Proper 28(33) A
Pentecost + 24
By Ragan Sutterfield
I have been spending my mornings in the woods lately, a short hike before I begin to work on the tasks of the day. As fall finally arrives here in Arkansas the juncos have returned, twittering as they flash the white of their tails, and the long metallic notes of white-throated sparrows echo in the understory. Each step along the trails comes with a crunch, not only of the newly fallen leaves, but also of the acorns, cracking orange against the gray shale of the hillsides.
I know of no better example of abundance than an acorn. In a “mast year,” occurring every 2-5 years in the forest cycle, a mature oak tree can produce as many as ten thousand acorns. Viewed from the perspective of continuing the life of its kind, this seems excessive, and yet it follows a pattern not uncommon in nature–a pattern that cycles through many periods of more than enough.
Like other realities of creation, the life of an oak tree is one that gives way to other life, multiplying exponentially. Not only that, it supports many other lives than those of seedling oaks. Acorns mean more squirrels, and more mice, which can mean more hawks and owls. The abundance moves and spreads, creating an economy of enough for the whole of the forest.
This is the kind of economy Jesus praised in the Sermon on the Mount where he tells us to look at the birds that “don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” How different from this economy of abundant sharing is the example we see in our parable today where we encounter a master who not only reaps and sows, but reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed.
The “Parable of the Talents” we encounter in Matthew 25:14-30 should be a troubling one for any interpreter. Well timed in the lectionary to fit with many a church’s “stewardship” season, the traditional interpretation sees God as the master and the faithful disciple as those who obtain a good return on the master’s money. However, we are also told that this master is one who is involved in aggressive and unjust business dealings and praises usury. Could this really be God?
Commentators I respect have accepted that the master is indeed God, and I would not be surprised at a parable that forces me to troubling conclusions (the Gospel is often a source of agitation, wherever one stands). However, walking along the trail, abundant with acorns, I cannot help but think that Ched Myers, Eric DeBode, Justin Ukpong, and others offering an alternative interpretation are right to say that this is a parable of critique rather than commendation. The master, rather than a stand in for God, is a member of the unjust elite. The servant who buries the talent, rather than being a fearful and lazy slave, is one who refuses to be complicit in the exploitation carried out by his master, critiquing the unfruitfulness of money which bares nothing when planted (unlike the wealth of creation). He is cast into the outer darkness, ostracized for not accepting an economy in which the poor will only get poorer while the rich get richer. In this, he is not unlike Jesus who will be cast out, spit upon, and crucified.
I cannot pretend to know the original meaning Jesus hoped to relate by telling this story or by Matthew in relating it. Such are the dark mirrors of hermeneutics. What I can offer instead are the fruitful paths of the parable’s agitation in my own understanding, the latent crops that burst forth when the soil was broken by the broadfork of this story.
Like most of my reading, this story fell into conversation with other books I’ve read or am reading, opening up new paths for understanding. In this case, as reflected on this parable I thought of a passage I’d recently read in William Stringfellow’s “Imposters of God: Inquiries Into Favorite Idols.” Among those favorite idols is “work,” which Stringfellow calls one of our most alluring and dangerous idols. The danger of work is that it can create a path for us of self-justifying “works righteousness,” an alternative hope for salvation than the acceptance of the gift economy of God’s reign. The only hope for liberation from this idol comes, Stringfellow writes, “when the worker realizes the freedom from the power of death given by the affirmation of life as a gift. Then work becomes a celebration and use of that freedom.”
No parable has given more aid to the idolatry of work than the parable of the talents. We have even adopted this denomination of currency into English as a word that connotes one’s special skills. It is easy for us to believe that our best value to the kingdom is to earn as much return as we can. As one wealthy Christian business man once told me, “my job is to make as much money as I can to support the church.” Stringfellow, following Jesus, wants to free us from such a view so that we can instead view our work in the proper context of God’s manna economy and the attendant freedom of that economy. We don’t need the rich to maximize their returns so that our church can survive. Instead, we need to turn our attention to the abundance of creation, the acorns dropping all around us in excess.
When we begin to understand that the way we enter into God’ economy is by way of freedom and gifts, we again see that the economy of the “master” with its demands for return and slave stewards is in opposition to the kingdom of God. Instead, in the next passage in Matthew we see a counter view of the way one lives toward God, a life of generosity that does not seek a return, the gifts of hospitality to strangers, generosity to the poor, and care for the sick that are done without expectation of return. It is only on the other side of those gifts that the disciples learn that they are in fact doing them for the Christ. They did these things out of abundant generosity that did not calculate any return.
Here God shows up first as a beggar, before appearing as a king. Reflecting on this contrast, Kelly Johnson remarks in her wonderful book The Fear of Beggars that:
God is not the powerful one who has granted us the freedom of independent but rule-bound use of resources. God is far stranger than that. The source of all, the ever present sustainer of all, creates a world which is free, and in doing so, is divested of control. God then waits, as a beggar, on the fulfillment of that freedom, which will be the return–gift of love. The freedom granted humanity by the beggar-God does not call for managers to “grow his business” in accord with company policy. The game is not how to make best use of the resources for the purposes of the Owner, but how to give oneself–heart, mind, muscles, home–to the beggar-Lord in love.” (199)
We begin to learn how to live into the ever moving gifts of this beggar-God not by learning from the patterns of the marketplace where extraction and exploitation are the norm and scarcity and fear make those who have want to have all the more. Instead, we should look to the birds of the air and lilies of the field, those who do not reap or sow or toil, but instead, live on the daily manna of acorns and seeds and all of the abundance that flows from them.
Ragan Sutterfield is the author, most recently, of Wendell Berry and the Given Life. He is an Episcopal priest serving a church in the historic territory of the Quapaw in Arkansas. Ragan is a member of the Wild Church network.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.