually the hero, ie. the Good Samaritan), gives a speech. In his speech, he tells the truth:
“Master, I know that you drive a hard bargain, reaping where you didn’t sow and gathering where you didn’t scatter. Since I was afraid, I went out and buried your money in the ground. Look, here it is!”
He is of course right.

The landowner doesn’t sow. He reaps.
He doesn’t scatter seed. He just gathers profit.

The third retainer is speaking like Isaiah:
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you... Isaiah 5:8
The landowner doesn’t deny it. He simply ridicules the retainer as being lazy. He shows his hand by saying he should have given it to a banker for interest which is against Torah. Then he takes the talent from him and casts him out.

Why does the third retainer do this?
He must know the game.
What is this story about?

Herzog writes that the third retainer is a whistle-blower.

The parable itself blows the whistle on how Empire works.

Jesus rarely took on the Roman occupation directly. Jesus’ prophetic critique was against the temple and its leadership for legitimizing and collaborating with Rome and for participating in oppressing its own people counter to the Mosaic covenant. Jesus’ audience is the 85% of the peasants, widows, villagers, laborers in the surrounding countryside who are taxed to fund the projects of Herod.

He tells this story of a whistle-blower.
  • He tells the story of someone who tells the truth even as it results in the loss of his own livelihood.
  • He tells the story of someone who refuses to cooperate in the injustice and the oppression of others.
  • He tells the story of someone who follows Torah and who suffers for it.
This parable, like others that Jesus told, is open-ended.
  • What happens to the whistle-blower now?
  • Will anyone take him in?
  • What if others also became whistle-blowers?
I think Jesus told this parable to celebrate whistle-blowers and to inspire his audience to take them in. There are good people who blow the whistle on injustice and we need to stick together. Jesus was not only about pointing out injustice. He was about transforming it.

This story reminds me of a modern day whistle-blower, Wendell Potter. Potter was an insurance executive for Cigna. He had a change of heart, perhaps like the whistle-blower in our parable. He came to realize the injustice inherent in the health-care insurance system and his role in it. He realized that insurance companies make profits when they deny coverage. In regards to the insurance business, he said:

"You don't think about individual people. You think about the numbers, and whether or not you're going to meet Wall Street's expectations."
He had his realization when he took a trip to Wise County, Virginia. He visited a health fair. This is what he said about it:

“I borrowed my dad's car and drove up 50 miles up the road to Wise, Virginia. It was being held at a Wise County Fairground. I took my camera. I took some pictures. It was a very cloudy, misty day, it was raining that day, and I walked through the fairground gates. And I didn't know what to expect. I just assumed that it would be, you know, like a health-- booths set up and people just getting their blood pressure checked and things like that.

But what I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they'd erected tents, to care for people. I mean, there was no privacy. In some cases-- and I've got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement.

And I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care. People drove from South Carolina and Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee-- all over the region, because they knew that this was being done. A lot of them heard about it from word of mouth.

There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up at the house down the road, in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.

….It was absolutely stunning. It was like being hit by lightning. It was almost-- what country am I in? I just it just didn't seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States. It was like a lightning bolt had hit me….

…. I had been in the industry and I'd risen up in the ranks. And I had a great job. And I had a terrific office in a high-rise building in Philadelphia. I was insulated. I didn't really see what was going on. I saw the data. I knew that 47 million people were uninsured, but I didn't put faces with that number.

Just a few weeks later though, I was back in Philadelphia and I would often fly on a corporate aircraft to go to meetings.

And I just thought that was a great way to travel. It is a great way to travel. You're sitting in a luxurious corporate jet, leather seats, very spacious. And I was served my lunch by a flight attendant who brought my lunch on a gold-rimmed plate. And she handed me gold-plated silverware to eat it with. And then I remembered the people that I had seen in Wise County. Undoubtedly, they had no idea that this went on, at the corporate levels of health insurance companies.
Since then he has become a whistle-blower. He took heat for it too.

He is not alone. There are other whistle-blowers.

Many of them are sitting in this sanctuary.

They are folks who are telling the truth.

They are telling the truth about climate change, about Peak Oil, about Empire’s wars, about our unsustainable fantasy of eternal economic growth, about homophobia, about torture, you name it…

There are those who tell the truth even when it is not in their interests to do so.
They do it because it is the right thing to do.
They do it because only truth can set us free.
It is Torah.
It is Gospel.

May their tribe increase.