We Do Not Own What We Have

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Judges 4:1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

… Nothing
Is given that is not
Taken, and nothing taken
That was not first a gift.
Wendell Berry

I’m not as young as I used to be. I understand fully that any one of us could at any time say precisely the same thing, but what would otherwise be mere inanity has taken on surprising concreteness for me as I have begun to realize that someday I may no longer be able to do the work I love, or much work at all, for that matter. Treating retirement as a concrete, rather than an abstract, reality, has led me to think about money, and about whether there will be enough. According to the retirement calculator I consulted, the answer, unsurprisingly, is “no,” and even though I know that this answer is determined by an ideal standard of living to which I have never really aspired, it turns my thought to worry. I hate this, if for no other reason than because I hate the person it makes me or tempts me to become. I became acutely aware of these matters, which have been floating around my subconscious for a while now, when I began to study the gospel lesson for this week.

The lesson, typically called the “Parable of the Talents,” is the middle of the three parables of the kingdom that make up Matthew 25. It is also the most misunderstood, not simply of the three, but perhaps of all Jesus’ parables. “No parable has been more misused,” says Stanley Hauerwas, “than Jesus’s parable of the talents.” The widespread misuse to which the parable has been subjected, he says, has been largely due to our failure to read the story in its apocalyptic context and as part of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. By keeping such matters in mind and reining in our susceptibility to speculation, we are able to see that the parable has only obliquely to do with the ways we acquire and use wealth. Beyond that, we need to see that the parable is not primarily about a chief concern of many apocalypticists, that being the “when” of the promised kingdom. Rather, the parable is about learning to live as members of God’s kingdom now, fearlessly and joyfully embodying generosity in a world where what passes for common sense recommends we do quite the opposite.

In writing about this parable on another occasion, I suggested that it was about fear, specifically a fear born of actual or supposed scarcity. Hauerwas names another factor that seems to me complementary to this “politics of fear,” namely our sense of entitlement; “the parable,” he says, “is a clear judgment against those who think they deserve what they have earned, as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been given.” As soon as we begin to think that anything we have is our own, that it is ours because we have acquired it solely by virtue of our individual efforts, and that we must clutch it tightly because there is not enough and we are alone in the world with no one else to help us or care for us, then we have turned aside from the way of Jesus and his kingdom.

The way of Jesus and his kingdom is not merely a path around or through a broken world marked by greed and the violence necessary to sustain it. Rather, it is an invitation to enter into a different world altogether, a world that Paul called the “new Creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Jesus clearly wants us to understand that the first two slaves in the parable, those who risked what they had been given and were in turn given more, understood and inhabited this different world. The third slave, on the other hand, who feared risk, remained trapped in the darkness of the broken world, suspecting that all he had was all there might ever be. Hauerwas suggests he “assumed that he… was part of a zero-sum game.” The fear this assumption engendered led him to “try to turn the gift into a possession,” something he dared not risk. His true master turned out to be not the one who gave him the talent, but the fear that kept him from risking it. Such fear is in a host of ways an ever-present characteristic of our world, and so at least a part of most of our lives. It is what makes me worry about dying alone and poor.

The good news of the parable is certainly not that God rewards the prudent investor. But neither is it that a heavenly reward awaits those who cast fear to the winds and take risks for the kingdom, though that may well be true. The good news is that through baptism we may become part of a people who are in this life and the next members of one another, who live by a different economy, one in which we do not own what we have, and so are free to watch it go as it has come, as gift, given by a God of boundless generosity. Thanks be to God.

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