Below is a sermon that I preached at a chapel service at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, November 24, 2016
During my travels this summer, I met a young woman from Northern England who recently finished her undergrad. As we were talking during one of our chance meetings along our journeys, I mentioned that I teach homiletics at AST. She smiled and told me that the best homily she ever heard was offered by a Jesuit priest during a chapel service at her university. After a Gospel reading that consisted of one of Jesus’ parables, the priest went to the pulpit and said, “The thing about parables is that you really need to think about them.” Then he took his seat and remained there for the next five minutes before standing up to continue the Mass.
This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard the parable Kim read for us today. Having grown up in Ontario’s Catholic school system, I remember learning about it during a primary school religion class. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and while I can’t recall the details of how my teacher introduced this passage to us, I’ll never forget the point of it that I was told. Like the nobleman in the story gives his servants money—or talents, in some translations—God gives each of us talents and gifts that we need to use to the best of our abilities in order to please God. Whether God has given us a servant heart or a musical ear, whether we’re good at knocking off our times tables or knocking a ball out of the park, the message of the parable is the same: use it or lose it.
This sort of interpretation was not only common in the halls of my primary school, but I also encountered it in sermons, books, Bible studies, and commentaries, albeit in more sophisticated and nuanced manners. For example, Sharon Ringe, professor emerita of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, has written that this parable is a “warning to the disciples and to the church.” It “emphasizes the need for them to be ‘profitable’ managers of what has been entrusted to them in the interim between Jesus’ imminent departure and his eventual return in judgment. They are not simply to preserve what they have received from Jesus, but rather they are to work with it and develop it” (1995, 235).
But as that Jesuit priest in Northern England reminds us, the thing about parables is that you really need to think about them.
About four or five years ago, my friend Ivy was serving at a Presbyterian church in Manhattan (she tells this story in our book, Children’s Ministry in the Way of Jesus). During one particular Sunday, when this parable appeared in the lectionary, Ivy told it to the children during Sunday school. Wanting to encourage the children to reflect on the parable for themselves rather than simply memorize a pre-determined point, she simply asked them to share their thoughts about it. To her astonishment, every child in the group questioned the motives of the servants who multiplied the money they received, and they sided with the one who buried the treasure in the ground. From their perspective, this servant made the responsible choice while the other two engaged in risky behaviour with the nobleman’s money. They thought it was wrong for the nobleman to berate and punish the servant who took care to protect his money.
At first, Ivy couldn’t understand why these children landed on this interpretation. Like me, she knew that the parable was meant to help us see the danger in wasting the gifts that God has given to us. But after thinking about the context in which these kids were living, things started to make more sense to her. These children attend a well-established, affluent church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and they were growing up in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown that resulted from certain people engaging in a lot of risky behaviour with other people’s money. They’d probably witnessed firsthand the protests involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement and heard protestors berate financial institutions for playing God with other people’s money. No wonder they saw the more prudent servant as the one with the right idea. It was that servant who comprehended the dangers that come with amassing wealth at the expense and risk of others, and chose the most responsible and ethical choice.
This interpretation stands in direct contrast to the one I’ve known since my childhood. Reading the parable this way is the very sort of prophetic act of liberation theology that Claudio Carvalhaes called us to courageously take when he was with us a few weeks ago for the Nicholson Lectures. Prioritizing the voices of children, who are so marginalized in theology that childist theology isn’t even often recognized as a form of liberative thought and practice, prioritizing their voices challenges us to see things from different perspectives, to let go of our pre-learned, pre-packaged interpretations and read this parable with fresh eyes.
After all, the thing about parables is that you really need to think about them.
So what if the interpretation of this parable that I’ve known my whole life is actually bankrupt? What if seeing the nobleman as a parabolic stand-in to God isn’t at all what Jesus had in mind when he told the story? What if this parable is actually meant to jolt us out of our complicity with the quest for money and power? What if the children at that church in Manhattan were right all along?
This parable isn’t a stand-alone event. Jesus tells it immediately after his encounter with Zacchaeus. During Jesus’ visit with this wee little man, as the children’s song says, Zacchaeus overturns the harmful economic and social structures in which he participated by offering to give half his belongings to the poor and pay back all those whom he has defrauded with four times what he took from them. Jesus tells the crowd who heard Zacchaeus’ announcement that salvation has come to his house today, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Then he launches into the parable we heard today.
Read in this context, it’s impossible to see how in a split second Jesus can go from lauding a wealthy tax collector who gives back four times what he has taken to likening himself with a self-confessing harsh nobleman who takes back what he gives and slaughters his enemies. In Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus we see not the nobleman who goes out in order to amass more wealth and power for himself, but the shepherd who leaves everything behind to find that one lost sheep and bring her safely home.
Perhaps this parable isn’t an allegory about how Jesus entrusts his disciples with the work he started so much as it’s about the destructive social and economic structures of his day. This is not just consistent with the parable’s position during his encounter with Zacchaeus, but also with its overall placement in Luke’s Gospel. According to I. Howard Marshall, many of the parables and passages in this section of Luke are warnings to readers that one thing that keeps people out of the kingdom of God is the desire for wealth (2004). Those passages leading up to our text for today, such as the Parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus’ exhortation to consider the birds and the lilies, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and Jesus’ blessing of the children—they all directly challenge the human desire for power, prestige, and wealth, calling our attention to that which does not rust and thieves cannot come in and steal.
In fact, in an African American interpretation of this Gospel, Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder states that “Just as African American faith is not solely a belief of and for spiritual development but also a belief of and for social, political, and economic enhancement, so does Luke use faith to speak to the contextual reality of believing readers and imperialistic leaders” (158). Much like spirituals and slave songs, Luke’s Gospel is replete with codes and hidden messages about a God who cares about the pain of the world and subverts empires that cause suffering. In light of this, Crowder argues that this parable is nothing less than a “subversive comment on the Roman occupation.” Hearers who suffered at the hands of the empire would resonate with the distrust that the slaves—and she uses this word intentionally—would have felt toward the nobleman.
So with all this in mind, we begin to see the nobleman and the slaves in a different light. The two slaves who earn more money for their master are deemed good in his eyes, because they know their place within this unjust system and they live according to it, while the one who buries the treasure is called wicked. But from another perspective, he is actually incredibly courageous for his act of subversion. His owner sees him as wicked because he challenges the feudal system of the day. He steps out of line, refusing to be a passive cog in an unjust economic and social wheel. But those children in Manhattan remind us that we should know better. He is in fact the hero of the story, the one who refuses to be a possession of the empire.
Claudio Carvalhaes reminds us that parables are a matter of life and death. And this one is no exception. We as a society are madly in love with the quest for power and wealth that Jesus warns us of. Even those of us who seek to live out our Christian calling in ways that subvert the lure of consumer-capitalism have still flirted with its ideals. And our quest for power, our love of wealth, and our never-ending amassing of possessions is a matter of life and death. Advertisements may say that we can’t live without prestige, power, and possessions, but our quest for them is killing us. It’s killing us, it’s killing our neighbours, and it’s killing our planet.
And tomorrow is the high holy day of the empire in which we live. All week my inbox has been flooded with messages promising me health and happiness if only I could save 80% on a luggage set from Canadian Tire and get four times the reward points at Best Buy. Like the nobleman seeking more power and the so-called good slaves increasing the money given to them, I can also buy my way into a better life by stretching the dollars I already have. To do otherwise would be downright idiotic, we’re constantly told.
I admit that I’ve already circled some things in Black Friday flyers and I’m planning on getting my sister’s Christmas gift while it’s on sale this weekend (don’t tell her I got it at such a good deal). Too often I’m like those servants who participate in an imperialistic system that benefits the few at the top at the expense of everyone else. Too often I fail to recognize how bankrupt our consumer-capitalist society really is. Too often I fall into the lure of its siren song.
But we are called to something better. This parable stands as a testament to the power of saying no, to the refusal to be complicit to a system built to keep us living in the illusion that there’s no alternative. Jesus calls us to be that alternative. We the church are charged by that servant who refused to play by the rules of a corrupt society to be a direct challenge to the powers and principalities of injustice in our world. He calls us to be content with what we have, to restore justice to those who have been wronged, to bury all that lures us away from the way of life he shows us, no matter what the consequences may be.
Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking our task is easy. The consequences are real. As the nobleman seeks to slaughter those who resist him, so too do those in power in our society wish to silence and punish those who courageously stand up against them. But we have as our advocate the suffering servant. And as we prepare for his coming by lighting the first purple candle this weekend, let’s be the light that reminds those around us that the empire in which we live is not and does not have the last word.
You see, the thing about parables is that you really need to think about them.
May it ever be so.
Crowder, Stephanie Buckhanon. “Luke.” In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian K. Blount, 158-85. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
Marshall, I. Howard. New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004.
Ringe, Sharon H. Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995.