A Season of Fasting

One year when I was serving in the Church Relations Office at California Lutheran University we decided to put together a Lenten devotional that could be emailed in daily installments to students, faculty, staff, and patrons.  Most of the feedback was positive.  One student, however, wrote us a rather heated letter.  He was not only opposed to our Lenten devotional, he was opposed to Lent.  “There is nothing in the Bible about Lent,” he wrote.  “It is a thing made up by the church.  If it is not in the Bible, we should not do it.” 

I wrote back what I hope was a gentle letter explaining that the practice of setting aside a time for fasting and preparation before the celebration of Easter was, in fact, one of the earliest practices of the church.  I also explained that it was the Church that gathered and assembled the books into the sacred library we call the Bible, but that there was nothing like an official agreement on which books were included and which were excluded until the Council of Rome in 382 CE.  So, even though the individual books of the Bible might be older, I explained, the followers of Jesus have been practicing Lent longer than they’ve had a Bible.  

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent.  There are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, but the season of Lent is only 40 days.  That’s because the six Sundays are not included in the fasting of Lent.  They are, though, included in the liturgical observation of the season.  We don’t sing the Gloria or the Alleluia during Lent.  In some traditions, the Alleluia is symbolically buried in a casket under the altar during this season and is “resurrected” for the celebration of Easter.

We begin our observance of Lent by marking ourselves with ashes.  Ashes have been a symbol since ancient times of grief and sorrow.  They also serve as a sign  of humility, or of repentance.  On Ash Wednesday we stand humbly before God and remember that we are both sinful and mortal.  

In Genesis, when God is escorting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and into a life of difficulty, God says to them, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (3:19)

Later in Genesis when Abraham is bargaining with God and trying to keep God from destroying Sodom, Abraham says, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” (18:27)  These are the words we quote as we mark ourselves with ashes.

Job, after his trials and tribulations, finally sees God’s majesty revealed and says, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Jeremiah, when he’s calling the people of Judah to repent and warning them of the destruction that is coming upon them, cries out, O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”

In the book of Daniel, when Daniel is preparing to ask God to intervene and show mercy for his people, he writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”

Ashes continued to be used as a sign of contrition in the early church.  Tertullian (c. 160-225) included sackcloth and ashes in the rite of repentance.  Around the year 800, those who had committed serious sins were covered in sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes before they were allowed to receive Holy Communion at Easter.  Sometime around the year 1000, as Lent came to be viewed as a season of penance, the practice of strewing ashes on the head was extended to the entire congregation.

Ashes remind us that because we are mortal, our life, our strength and our help come from God.  They open the doorway into Lent,  a time when we reflect on the way of Jesus and follow his path and listen to him more closely.

Lent is a time when we renew our practice of spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting. 

There are a variety of ways to fast.  The traditional practice of many has been to give up meat during this time.  It has been the practice of some to have two small meals during the day then break the fast after sunset.  Some people simply give up something they’re attached to for the 40 days:  chocolate, television, podcasts, Facebook.  You can fast from anything that’s a daily part of your life.  The idea is to set that thing aside and give its space to Christ.  For instance, if you’re giving up lunch for the 40 days, then during that lunch hour you can spend time in prayer or meditation.  

On Sundays and Feast Days we get a break from fasting.  So if you’re giving up red meat for Lent, you can still have a bite of corned beef on the Feast of St. Patrick!

This time of fasting and preparation before Easter may have originated in the preparation for baptism.  The Didcache, a Syrian manual of church practice that dates to about the year 100, instructs that both those who are being baptized and those who are baptizing should fast for one or two days before the baptism.

At some point early on baptisms became tied to Easter.  Lent, then, became a time to prepare for baptism.  The practice of this, though, was far from uniform.  In Alexandria, Athanasius required his catechumens to prepare for 40 days, studying for 3 hours each day.  In other places, though, the preparation might be as little as a a week. 

At the Council of Nicaea in 325, in addition to establishing the doctrine of the Trinity, several important matters of church order and practice were standardized.  One of the things that was decided was how the date of Easter should be determined.  While they were at it, the bishops also agreed that Lent should be 40 days leading up to Easter.  

They didn’t call it Lent, by the way.  That’s our English word from the Old English word Lencten,  for Spring.  The Eastern bishops called it Tessarakosti and the Western bishops called it Quadragesima.  Both mean 40 days.

So why 40 days?

Though the Bible as such had not been assembled yet, the bishops at Nicaea were very familiar with the texts that would eventually be included in it.  They knew that the number 40 in these sacred texts represented a period of testing, trial, judgment, or probation.  In particular they were mindful of Jesus being tested in the wilderness for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry.

The number 40 occurs 146 times in the scriptures.  Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in Midian before God called him to lead his people out of slavery.  He stayed on Mount Sinai with God and fasted for 40 days.  The Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.

Elijah spent 40 days and 40 nights walking to Mount Horeb.  Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh gave them 40 days to repent or be destroyed.

Forty days may seem like a long time to fast, but there was also a practical reason for it.  In the days before refrigeration and food preservation, and in times when it wasn’t easy or inexpensive to ship food from other places, this would be the time of year when supplies of some foods, especially grains, vegetables and fruits would start to run low.  Fasting for an extended period could help to stretch these supplies until the new crops, especially the early grains, began to produce.

So are you planning to take up a spiritual discipline during Lent?  Are you thinking about praying more?  Meditating more?  Giving more?  Reading a devotional?   Here’s a suggestion:  Practice the discipline of kindness.  Be kind.  Practice having a generous spirit.  

Are you thinking of fasting?  It’s a worthwhile discipline and you can learn a lot about yourself by doing it.  But if giving up chocolate or television or meat or anything like that seems like it might be too much of a challenge, let me pass along this list of Suggestions for Fasting During Lent from Pope Francis:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

This is a good time to listen.  

Listen to the message of the ashes.  The message of our mortality doesn’t have to be bad news.  God has breathed life into dust and ashes.  

Listen to our history.  We are part of a very long story that is still unfolding.  

Listen to Jesus.  He has called us to renew the world…and to be renewed ourselves.

And She Began to Serve

Mark 1:29-39

“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Two simple sentences.  And like so much of Mark’s gospel, a surprising amount of action in surprisingly few words. 

After preaching with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum, then casting out an unclean spirit from a man who interrupted him, Jesus is ready for a break.  So he goes to the house of his new disciples, Peter and Andrew.  It happens that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick.  She’s in bed with a fever.  They tell Jesus about her right away and Jesus goes to her.

And here is where the translation maybe is not our friend.  “He took her by the hand” sounds much gentler than what it says in the original language.  Kratésas it says in the Greek.  Kratéo is the verb.  It’s not a tender word.  It means to grasp firmly or strongly.  

And then it says he “lifted her up.”  Which is fine.  But again, something is lost in translation.  The verb Mark used is egeiro.  It’s the same word Jesus will use when he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead and says, “Little girl, get up!”  It’s the same word the angel will use to tell the women that Jesus is not in the empty tomb because he is raised up—egeiro.  

So maybe this isn’t quite the gentle scene I had always imagined.  Maybe this is a scene full of strength and energy and power.  Jesus grasped her strongly, firmly by the hand and raised her.  

Then the fever left her.

And she began to serve them.

It’s tempting to get a little upset about that last part—she began to serve them.  After all, she’s just been sick with a fever.  And now here are all these guys who come traipsing into the house and because of the expectations of the society they live in, she jumps out of her sickbed to rustle up some dinner for them.  Oh, and by the way, does anybody care that it’s still the Sabbath?

Some commentators have pointed out that she would be happy to do this because in a culture where roles are clearly defined she could now resume her place as matriarch of the household along with all the social currency that comes with that.

But again, there’s something going on in the language that deserves a moment of attention.  It’s a little thing.  But, as I’ve been learning, Mark often uses these subtle little things to make big points.  In this case, it has to do with the word “serve.”  Here’s how Ched Myers explains it in his book, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship—

“Peter’s mother-in-law is the first woman to appear in Mark’s narrative.  We are told that upon being touched by Jesus, “she served him(1:31).  Most commentators, steeped in patriarchal theology, assume that this means she fixed Jesus dinner.  However the Greek verb “to serve” (from which we get our word “deacon”_ appears only two other times in Mark.  One is in 10:45—“The Human One came not to be served but to serve”—a context hardly suggesting meal preparation.

“Mark describes women ‘who, when Jesus was in Galilee, followed him, and served him, and…came up to Jerusalem with him’ (15:41).  This is a summary statement of discipleship:  from beginning (Galilee) to end (Jerusalem) these women were true followers who, unlike the men (see 10:32-45) practiced servanthood.”

So here is Peter’s mother-in-law—sadly we don’t have her name—but Mark identifies her service with a word that implies that there is a sacred aspect to her serving, a holiness that springs not from her sense of duty, but her faith.  She is a deacon.  

In Mark’s gospel, the men surrounding Jesus are often argumentative and a little dense.  But the women, though not mentioned often, are astute and faithful.  

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week.  This week we had a graveside service for Barbara, one of those astute and faithful women who have kept the ministry of Jesus alive and well in this world for more than 20 centuries.  As I conducted her service I was wearing one of the stoles she wove for me on her loom, and it made me think of Tabitha who we read about in the book of Acts.  She was much loved by her community in Joppa, and when they summoned Peter to pray for her, they showed him all the tunics and other clothing she had made for people.

I thought of the women mentioned in the Gospel of Luke who travelled with Jesus and supported Jesus and the disciples financially.  Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, Luke says, who provided for them out of their resources.  

These women came to be called the Myrrh Bearers because they were the ones who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion, but found it empty.

Mary Magdalen was known to be particularly close to Jesus and was regarded as an Apostle by many in the early church until patriarchy asserted itself, suppressed her influence, and sullied her reputation by spreading the story that she had been a prostitute.  But it was Mary Magdalen, according to the Gospel of John, who first encountered the risen Jesus.  It was Mary Magdalen who first proclaimed his resurrection, making her the first evangelist.

Another Mary who was part of this group of women disciples, was Mary, the wife of  Cleopas.  If tradition is correct, her husband was the brother of Joseph, Jesus’ foster father, so she was the sister-in-law of Jesus’ mother, Mary.  She, too, was a Myrrh Bearer and is probably the unidentified person traveling with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel, making her one of the first witnesses to the resurrection.

Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza is someone we know a little more about.  We see her later identified in the letters of the Apostle Paul where he uses her Roman name, Junia.  Paul says she is prominent among the Apostles and that she knew Christ before he did (Romans 16:7).   In Junia we see someone remarkable, a woman disciple of Jesus who travelled with him in his ministry,  and continued in ministry as an Apostle, travelling as far as Rome for the cause of the gospel.

Priscilla and her husband Aquila are mentioned six times in the New Testament.  Priscilla is mentioned first four of those times, and it’s clear that she is a full partner in their work together for the sake of the gospel.  Tradition includes them among the 70 that Jesus sent out on a mission in the Gospel of Luke.  Priscilla, also called Prisca, her more formal name, has always been considered one of the first women preachers in the church.  We read in Acts 18:24-28 that she, along with Aquila, instructed Apollos in the faith.  There is even a theory that she is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Phoebe was an overseer and deacon in the Church at Cenchreae.   St. Paul referred to her in Romans 16 as a deacon and a patron of many.  This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman was referred to with both those titles. Diakonos kai prostateis.  A chief, a leader, a guardian, a protector.  St. Paul had such trust in her that he provided her with credentials so that she could serve as his emissary to Rome, and deliver his letter to them—that letter we know as the Epistle to the Romans.

Lydia of Thyatira, was a wealthy merchant of purple cloth, who welcomed St. Paul and his companions into her home at Phillipi and became a convert.  In doing so, she helped to establish the church at Phillipi, the first church in continental Europe.

In that church at Philippi were two women, Euodia and Syntyche who were serving in positions of pastoral leadership.  At some point they got into a disagreement. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” so that their disagreement doesn’t split the church.  In calling them to unity, he notes that they have “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”

Jesus took Peter’s mother-in-law in his firm grip and raised her up.  And she began to serve.  She became a deacon.  She began making sure things got done.  Making sure ministry happened.  And it’s the women who have been making sure things get done and ministry happens ever since.

Fifty years ago, our denomination began to ordain women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  To be pastors.  On the one hand, it seemed then—and to some people it still seems—like a bold and progressive thing to do.  But when you look at the witness of the New Testament itself and what we have learned about the roles that women played in the earliest years of the church…well let’s just say that it was shamefully long overdue.

I think of the women I’m indebted to in my ministry.  I think of all the women teachers I’ve had, like Dr. Martha Ellen “Marty” Stortz, professor of Church history who opened my eyes to the rich goldmine of our heritage.  I think of the women scholars and writers I turn to for thought-provoking insights in theology and biblical studies.  Women like Debi Thomas, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans, Roberta Bondi, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Amy-Jill Levine.  I think of my women clergy colleagues who are so amazing and indispensable as we puzzle our way through the week’s texts and the week’s issues, and life in the church.

I think of the women in our congregation who make things happen.  Without whom things would not happen.  The Tabithas, the Junias, the Priscillas, the Marys, the Pheobes. The Myrrh Bearers.  The Apostles in our midst.

I think of them all.  And I am so grateful.

Jesus has grasped them by the hand and raised them up.  And they have served.  Showing the presence of Christ and proclaiming the kin-dom of God.  And we are all richer for it. 

This Is The Time

It’s time.  

Time to get out the boxes with the special decorations, each one with its own story and all of them together part of the bigger story.  It’s time to deck the halls, to fill the home with light and music.  It’s time to dig out recipes and to bake.  It’s time to prepare.

I loved Christmas as a kid.  I still do.  What I didn’t realize for years, though, was how much I loved Advent.  I loved all the preparation. I loved the anticipation.  I loved the way the house looked when it was all decorated.  I loved the way the kitchen smelled when it was full of baking and roasting.  I loved how everyone, even though they were a bit frazzled, still managed to be in a pretty cheery mood.  

I love the honesty of Advent.  I love the sense of longing in the texts and prayers.  “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”  And yes, Christ has already come to us, but no, Christ has not yet returned, and we surely do feel sometimes like he’s overdue.  There is an honest yearning for things to be better, especially in this year when everything has been scrambled and turned sideways by the pandemic.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah shouts for us.  We’re in over our heads.  “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we might be saved!” the Psalmist cries out for us.  But we also hear, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… Every valley will be lifted up.  Every mountain and hill made low.  The uneven ground shall be made level and the rough places a plain.”  Things will be smoother.  Something better, something brighter is coming.  Help is on the way.  A new day will dawn.  

I love the way Advent, if we pay attention to it, sets the scene for Christmas by reminding us that we are not the first ones to live in a time of shadows hoping for light.  “During the rule of King Herod of Judea…” we read in the first chapter of Luke.  This is the same King Herod who, in Matthew’s gospel, murdered all the male babies in Bethlehem under age two.  This is the Herod who killed two of his own sons because he suspected them of plotting against him, the Herod who killed his wife Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess, along with her brother and her mother.  This is the Herod who replaced the High Priest in the temple with a Sadducee who would be more inclined to do things the way he wanted them done.  This is the same Herod who, according to Josephus, as he lay dying, ordered that one member of every family in Judea should be slain so that the whole country would be in mourning when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but the people never forgot that it had been issued.  

This is the time, Luke reminds us, when Quirinius is appointed legate of the expanded Roman province of Syria with the specific mandate to carry out a census, something forbidden by Jewish law, so that Tiberius can impose a new tax.  This is a time when Rome’s domination of Judea is iron-clad and iron-fisted with no velvet glove to make it less harsh.  This is a time when work is hard, taxes are heavy, and freedom is limited.

But this is also the time when an angel appears to an aged childless couple, Elizabeth, whose name means “God keeps promises” and to Zechariah, whose name means “God remembers.”  The angel promises them that they will have a child and that they are to name him Yochanan, John, which means “God is gracious,” and that many will rejoice because of him and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is the time when a kinswoman comes to visit Elizabeth, a young, unmarried kinswoman named Mary, who is also pregnant with a miraculous child.  And when Elizabeth sees her, her unborn child leaps in her womb.  This is the time when Mary sings a prophetic song of joy and rebellion that has been bringing hope to people on the margins for two thousand years.  My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”

This is the time to sit with the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.  This is the time to remember.  And to look forward.  This is Advent.  And soon, Christmas.

The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks, when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.

Hidden Talent

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  26 But his master 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?  27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I saw a video of a painting not long ago that was nothing short of mind-boggling.  It was a painting by Spanish artist Sergi Cadenas who has developed a technique that allows him to paint multiple images on the same canvas so that if you view the painting from one angle you see one thing but if you see it from a different angle you see something completely different.  For instance, in the first painting of his that I saw when you view the left side you see a portrait of a young woman but as you move to the right you see her age and when you come all the way to the right side of the painting, you see her as an old woman.  In another one of his paintings you see Marilyn Monroe transition into Albert Einstein as you move from left to right.  What you see depends entirely on where you stand.

Sometimes the parables of Jesus are like that.  Mark Allen Powell once talked about how his students in different countries interpreted the Parable of the Prodigal Son very differently.  When he asked his students, “Why did the prodigal have nothing to eat?”  His students in Tanzania replied, “Because no one gave him anything.” To them the idea that no one would give a hungry person something to eat was a shocking element in the story.   His students in St. Petersburg in Russia replied, “Because there was a famine in the land.”  They still had a cultural memory of the famine of World War II and that element of the story stood out to them.  His American students answered, “Because he wasted his father’s money.”  That’s the thing that stood out to them.  All of those things are in the text of the story, but people heard the same story very differently because of their history, culture and location.

“How you hear a parable has a lot to do with where you are hearing it from,” said Barbara Brown Taylor.  The same parable can look different or sound different to different people depending on where they’re hearing it from.  It’s like a Sergi Cadenas painting: what you see depends on where you’re standing.

I think when it comes to this parable, the Parable of the Talents, most of us have been standing in the same spot and hearing it or seeing it pretty much the same way all of our lives.  We hear it primarily as a stewardship parable.  God, the Master, gives each of us certain gifts and resources and abilities, talents, each according to our abilities.  We’re supposed to use our talents—our resources, gifts and abilities—to build up the church and further the kingdom of God.  Someday, either when Jesus returns or when we meet our Maker, there will be an accounting, and you surely do not want to be the “wicked and lazy slave” who just buried your talent in the ground.

There are some real strengths in hearing the parable this way.  We can focus on those first two slaves who apparently have a high opinion of their master and want to follow his example.  We can put our talents to good use.  We can put our abilities to good use.  We can enlarge them.  And in the end we can be praised and rewarded for doing so.

That raises the issue of how we see and understand God and God’s generosity, and that is always a good thing for each of us to spend some time thinking about.  You’ll notice that at the beginning of the parable the Master doesn’t actually give any instructions as he doles out the money, nor does he give any warnings about consequences.  The actions the slaves take depend entirely on how well they know the master and what they think about him.  

It’s the same for us.  The actions we take or fail to take with the gifts and resources God has placed in our hands depends entirely on how well we know God, how much we trust God, how we see God, how we understand God, how much we love God.  The first two slaves have a positive opinion of their Master and act accordingly.  The third slave regards him as “a harsh man” and something of a thief and acts accordingly.  So how do you picture God?  What kind of God are you responding to as you use the talents that are at your disposal?  Are you responding in trust to a benevolent God of grace and generosity or are you responding in timid fear to a God of harsh judgment?  Or are you just obliviously toodling along in life and not giving much thought to either God or your gifts?

God gives us talents and resources to help make God’s kin-dom a reality on earth as it is in heaven and to build up the church as the nucleus of that reality.  You’ve been blessed so you can be a blessing.  And I suppose I should stop right there and ask you to get out your checkbooks and sign up to volunteer for various ministries because what I’ve said so far is pretty much the bottom line of good stewardship and we’re long overdue for a word about stewardship.  

As I implied earlier, however, there is another way to hear this parable.  There is another place to stand so that we see the story differently, but to get there we need to be reminded of a few facts.

If we’re going to try to hear this parable the way those listening to Jesus heard it, one of the first things we need to know is that a talent was a huge amount of money.  One talent was equivalent to twenty years’ wages.  So there’s a bit of shock value right at the beginning of the story.  A man going on a journey summons three slaves.  He gives the first one of the equivalent of 100 years’ wages.  He gives the next one 40 years’ wages.  The third one gets 20 years’ wages.  It’s tempting to try to calculate what that would be in our money in our time, but it’s really kind of pointless because the other differences between their culture and ours and their economy and ours are too vast for the numbers to really have any meaning.  

The next thing to know if we’re going to try to hear this the way Jesus’ audience was hearing it is that, according to Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, most people in the first century Mediterranean world had a “limited good” understanding of the world.  They believed that there was only so much of the pie to go around, so if someone had a great deal of the worlds goods it meant that someone else had been deprived.  Honorable people did not try to get more and those who did were regarded as thieves, even if their means were technically legal.  “Noblemen avoided such accusations of getting rich at the expense of others by having their affairs handled by slaves. Such behavior could be condoned in slaves, since slaves were without honor anyway.”[1]

Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23:19 expressly forbid Jews to charge interest to other Jews, although Deuteronomy 23:20 says that interest may be charged to a foreigner.  Here again the wealthy used their slaves as a bypass of the law, making loans to the poor at interest rates anywhere from 60% to as high as 200%. According to Will Herzog,[2]  the poor would put their fields up as security and when they couldn’t pay the exorbitant interest, the wealthy would take their land.  So those first century people gathered around Jesus listening to this parable would probably assume that the wealthy master and his two slaves who doubled their money had “traded” in this way.

The slave who buried his Master’s talent in the ground was actually acting in accordance with Jewish law and custom.  The Talmud states that this is the safest way to safeguard someone else’s money.  As for the suggestion the Master makes that he should have left the talent with the banker so it could have at least made some interest, a case could be made that to do so would violate Torah.

So for those listening to Jesus, the Master who is wealthy enough to hand his slaves such staggering amounts of money must be a crook because how else would he ever come by such wealth?  He gives his money to his slaves to invest because that’s what rich people do to sidestep Torah and avoid tainting their reputations any further.  Two of the slaves enter wholeheartedly into this economic scheme and manage to double their master’s money.  One can only assume, if you’re in the crowd listening to Jesus, that they did it on the backs of the poor.  

And now comes the big question.  What if the third slave—the one the master calls wicked and lazy, the one who hid the talent in the ground—what if the third slave is really the hero of the story? What if when he says, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed,” –what if he’s simply calling him out and telling the truth.  What if Jesus is simply saying, then and now, this is how the system works, folks.  This is what the money people do.  This is why the CEO makes 300 times what the clerk makes.

Will Herzog, Amy-Jill Levine, Malina & Rohrbaugh and others have pointed out that, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was often using parables to highlight the disparities, inequities and injustices of the political and economic systems of his time…and ours.  

And yes, the third slave is punished.  His talent is taken away and given to the one who has ten.  Even though he does the right thing, according to the Talmud, he’s thrown out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  But then a few days after telling this story, at least in Matthew’s chronology, after turning over the tables of the money changers and standing up to both political and religious authorities, Jesus, himself, is thrown to the darkness of crucifixion and death.  He will be buried like the third slave’s talent.  But he will rise again.

So how do you hear this parable now?

Do you hear it as a call to stewardship?  Do you hear it as a call to take stock of the gifts God has entrusted to you, a call to evaluate how you have been using those gifts?  That’s still a perfectly good way to hear it.

Do you hear it as an invitation to consider how you have been thinking about and seeing God and how you respond to your picture of God?

Do you hear this parable as an invitation to take another look at how our economic systems work—to look at who benefits and who gets the shaft?

There is more than one way to hear it.  There is more than one face in  this painting.

And that is so Jesus.

Regardless of how you hear it, how are you going to respond to it?


[1] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 149

[2] William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Stirred Up or Battered Down?

I saw a Facebook post today that cast a shadow over my afternoon. It was written by someone I greatly respect and admire, a person whose opinion I value highly, a person who has shaped my own thinking more than a little. Here’s what he wrote that saddened me: “Remember how unrealistically high hopes for an Obama presidency crashed when he actually began to govern? It’s far simpler to make stirring speeches than to effect genuine change. I am increasingly inclined to vote for Clinton’s pragmatism over Sanders’ utopian fantasies.”

Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I don’t want what I’m writing here to be taken as any kind of statement in support of or against any candidate. I do have a preference among the candidates, of course, but that’s something I keep mostly to myself. No, the matter that worries me, that saddens me, is not that my friend is leaning more toward Clinton than Sanders, the matter that deflates something inside me is that more and more we the people of these United States have become willing to give up our ideals of what’s possible and settle for what’s pragmatic. More and more we are willing to characterize our best hopes as “utopian fantasies” and sacrifice them on the cross of pragmatism, lamenting them and praying that the next generation will resurrect them even as we abandon them to the forces that will crucify them.

My friend and teacher is right that many of our high hopes for the Obama presidency have gone unfulfilled. We were, many of us, naïve in our assessment of how much pressure for change his election could really bring to bear on the status quo. We grossly underestimated the kind of backlash and opposition he would face in response to that pressure. We were unaware of any number of commitments and entanglements that would limit his effectiveness. And we seriously failed to anticipate the myriad ways in which a Black Man in the White House would become a catalyst who would surface the not-at-all latent systemic racism that is still too much a part of the fabric of our national culture…if there is such a thing as our national culture.

My friend and teacher is also right that it is far simpler to make stirring speeches than to effect genuine change. That’s absolutely true. But let’s not dismiss or discount the power of stirring speeches too quickly. I have lived long enough and have studied history enough to remember some powerful and sweeping changes that were initiated in this country by stirring words in both documents and speeches. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson ignited an effective change when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” And yes, it’s true that “all men” meant “all property-owning white males” at the time, but deep inside us we knew that these words represented a higher ideal than that. It has taken a long time and extraordinary sacrifice by many and the work is certainly not finished, but most of us now know that all persons are endowed by their Creator with those inalienable rights and that Governments should not only be instituted and maintained by Men but by all persons. We know now that “consent of the governed” is supposed to apply to all the governed. It took us a long time and more than a little hardship to get there, but it is the ideal planted in those stirring words that has carried us forward through two centuries to a day when we can see it begin to blossom as a pragmatic reality.

In 1962 at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…” In more ways than any of us could have anticipated, that stirring speech—that stirring fragment of a stirring speech—shaped not only the remainder of the decade but our entire future. It gave us a goal. It gave us a national will to achieve something great. And in spite of the myriad voices that warned that it couldn’t be done, that it was not practical, that it was too dangerous, that it was not economically feasible, we did it. We did it, and in the doing of it we also initiated an era of tremendous inventiveness, creativity, education, industriousness and prosperity—a prosperity that didn’t trickle down from the wealthy top but that flooded out from our common center. I grew up in the flowing heart of that stirring speech, and it made me believe that if we put our minds and hearts to it we could, indeed, make our utopian fantasies a reality.

“I have a dream,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963. “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream—one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men [sic] are created equal.’ I have a dream…” This stirring speech, too, rang through my childhood and adolescence, continued to stir me through adulthood and still brings tears to my eyes as I quote it to my grandsons. And yes, this dream, too, is still unfulfilled. This dream, too, is still far too much a utopian fantasy and not nearly enough a reality. So should we abandon this dream because it has proved far more difficult to realize than we imagined? Should we settle for a diminished national soul because racism is still with us a half century after this prophetic and stirring speech? Or do we repeat these words to ourselves and rekindle the power of that dream, that utopian fantasy, and let that stirring speech inspire us to keep working for a more perfect union, toward a day when we will rise up and live up to our creed?

“Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable” wrote John Kenneth Galbraith, and somewhere along the way during the last 15 years we all swallowed that poison pill. We have allowed cynicism to infect all our dreams. There is a spirit of meanness abroad in the land—how else to explain the popularity of the Hitleresque Mr. Trump and the disturbing Mr. Cruz?  There is a loud voice shouting through our country to tell us what we cannot do, what we cannot accomplish, who we should not help, who we should not trust, and what we should not even try to imagine. That voice stirs us up to batter us down.  It wants us to think that we cannot feed every hungry child and provide medical care for every person or provide job training and education for every young adult or….well, it’s a long list, the things that voice wants to tell us we cannot do. But I don’t believe it. I grew up listening to a different voice. I grew up listening to a voice that stirred our hearts by announcing a dream that called us to live up to our national creed. I grew up with a voice that inspired us to work toward the realization of our utopian fantasies, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…”
There is so much at stake in this divided nation of ours right now. There are too many who are being stirred by speeches full of anger, hatred, xenophobia, Islamophobia– energetic  speeches that play on fears and resentments of every kind. And lest we forget, sometimes those speeches, too, have stirred many, have moved history and swept whole nations and even the world into an ocean of suffering.

So yes, we need to be ‘wise as serpents but innocent as doves’ as another stirring speaker once said long ago. He was the same one, though, who announced that the ultimate utopian fantasy was within reach.  “The kingdom of God is at hand,” is the way his words are usually translated, but make no mistake–he wasn’t talking spiritual pie-in-the-sky.  He was talking about a utopian world of justice and equality, a world where no one goes hungry, a world where everyone’s basic human needs are met.  We’ve been working on making his vision a pragmatic reality for more than 2,000 years now.  Lord knows it’s been difficult and costly, but I, for one, refuse to give up on it.  I, for one, still believe it can happen.  So yes, Candidate, please show us your pragmatism.  It’s essential.  But more essential than that, stir us with a vision.