A few weeks ago my paternal grandmother sold the family home in rural Ohio. None of us was too sad, she sold it to my cousin, so it stays in the family. Yet more than 60 years in one home meant that it was the ending of an era. There are so many stories and memories held in the walls and floors of that old house. And, there’s treasure there too. Or so I’ve been imagining. A survivor of the Great Depression of the 1930s, my late grandfather never put much faith in banks or the stock market. Having been an electrician most of his life, he was used to being paid in cash under the table. And, just as often as not, that cash ended up in old coffee cans and pickle jars, and being hidden in the house for safekeeping. Lord only knows where and how much he squirreled away in the house that has yet to be found. My mom liked to tell the story, especially when he visited (just to watch his bashful grin) of the time just after she and my father were married, staying in her in-laws guest bedroom, when she was woken early one morning to the sounds of something scrabbling about beneath the bed. She peered cautiously over the edge to the awkward discovery of her new father-in-law halfway under the fourposter. Having been discovered thusly, my grandfather sheepishly apologized, noting the coffee can in his arms, and explaining that he had been in need of some cash to go to the store. His loot had been under the bed.
On first blush, the reading from this morning’s gospel lesson seems like a call to good investment habits, a sharp rebuttal of my grandfather’s saving practice – an exhortation not to put one’s treasure in the ground or under the mattress. But, parables rarely yield their treasures so easily or on the first read. Parables can surprise, interrupt, and even shock. As my good friend the Reverend Dr. Eric Barreto writes in the Christian Century, “Jesus’ parables ought to alarm us, draw us short.” Parables can be, he says “a sharp reminder of the seriousness and finality of God’s judgment.” I don’t know about you, but, I am drawn short and alarmed by this morning’s gospel lesson. It pushes against my notions of a God of grace, a God whose incarnation in Jesus was to make known the ever-widening circles of God’s love, of God’s lavish abundance and mercy. Yet, if we equate, as Jesus seems to, the Master figure, with Jesus himself, we are given a troubling example of divine exclusion and ultimate rejection – the last slave, because of his overcautious financial strategy is thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Yet, Barreto continues:
“Do not look to the falling of towers or the violence of empire to tell you the shape of this judgment. Do not conjure the meaning of God’s judgment over those who suffer. But do remember that God’s judgment is certain and definitive. God abounds in forbearance, but judgment comes in its wake.”
Which is to say that the shock and awe of a given word of judgement in Scripture depends in large part about where we sit when we hear it. The assumptions I and many like me might make as we interpret these teachings of Jesus are significantly biased toward our life experience and background. Which is also to say that on a given Sunday, in churches like our own where the composition of our membership is largely homogenous racially and economically, that we must contend with our assumptions steeped in whiteness and wealth.
It might be easy for me to giggle about my grandfather’s banking strategy or lack thereof, because I never had to live through the complete collapse of our economy, living always on the razor’s edge of poverty, fearing constantly that my family wouldn’t have enough. So it is that when I read this text I might pass judgement like the master seems to, and extend those judgements into the real world on the poor, those on the economic margins, writing them off as worthless and lazy – blame them for being enslaved to a poverty I will never know – just as so many in our world often do. Read thusly, is to forget that the gospels are not here to endorse our free-market economy, or any economy for that matter, that is not a direct outgrowth of God’s economy of abundance and generosity. As one theologian aptly notes, when Jesus says “To those who have, more will be given…but those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” it might be appropriately translated today as the damning phrase “The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.”
And, just as economic privilege might insulate us from such damning interpretation, so too, it is possible to read Jesus’ parable about slaves, and miss entirely the gutwrenching memories it conjures in communities of color, of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy. I was deeply saddened, yet not entirely surprised, when like you I read that newly elected congresswoman Cori Bush arrived at Congress this week for orientation wearing a facemask with the name Breonna Taylor emblazoned on it, only to have more than a few of her white colleagues mistakenly assume this was her name. The story of the murder of Breonna Taylor, the uprisings following it, are, shockingly, entirely outside of the lived experience or even awareness of some of our elected leaders. That is because Whiteness holds within it the perverse ability to hear texts like this morning without the burden of history, without the painful knowledge of names like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Philando Castille, Emmett Till, Black Wall Street, without knowing the history of suffering that White Supremacy has wrought on this continent, right to the present moment. This is a reality that comes under swift and complete judgement in this morning’s parable from Jesus.
If that seems unclear, in the lesson that directly follows in Matthew, we hear the prophecy of the judging of the nations, when Jesus tells us the sheep will be separated from the goats, with punishment reserved for those who failed to serve the poor, the hungry, the prisoner and those in want or need.
As Barreto says, “That’s a parable I may not love yet may need to hear. When it comes to injustice and complicity in oppression, God’s patience runs short. When it comes to the harms we inflict, God’s timing is brief.”
In the end, judgement is meant to bring about justice. In the economy of Jesus, resources like love and mercy, time and money, justice and grace, are given without reserve and we are called to invest these in others without thought of self or fear of loss. Especially those of us who benefit from privileges we did not earn, and who have advantages granted us not because we deserve them, but because our world is shaped by injustice, we are called to invest without hesitation or restraint, in the poor, the hungry, and those on the margins.
Following our national election there are many who are joyful and relieved, just as there are many who are angry and aggrieved. But, for Christians our mandate to pursue economic and racial justice does not hinge on the outcomes of elections, but on the call of the gospel. The judging of the nations, Jesus tells us, will depend not upon who we chose to hold office, but on who we chose to spend God’s abundant love and mercy.
In his excellent meditation on the Eucharist, With Burning Hearts, Henri Nouwen contends that we enter into worship each week coming out of a world defined by loss. So it is that the Eucharist is steeped in loss and brokenness. And, he says, “The question is whether our losses lead to resentment or to gratitude.” After all, “The word ‘Eucharist’ means literally ‘act of thanksgiving’.” Which is to say, that in returning to God, in the life of faith, we are actively turning, making the choice, away from resentment, fear, hoarding, and greed, toward abundance, generosity, and giving. We can only do this as we come to empathize with and understand those who have been the victims of a world shaped by economies of greed and scarcity, and defined by whiteness.
As comedian Dave Chappelle told SNL audiences this past Saturday,
“I would [implore] everybody who’s celebrating the day to remember…four years ago, remember how bad that felt? Remember that half the country right now still feels that way. Please remember that. Remember, that for the first time in the history of America, the life expectancy of white people is dropping because of heroin, because of suicide. All these white people out there feel that anguish, that pain, that mad, because they think nobody cares and maybe they don’t …. Let me tell you something, [I] know how that feels. If you’re a police officer and every time you put your uniform on, you feel like you’ve got a target on your back. Oh, man, believe me, I know how that feels.”
In this way Chappelle deftly maneuvers us to a place of empathy, where our losses are not all that dissimilar from one another. There is something here to be gained. Our losses can drive us to a place of resentment, where justice is not only impossible, but further injustice is likely. Or, we can turn toward gratitude, to a place where our shared humanity points us to healing, to justice, to invest richly in those who have, like us, struggled, and hurt, and lost much. This morning we are called to invest in the kingdom of God, to place our lives, our hopes, our well-being, even our precious finances, on the line for the sake of the hungry, the outcast, those on the margins, and any victim of racism and injustice. For, God’s abundance is great and we have much to share, so let us not hide these gifts in the ground or under a mattress, but instead risk losing them as we turn and follow Jesus further on the Way of Love. Amen.