I hope you get some time off over the holiday and can spend it enjoying the autumn. I am away this next weekend, having a short break and getting ready for my next assignment. The service Sunday sounds wonderful – In preparation for World AIDS Day, our team will speak about caring for each other.
Because you probably have some time, I thought I’d share a longer reflection on a Bible reading. The Gospels are part of our Unitarian Universalist faith’s sources. This story was told in Catholic and many Protestant churches last week, Matthew 25:14-30.
The short version is that “the master” is going on a journey, and gives his servants/slaves money for his time away. One gets $50, one $20 and one $10. When he returns he asks for the money and earnings back. The first gives back $100, then next $40 and the third returned the $10.
For the first two the master says: “It is well done good servant, and faithful, Thou hast been faithful in little, I will make thee ruler over much: enter into thy master’s joy.” But the third is told: “Thou evil servant, and slothful, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I strawed not. Cast therefore that unprofitable servant into utter darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
At my study retreat this month we practiced reading texts with different lenses – points of view. Many Americans grew up hearing this reading. It is part of our national Christian heritage, and many have absorbed it as “normal.” In order to understand nuances of The American Way, let’s consider what might be heard.
So, for example, we could think of ourselves as the master. The passage teaches us how to treat our slaves! Many churches see God as the Master, and the money as spiritual gifts … with the rule that we must invest them and succeed. Or, we can think of ourselves as the $50 servant, and be proud that we were rewarded for our wise investment. Or, we can think of ourselves as the $10 servant … and here’s where things get interesting.
Why was I only given $10 when others were given twice or five times as much? With no knowledge of if-or-when the master would return, why was my plan of holding the $10 in reserve and living day-to-day a bad policy? Is greed good? I don’t deserve this fate!
The last point of view to consider is the middle servant. Not given much money, but pressured to struggle for wealth anyway. The middle is not sent to hell, but knows that once the $10 servant is cast out, he will be the next scapegoat. How does it feel to have few resources and pressure to conform?
There are deeper issues to explore. The first is to question if the master is an abuser. The way he makes an example of the third servant shows that he uses violence within his own household. While the Bible doesn’t say who is good or bad here, the common Christian reading implies that cruel behavior is normal. Those we set up for failure must succeed on our terms or be condemned.
As you read this story, did you have images in your mind of the master and the servants? What race were the characters? How were they dressed? How much did they weigh? What subconscious assumptions did you make about the characters?
You might ask: Where are the women? Do the servants have wives and families? No women speak in this parable. How does their silence influence our understanding of business dealings today? Perhaps the servants have husbands! or elderly parents. Perhaps they are disabled?
Does this story teach anything about the poor being blessed? And, if we read the parable again, assuming the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor…” etc.) as a moral framework, does our reaction shift?
You might ask: Why did the servants each work alone? Why didn’t they pool their money so the one with the most talent could do investing, and others could do other tasks? Does this parable teach Individualism and silence Socialism? Does it normalize exploitation? If they were on Twitter, would the servants have a hashtag like #MeToo? Do they speak together or suffer alone?
If there were an election, we can assume that the master would vote for the candidate promoting no taxes on wealth. It is likely that the third servant would vote for a someone promoting graduated taxation, perhaps even an inheritance tax to return money gained by the public’s peace to the public good. The question is, how would the first two servants vote? They are promised wealth, so they might vote with the master; but they are servants, and might vote in solidarity with the third. Then again, they might vote their principles instead of their self interest. What world do they want everyone to live in?
Jesus begins his story with words: “The kingdom of heaven is …” and the story does not sound very heavenly. Perhaps Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven is right now, that we are living in Eden, and yet this sort of abusive exploitation is happening here in Paradise. Where is love? Where is grace? Where is blessing? Who inherits the earth…
There are many theologies celebrated in a Unitarian Universalist Congregation. One holds that Heaven is here, now. The Gospel of Thomas, an early gospel book rejected by Rome, includes these words:
Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will go before you. But the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you.” (Blatz translation) How might this theology shape your life? How might this vision of life in heaven shape the lessons we teach each other?
Thanks be to heaven, and … there’s work to do.