Update: Guayabo under attack again by police in partnership with invading Palm Oil Company. Please support Guayabo by signing this petition.
I preached this sermon to the McCormick Theological Seminary community on September 24th, 2014:
Dear God of Grace, allow your Holy Spirit to speak through me today, that our hearts may be transformed in your love. Amen.
This summer, as many of you know, Abbi Heimach and I got engaged and then embarked on a journey together that we hoped would help shape our understanding of our global community. We traveled to Colombia, South America with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Chris Knestrick, a recent McCormick graduate, has been working with Christian Peacemaker teams for many years and helped lead our international delegation.
These delegations are unique in that we were sent there to seek solidarity with our Colombian brothers and sisters, and so we were welcomed into communion when we arrived. The first goal of our delegation was to learn about the Colombian context. So we did this by listening to many different voices. We learned from ecumenical leaders working for peace. We learned from human rights lawyers and social workers. Then our delegation traveled from the capital of Bogota in the mountains to Barrancabermeja in the hot tropical region along the Magdalena River. There we learned about the wealth of resources being extracted from the region by increasingly privatized corporations such as this oil company and palm oil companies which will profit from a major private port being built down the street and the naval base being built to protect these resources. This could all be good if it benefited the local population, but what we found was growing unemployment, high rates of violence and continued immigration of displaced farmers from the surrounding territories that were being converted to cash crop industrial plantations.
After all this listening, we were sent three hours down river to a small farming or campesino community called El Guayabo. I have never felt so welcomed and empowered and excited as when our crowded little speed boat landed on the riverbank teaming with people holding signs of welcome and peace. They invited us into their homes, into their church, and onto their farms. Their story was familiar to many oppressed campesino communities in this region. They legally developed a piece of land for farming over the last thirty years, under the constant threat of violence from the ongoing civil war and drug cartels. They built a school for their children and infrastructure to provide food security to the whole region, and as a result, the land became valuable for the whole region. With this added value, corporate interests in the palm oil industry have sent in lawyers and influenced local politicians to find legal loop holes to push these campesinos off their land so that it can be planted with their palm oil cash crop.
Two families were violently evicted from their farms over the summer by the city riot police while the community non-violently resisted. More of this illegal land grabbing is sure to come. As a result, the community organized and invited our delegation to join them in making their issue of injustice known to the public. We traveled back up river together to the regional capital to raise our voices in front of local government officials and the wider community. Together we told their story. We expressed our fears of persecution and continued marginalization, and we called for transparency from their government officials that we hoped would lead to justice and food security instead of displacement, violence and poverty.
In a very exciting response to this action, the mayor of their region heard our message with his own ears and invited the community and CPT to begin a process of collaboration that aims to diminish the power of corporate influence on their land rights. The entire community took on the role of whistleblower in response to their experience of injustice. I pray that this collaboration leads to life for their community and not more and continued death. This is, however, a risk these leaders were willing to take to maintain their humanity.
So how does Jesus’ Parable from Matthew 25 make any sense in light of the experience of El Guayabo? What does it mean that a MASTER gives huge sums of money to three of HIS slaves and expects them to double his money in profits by the time he returns from a trip?
Many scholars claim that Jesus and the writer of Matthew tell this story as an allegory for the kingdom of God. We must work hard and labor long like the first two slaves for our Master – God – who expects us to make holy and spiritual profits in abundance. I have a few issues with this understanding of the parable. First, what is it exactly that we are supposed to be producing with our labor? Is it love? Is it kindness? Is it faith? Is it justice?
Jesus uses the word Talent, which had a very specific meaning in first century Palestine. A talent was equivalent to earnings from 20 years of labor. Using Illinois minimum wage, that could be $17000 a year times 20 years. So that even the least trusted slave was given over $340,000 dollars to make profits. Can you translate that into love?
Second, if God is the master in the parable, then what does that say about God? Does God reap what God does not sow? Is God “a harsh MAN?” There are many masculine metaphors for God in the Bible, but I do not believe this man is God.
I do not believe God participates in the exploitative world of profits and personal gain. Therefore I believe that Jesus is telling a very different story in this parable; a story of humanity’s status quo, a story of nonviolent resistance, and a story of preparation for the kingdom of God. So what if we take off our American Calvinist worker glasses for a moment and try to read this parable from the margins of society.
An elite master leaves riches of great wealth with his most profitable slaves who were trained as financial managers. He doled out his investment in them based on a hierarchy of trust. To one, 5 talents, to another 2 talents and to the least trusted he gave one talent of half a million dollars. Immediately - without telling their families or considering the weight of this enormous investment, the first two slaves went out into the villages surrounding the master’s estate to provide loans to the day laborers working in their master’s fields who could not afford to feed their families from what they earned.
Now these families did not always live this way. Just one generation before, these villagers owned their own small farms in this region and lived securely together as subsistence farmers.
Since that time, the Palestinian elite in Jerusalem as well as their Roman conquerors began taxing these peasant villages to such an extent that they could not survive on their own. Instead of farming crops they could eat, they grew cash crops that the elite could trade for riches and military equipment from far away lands. The peasants began to go into debt to these first two slaves and had no way of paying back what they owed with its extortionary interest. So the slaves came to collect from the peasants whatever they had to give. They took their farms and their homes to expand their masters property. Now in their desperate situation of loss, these slaves let the peasants stay on the land to harvest ever more cash crops for the master.
The third slave waited. He thought. He thought about his community. He thought about his master. He considered his profits and his master’s wealth. He considered the value of human life. And he considered his God. After thinking these things, he took the talent entrusted to him and buried it in the soil as was the Jewish custom for protecting wealth.
When their master returned, he rewarded the first two slaves for making 100% return on his investment. He put them in charge of making profits with even more wealth than they had returned to him.
Then the slave who had received one talent came forward saying, “master I knew you to be 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. Here you have what is yours. His master was furious and 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 mine with interest. “Take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. I am the master, and I say more will be given to those who have much and appreciate my desire for limitless wealth. I will take everything from those who know nothing of wealth, for they do not sustain me. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the dark dark dungeon with the other activists and whistleblowers, there he will find weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Where is God in this encounter? I find God in the moments the third slave takes to see the peasant farmer community as his own and makes a choice to remove himself from continuing the economic exploitation of this community. By joining that community he takes on the risk of suffering their marginalization.
Matthew continues this theme of community in the very next passage, Jesus says - almost directly speaking to this convicted slave – “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” I was being exploited and you stood up with me.
The Body of Christ is in all of us. Jesus expects us to respond to the good news of God’s grace by taking action in support of God’s family, all people, especially the ‘least of these.’ With this explanation from Jesus, it is easy to see that Jesus would welcome the third slave who refused to exploit his neighbors.
The more I practice living in community, the more I recognize that the master in this parable is not God. The actions of the master and his three slaves in this parable characterize what happens in our human kingdom. In this way, the exploitation demanded by the master and carried out by the first two slaves represents the sinful and destructive nature of human history.
This parable warns us that preparing for God’s kingdom makes us vulnerable to suffering in our human kingdom as this slave suffers in the outer darkness, but this suffering for justice will bring great joy. The third slave gives hope for humanity that disciples can choose to disrupt the exploitative societal systems in which they live. Social science interpreters of this text point out that the third slave develops the freedom to “choose a future in which to live” instead of acting out of fear or obligation to the evil master. By acting honorably according to the ethics of his community, this slave is subversively elevating himself to a position of freedom and therefore establishing his own humanity by disrupting the status quo.
When have you felt connected to your humanity? When do you experience freedom?
Here at McCormick, I have found freedom in learning about racial identity development that is embodied in all of us. Our student anti-racism group is building hope in me that we can work together to recognize and disrupt ways that racism is embodied in our lives and in this institution. Each student leader has committed to participating in anti-racism training this year so that we can have time to recognize the complexity of our community and seek new ways of working together for justice.
I have learned that white culture values perfection, competition and hiding emotions and problems. If we want to expose the embodiment of discrimination and exploitation in our institution and our community, we need to be willing to expose our emotions, share our imperfections and voice our fears so that we might learn and grow together with the grace of God. God created us to be fully human, so we must seek out ways to more fully experience that humanity. Our hungers, needs and torn seems are the exact places where we can discover the grace of God.
And what about our talents? What about our global community? We are financially tied to economic exploitation occurring in El Guayabo and communities like it all over the world. Will we stand together, expose our complicity and stand up for justice? Can we say no to profiting from corporations that do not respect human lives? I have had a very hard time saying no to the scholarship I receive at McCormick or the 6 million dollars a year it takes to run this institution, but what if that money, Our Talents, were not available to make profits through exploitation? What if we positively invested in our global community?
I thank God for our imagination which can see beyond the fear of scarcity and loss. I thank God for the slave willing to return the talent to his master.
These are resources I used to inform my sermon. Feel free to check them out at the library!
These are resources I used to inform my sermon. Feel free to check them out at the library!
Allen, O. Wesley Jr. “Passion, Death and Resurrection in and around Jerusalem (21:1-28:15)” in Matthew, 203-276. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.
Allen follows the allegorical interpretation that Jesus is represented by the master, the time on a journey represents the long time awaiting parousia, and the slaves represent the behavior expected of disciples (246). He suggests asking your congregation, “Have you carried the load appropriate to your abilities?” (247) in response to his reading. His thesis for this parable is “The ethical Christian life is not a test for which we are rewarded, the ethical Christian life is the reward. The more we live it, the more of it we get” (247).
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. New York: Orbis Books, 2000.
Warren remains consistent with the allegorical interpretation of this parable by considering the actions of the first two slaves to represent how we are to work “in faithful attention to the master’s business, not engaging in abusive practices” (489). He acknowledges that the parable legitimates the perspective of the wealthy elites and “punishes the one who subverts the system” (488) if it is read from a social historical perspective. In response, he uses many examples to show how Jesus challenged the oppressive economic status quo illustrated in this parable. So, from his allegorical interpretation, the third slave’s “destiny is that of those who do not respond to Jesus with faith and obedient lives” (491) such as the elite who misuse their power, the devil, and many religious leaders.
Chenoweth, Ben. Identifying the Talents: Contextual Clues for the Interpretation of the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Tyndale Bulletin 56 no 1 2005, p 61-72.
He takes the parable to be allegorical with the master representing Jesus and the servants representing the disciples (61). The main thesis is that the talents represent “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” which should be made profitable by the disciples and all who come to know the Gospel (61).
Donahue, John R. The Gospel in Parable: Metaphor, Narrative, and the Theology in the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988.
Donahue argues in favor of allegorical interpretation of this parable claiming that it affirms “both the delay of the parousia and its certainty and that it describes proper action in the interim period” (109). The third slave is punished for “presumptuous inactivity,” showing the nature of those who are excluded from the kingdom of God. He uses the Gospel of the Nazoreans in his argument, but he takes the judgments out of order so that the “one who hid the talents” is rebuked instead of the “one who multiplied the gains.” Rohrbaugh writes about authors who do this, and I can see how it is easy to confuse people by doing so.
Evans, Craig A. “Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Servants” in Matthew, 418-420. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Evans portrays the characters in a historical setting where being the rich master was an acceptable character to play. He distinguishes between Jesus’ original meaning of the parable – “an illustration of the selfish and oppressive policies of the pagan rulers,” and how Matthew uses it to “serve as a warning to those who think their Lord’s work is not to be taken seriously” (421). When describing the historical context, instead of interpreting that the master in the parable is a “thief” as described by the third slave, Evans describes him as a “very tough businessman or landlord… [who tends toward] seizure of crops because tenant farmers have fallen behind in payments.” Even stating that “Jesus’ audience would not have a sympathetic view of this man” (420). He defends the master by stating that “Jewish law permitted Jews to collect interest from Gentiles but not from fellow Jews” (420). He calls the third servant “timid” instead of seeing him as standing up to an exploitative master (420).
Folarin, George O. “The parable of the talents in the African context: An Inculturation hermeneutics approach.” Asia Journal of Theology 22, no. 1 (April 1, 2008): 94-106.
I was most impressed with the contextual and social historical critique Folarin develops to compare Jesus’ parable with his current Nigerian context. He puts the parable in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel as part of a series of parables preached to depict the coming Parousia both by what will happen in the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of human beings” at the time of Jesus’ return: the Ten Virgins parable describes the activities of the Kingdom of God and the Parable of the Talents characterizes the “kingdom of this world” (100) in contrast. The key to understanding who is accepted on the day of judgment is expressed throughout Matthew, specifically in the very next parable (25:31-46) where those supporting the oppressed and the less privileged in society are welcomed by God (103). He concludes that “the parable of the talents is an invitation to resist exploitation in a nonviolent way and to be ready to suffer for such action” with joy (104).
Jeremias, Joachim. The Parables of Jesus. London: SCM Press LTD, 1972.
Jeremias was one to blaze a new path in interpreting a difference between Jesus’ meaning and the use of the parable by the Gospel writer of Matthew. He claims both Luke and Matthew use this parable in a longer sermon about how to act in the delayed time before Parousia, stating that “’A reward is only earned by performance’ is the fundamental idea of the parable of the Talents” (19). Jeremias explains that Matthew and Luke’s interpretation of the parable as an allegory where Jesus is the nobleman is not possible because Jesus would not compare himself with someone who exploits others – reaping where he did not sow, “heedlessly intent on his own profit” (59-60). Jesus’ audience would have thought of the scribes who had been entrusted with the Word of God and they would soon have to account for how they used God’s gift.
Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
In their critique of this parable, Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that from the elitist point of view which is most accepted by our current Western perspective, the master and first two slaves are acting properly by seeking the largest financial gains. From the peasant point of view, the third slave acted honorably for refusing to participate in the schemes of the master. The rich man is able to retain his honor by having his slaves do the dishonorable work of taking wealth from others through trade and interest, because slaves have no honor anyway. By acting honorably, the third slave is subversively elevating himself to the level of free person – establishing his own humanity and subverting the status quo (149).
Rohrbaugh, Richard L. “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents/Pounds: A Text of Terror?” in The New Testament in Cross-Cultural Perspective, 109-123. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007.
Rohrbaugh uses peasant economics coming out of social sciences in the New Testament to interpret meaning in the Parable of the Talents that relates to its original agrarian audience, claiming “Jesus’s peasant hearers would almost certainly have assumed that the story was a warning to the rich about their exploitation of the weak” (123). He is quoted by many other scholars who contextualize the parable in situations of economic exploitation. He focuses on the peasant ethic of limited good in which gaining more of something means taking away from someone else (112). This condemned the “creation of wealth as an end in itself” as immoral (113). He claims other scholars have rearranged the judgments given in the parallel parable from the Gospel of Nazoreans recorded by Eusebius, claiming that the original order of the judgments has the master rebuke the “servant who multiplied the grain” and “accept (with joy)… the one who hid the talent” (118).
Schottroff, Luis. The Parables of Jesus. translated by Linda M. Maloney. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.
Schottroff cannot believe the allegorical interpretation because of the strong social history and message of Jesus found in Matthew (223). His translation of 25:30 demystifies the parable by having the human master throw his slave into the “dark dungeon” (222) for refusing to “participate in the unjust expropriation of the lands of small farmers” (224), as practiced by his other two slaves. This action is followed by the hope of the eschatological story of the sheep and the goats, where this third slave is sure to be found living in the kingdom for acting like the righteous in this story. He argues that belief is not important, but responding to the message with action is.
Scott, Bernard Brandon. “A Hard-Hearted Man: A Man Entrusts Property (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27)” in Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, 217-236. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989.
Scott distinguishes Matthew’s use of the parable from Jesus’ telling of it which would have been to an audience who identifies with the third slave. Matthew uses this parable in a wider narrative of Jesus’ sermon explaining to the disciples how the Kingdom of God will come. In Matthew’s context, the parable encourages disciples to use the gifts of God well at all times. The focus of Scott’s interpretation is on the third servant’s freedom to “choose a future in which to live” (235) instead of acting out of fear or obligation.
Turner, David. “Discourse 5: Judgment of Jerusalem and the Coming of Christ (24:1-26:2)” in Matthew, 565-612. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Turner takes an allegorical approach to this parable seeing Jesus as the absent master and the church as the three servants (598). The main theme of this parable is whether Jesus’ followers “will be dependable in using His resources” (598) It is a “warning against irresponsibility among professed disciples rather than an encouragement to faithfulness” (599).