Last November, I emailed friends a sermon entitled “The Terrible Parable of the Talents” written by Reverend Steven Bonsey. Steve is Canon Pastor at The Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston, a Harvest Time Board Member, and a participant in Harvest Time’s Boston Circle.
After I sent the sermon, a rich conversation ensued over email between John Bloom, Senior Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance in San Francisco, Steve and me. I found the dialogue to be so fascinating that I wanted to share it. Steve and John have given me permission to do so.
Below is the original sermon and the conversation it sparked. I invite you to help further the emerging threads of the conversation in a spirit of inquiry by posting a comment.
The Terrible Parable of the Talents
November 13, 2011 – Proper 28A – Matthew 25:14 – 30
The Rev. Canon Steven C. Bonsey
Not long ago I attended a conference of African church leaders on the topic of “Gospel Economics.” It opened with a lively debate on the question of whether it was sinful for a Christian to make a profit in business or to accumulate wealth.
On one side were the progressives who argued that Christians should indeed seize the opportunity to participate in the marketplace as a way of generating the skills and resources necessary to bring prosperity to a struggling continent. They spoke from the opening chapters of Genesis. We are co-creators with God, they said; we can work with God to bring order out of chaos; we can be fruitful; we can bring food, clean water, health care and education to our communities; we can leave a legacy to our children so that they, too, may live fruitful lives.
On the other side were the conservatives who cited the traditions of the elders and the clear injunctions of scripture. Many of their grandparents, born in villages and living as subsistence farmers, had been deeply suspicious of the cash economy. We are creatures, they said; God provides for us; what we are given today, we share; we take no thought for tomorrow. Abundance comes from God, not cash. Lending money at interest is forbidden by scripture. We do not wish to enrich ourselves at the expense of others.
Never in a lifetime of American churchgoing had I heard this conversation. Often I am struck by how differently African Christians hear the scriptures, and especially the parable of Jesus. In particular the many images of peasant life, of sowing and harvesting, strike them, not as metaphorical images, but as the stuff of life or death. Surely this is how Jesus’ original audience heard them.
The parables of Jesus can be bewildering. If we try to capture their meanings in moral lessons, they elude us. If we look to them for clear guidance, we may become confused. They speak to us at deep levels, sometimes deeper than words, and they may speak to us differently at different times and in different circumstances.
Take, for example, the Parable of the Talents. At times the parable has seemed to me to be God’s gift to parish clergy. It comes around in the lectionary just at the time when parishes are trying to raise money. This year, here at the Cathedral, we are undertaking not only our annual pledge drive, but an ambitious capital funds campaign. In this context, a particular meaning for this parable fairly leaps off the page:
Christ, like the landlord of the parable, has left us, his servants, his stewards, in charge of the kingdom, and has given us gifts – time, talents, treasure – for which we are responsible, and for which we must ultimately give an account. Who would not want to hear on that day what the first two servants heard, “Well done, good and faithful servants! Enter into the joy of your master!” Let us then live as they did, with the freedom to put our talents and treasure to use in God’s service, even daring to risk them openly and generously for the sake of generating an increase of God’s reign here on earth. Let us not live with the fear that paralyzed the third, unprofitable slave. Let us, instead, joyfully open our checkbooks … and so on.
Not that this message is wrong. In fact, I can testify that this account of Christian stewardship has served, not only the financial success of churches, but also for much of the healing, liberation and spiritual growth I have experienced in my own life. It has helped me to avoid the lie, on the one hand, that my money is my own to do with as I please, with no sense of accountability. And it has helped me, on the other hand, to release my fearful grip and to give freely. In this I feel the image of God grow stronger in me, because it is the nature of God to give and give freely.
But today I hear the parable with different ears – not only the ears of my African friends, but the ears of the homeless and unemployed people among those camping at Occupy Boston. I also shudder when I hear this parable through the ears of many members of this congregation who are only a paycheck or two or less away from being on the streets themselves; whose own employment, if they have it, is by no means secure; and who must hear me urge them to make a five year pledge of sacrificial giving to help renovate a church building.
When I hear the parable through these ears, its shadow side emerges. Who is this absentee landlord; how has he come to own this land and these slaves; where is he from and where does he go off to? Is the third slave not right that the landlord ‘reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed,’ which is to say, that he lives outside the natural order and the common lot of humanity; enriching himself without the sweat of this brow, without producing a single tangible product or rendering a single real service – a paragon, we might say today, of the 1%!
Do the actions of this landlord suggest to us the kingdom of God, or do they rather suggest the kingdom of this world where ‘to all those who have, more will be given…; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’ – that is, where the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer.
And see how harshly he condemns the third slave as ‘wicked and lazy’ who has done nothing worse than to keep safe the treasure entrusted to him – a responsibility he never asked for. Can this landlord really be for us a figure of the God we know in Christ? Furthermore, the fate of the slave, to be cast into the outer darkness, is not this the fate of Jesus himself at the hands of the powers that be, to be cast out of the city and nailed to a cross? Would not Jesus’ humble followers in the early church – many slaves themselves – have seen themselves in this third servant?
What, then, can the parable mean? What is its message for us today? I cannot say. The parable leaves me bewildered. Perhaps it is meant to do so. Perhaps the Holy Spirit intends to uproot me from my assumptions and to drive me into the wilderness. This, too, I cannot say.
I can venture this, out of my wrestling with this parable and my own experiences of dealing with money.
I find money to be a terrible thing, in the literal sense. Its power strikes terror in me. Money has the power to do great good, to enrich the joys of life, to provide the means in this world for human flourishing. Money has the power also to so distort the image of God within us that we become like monsters to one another.
Jesus said, where your treasure is, there is your heart, also. I understand that to mean that my money flows according to my heart’s desire. I believe that money can come within the providence of God and move in the world as an instrument of God’s justice and love when it follows the prayer of a converted heart.
Our hope, then, for an economy here on earth that serves the common good of all creation, our only hope, lies in our conversion, the turning and opening of our hearts to the love of God.
Pray, then, this terrible parable. Pray the bewilderment it leads us into. Pray its light; pray its shadow. Pray God’s providence and the abundance of God’s Reign. And pray your money. Amen.
Rose, thank you for sending along the sermon. I have a couple of clarifying questions about it, which I hope are OK to ask you.
The passage in the sermon: “Jesus said, where your treasure is, there is your heart, also. I understand that to mean that my money flows according to my heart’s desire. I believe that money can come within the providence of God and move in the world as an instrument of God’s justice and love when it follows the prayer of a converted heart.”
Where does Jesus say this? Was the context such that he equated treasure with money? Or, is there a wider interpretation/implication?
The phrase heart’s desire speaks to both the heart as an instrument of love, an initiator of human behavior, and as a medium of desire. Our desire nature is far more complicated than that, and I am wondering about our reflective capacities to listen, evaluate and then act deeply out of our heart-voice. This is a quality of consciousness that I hope is attached to how our money moves.
Lastly, what does he mean by a converted heart?
These topics and the assumptions that live in them continue to fascinate and challenge me. As does the enchanting piper, I sometimes think I am sitting in reflection in the presence of a cobra!
The quote Steve mentions is found in Matthew 6:21. It is in the “Sermon on the Mount” and comes right after Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and decay destroys, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroy, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be.”
It is also shortly ahead of where Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Matthew 6:24
I do interpret it as a passage about earthly treasure and see that the whole section is pointing to the connection between money and the human heart.
I would love to hear Steve’s take on the converted heart.
I am also intrigued by your reference to sitting in the presence of a cobra. Say more.
Cobra is both sacred protector and lethal enemy (wisdom/vengeance)—a delicate dance. It is our ability to call forth the sacred nature through the music of our being, but with the mindfulness that if we fail in the music we invite the lethal nature. Our capacity of disciplined will is what carries us through this forever dance, so it is no wonder that when we physically depart we leave our wills, or what we will, for the next generation to continue the dance. Money has this double nature, both light and shadow, and is, in the end nothing other than a reflection of our ability to recognize and leverage the energies that light and shadow make available to us.
Thanks for the questions.
This is way more than you wanted, I’m sure, by way of response, but I was stimulated to put everything I believe on one page. It’s a bit heady and opaque, sorry. I’ve been learning a lot from the work of Rene Girard. I’m still digesting it, as you’ll see, and he shouldn’t be blamed for anything I’ve written.
A converted heart
However we come into this life, ‘the kingdom of this world’ in ‘the present age’ shapes us. It is a social order based in rivalry. Our heart (the seat of desire) is formed mimetically by the desires of those around us. I want what others have, and there seems to be only so much to go around. More for you means less for me.
Fear and envy lead to conflict and violence, each against all. Peaceful society emerges out of this chaos by a common act of exclusion and murder: ‘we’ find peace among ourselves (and security for our possessions) by turning together against an ‘other,’ a scapegoat. As shown in the myth of Cain and Able, we deny our culpability for violence against the innocent by implicating God. Human religion condones murder as ‘sacrifice;’ ‘God’ demands that we exclude/condemn/punish/eliminate the ungodly ‘others’. We are literally blind to the innocence of our victims. This order governs all social interactions, from adolescent peer groups to international relations, and it is the basis of our understanding of ownership and property. This is the “real world” in which violence is necessary and inequity is inevitable.
Only the return from the dead of one innocent victim could have unmasked the true nature of this world order. Jesus, entirely innocent, is condemned by religious authorities as a heretic and by political authorities as a rebel. ‘God’ and Caesar both require his death. His own disciples abandon (exclude) him. With his resurrection from the dead, not only is his innocence vindicated against ‘God and Caesar, but the true God is revealed to stand against religious, political and economic powers that be and with their victims. Human religion is shown to obscure our culpability in the suffering of the innocent. Political violence and economic inequity can no longer be justified. The present age’s account of the “real world” is a tissue of bloody lies.
Even more radically, because Jesus returned not to avenge himself against his murderers but with a message of forgiveness for his faithless friends, the true God is revealed to be entirely other than the ‘God’ of human religion. God stands entirely outside our schemes of dividing the righteous from the unrighteous, insider from outsider, just from unjust, godly from ungodly, etc. The heart of God –the nature of the universe, the truth of all being – is revealed as unconditional love, infinite grace, boundless self-giving, like the shining of the sun or the falling of the rain. The coming-into-being of all things is limitless. Death is unreal.
As this recognition enters the stream of human wisdom, it becomes possible for human hearts (our desires) to be shaped mimetically, not by the present rivalrous world order, but by the heart of God, the gracious nature of what is really real. The result is the converted heart. It desires only to give of itself and to forgive, drawing from the infinite Source of love. It sees abundance in life and therefore knows neither fear nor envy. It becomes rich by dis-possession. “More for you is more for me, because we are one.” It would rather be excluded than exclude, rather donate its life than take the life of another. It feels at home among the poor and rejected of the present age. It lives in the reign of God, the age to come.
Thank you for your powerful response to the question of the converted heart. I am only familiar enough with Rene Girard’s work to know that it is a deep ocean—and I am not a great swimmer. I do however trust in the capacity for self-transformation which I feel is akin to the conversion process, at least from my superficial perspective. I would be interested in any further thoughts you have on the relationship between money and desire.
Much can (and has) been said about how our current money system is designed with rivalry (competition) at its center. Less has been said about how we could be organizing our (local/regional, at minimum) economies based upon our realization of brotherhood/sisterhood. If I follow your train of thought to Occupy Wall Street, the framing of 99% vs 1% is a reflection of old system experience (the heart pre-conversion and a formulaic rivalry) rather than an inquiry into what is right (or righteous) for the 100% and how each human being can understand him or herself as an embodiment of the whole, even if it is an unpleasant, possibly unbearable, experience. The sense of separateness, my heart/your heart, is a myth. Quantum physics has proven this so though it may describe the interconnection as a field of energy. It is almost as if trust and forgiveness are reciprocal currencies. I imagine a converted heart also recognizes this.
I find us thinking on the same lines, of the reality of oneness/connectedness of all people and indeed of all being/s. I agree that Occupy’s thinking will not take us where we want to go, based as it is in uniting many over against some.
When I try to imagine a ‘converted’ economy, I wonder how we might think of money more like miraculous manna (Exodus 16). In this story, we receive what we need as gift; whoever gathers much does not have too much, whoever gathers little has yet enough; whatever anyone tries to hoard just goes rotten.
I don’t know how to design an economy like this, even at a very local level, but I know that, when I give or invest with a converted heart, I am looking for signs of this ‘miracle’ (which I believe to be actual practical truth): that my personal prosperity/ security is best secured by supporting the sustenance of all: the commonwealth.
I was expecting you to dive into contemplative practice as the doorway to the converted heart, Steve, but have very much appreciated hearing you articulate your thinking about what that means. The last two paragraphs of your reflection on Girard’s thinking are very moving for me, especially the possibility you mention of the converted heart mimicking God. When you speak of God as unconditional and thus not bound by human notions of righteous and unrighteous, I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s “The Fist.” I am reminded too of Harvest Time’s practice of “Levi’s Table” whereby we playfully welcome the part of ourselves that we have deemed sinner and thus excluded from the conversation about wisdom and money.
John, I love this: “I am wondering about our reflective capacities to listen, evaluate and then act deeply out of our heart-voice. This is a quality of consciousness that I hope is attached to how our money moves.” I hope so too. I am curious what you have learned in your journey about how to listen, evaluate and act out of our heart-voice? When I witness people doing that I feel as if I sit in the presence of a miracle. And I often witness the opposite with great sadness. Why some can open to the movement of the heart and some cannot is a mystery to me. Why and where the Holy Spirit breaks in is also a mystery. Because I have known and seen the latter, I always hold out for that in-breaking of the “heart-voice.”
I assume that in the depths of the human heart God is, and thus see that voice as fundamentally rooted in God. I also see that my work (whether personally or with others) is to create space so that the love that is buried in each of us can open and blossom. Sounds simple, but the human heart is also a bit of a labyrinth filled with all kinds of voices – our parents/teachers/financial advisor’s/the culture’s – and so the work of hearing the deep inner voice can be tricky. This is where the practices become very important. Seems to me that contemplative practice is key, as is depth community, solid psychological reflection/support, and Levi’s Table (or some other way of welcoming the shadow with joy). I have also found that the Be Present practice keeps me right at my growing edge pretty consistently.
Meanwhile, I believe that the inner work mirrors something happening in the world. I believe there is a movement of love pulsing through the world, especially the world of money, trying to open up new paradigms that support life for all. (I wish I were a Teilhard scholar so I could talk more about how God is moving through evolution to draw creation to the Omega point.) Thus, my listening is simultaneously internal and external; I am listening for the voice of love within and I am listening for the voice of love in the world. When I find the place where I sense that love moving, I want to be a part of it.
What does that look like? I like what you say Steve – that place where my wellbeing and another’s is not in tension but in sync. Yes. I notice, too, that I look for the place where the cultural divisions (race, class, gender, power, etc) cease to exist and I feel connected one human being to another. Something along those lines is what I touched on the farm in Mississippi that moved me deeply. Something along those lines is what I touch in Be Present circles.
I agree John that there are not many local examples, but I think they are emerging. I experienced this kind of sacred participation when I opened my children’s accounts at RSF. I experienced it just recently when I loaned a friend some money and we intentionally crafted the agreement as one that recognized we were both engaged in spiritual transformation of money (on the investing end for me/on the struggle with one of the big banks around foreclosure for her) and thus recognized the loan as a partnership in transformation. I experience this in Mississippi where Harvest Time is working with other non-profits to give away a farm in a way that subverts the typical power dynamics in gifting and instead moves from trust and mutual commitment to a common vision. In Harvest Time, I also see people stepping into all kinds of “experiments” to open new paradigms. That is to say, I think the time is ripe for experiments in money moving from a converted heart.
These are some thoughts from me as I listen to the conversation. Loving it.
I find this dialogue-inquiry an energetic exemplar of co-inspiration. I cannot imagine a more economic way to be in faithful articulation of a shared reality, one with no boundaries, rich with discovery, and little comfort.