A Provocation: Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost: November 19, 2017: Matthew 25:14-30

Matthew 25:14-30
25:14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;

25:15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

25:16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.

25:17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.

25:18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

25:19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.

25:20 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.’

25:21 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.’

25:22 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.’

25:23 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.’

25:24 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;

25:25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

25:26 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?

25:27 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.

25:28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

25:29 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.

25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

A Question or Two:

  • Why is the master going on a “journey?”
  • Do the slaves think he is coming back?
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

A man is going on a journey.  This man has slaves, slaves that belong exclusively to him.  This man also had property.  Listen to that word, “property.”  Inside that word in English is the word “proper.”  That is not an accident.  “Property,” in English, is that which properly belongs to a person.  When a person has property, it is not just that they have possession of a thing.  The relationship is closer than that.  The property belongs to them, and they belong to it, properly.

The same thing is true in the Greek of this scene.  This man with slaves who is shifting his domain to foreign places (also implied by the Greek) commits his property to those slaves.  The phrase in Greek is τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ.  The participle that is translated as “property” is ὑπάρχοντα, and it refers to those things that a person has sole control of, sole responsibility for, and sole ownership of.  The man going on a journey “owns” the things he has “own-ership” of.  Again, notice the interwoven English words.  That which is his ὑπάρχοντα is more than just stuff that he has; it is his very own, his substance.  

And the Greek says that he handed ALL of it over to his slaves, each according to the unique ability of that slave (ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὴν ἰδίαν δύναμιν).  That means that the first slave was judged to have the power to manage five talents, which some authorities estimate would have been equal to about $6.25 million.  

Remember that this is a slave, a person who does not even properly own (again, those words) their own body.  People who are held as slaves will have had remarkable abilities, to be sure, but they will not likely have had too much experience handling $6.25 million.

This parable, like all parables, is odd.

The first slave was given $6.25 million.  The second slave is judged to have the power to manage $3.75 million, which is less than $6.25 million, but still a remarkable amount.

The third slave is put in charge of a single talent, about $1.25 million.  It is worth noting that this is still a tremendous amount of money for most people.  Bankers may deal with such amounts on a regular basis, and venture capitalists may through a million or two at this project or that, but most of us hope to have that kind of money in our retirement accounts, or wish that we did.  But we don’t think of those amounts as walking-around money.

Everyone knows that when the master returns (after an indefinite period only named as a “long time”) the slaves are called to account for the money they were handed.

There are a few things to be noted here.

First, the storyteller does NOT tell us that they were ordered to invest the money.  They weren’t given any orders at all; they were just given the money.  It was just handed over to them.  And while the English translations tell us that the master was going on a “journey,” the Greek tells us that he was shifting his domicile, which could mean that he was leaving forever.  Return is not implied.  So the first two slaves might well have assumed that when the property was handed over, it was likely to stay in their hands.  They might well have assumed that the master was gone for good.

If that is the case, then the the third slave was the only one who thought the master was coming back.  Interpreters usually beat up on the third slave because of the things he says about the master: he’s a harsh man, he reaps where he does not sow, he lives off the hard work of others.  The master clearly doesn’t like him: he calls him lazy and wicked.  But his actions reveal that he clearly expected the master to return.  And he was ready when it turned out that he was right.  We have had plenty of parables about being expectant and ready.  It’s almost like the third slave has been listening in as the other parables were told, and plans accordingly.  And for that he is called lazy and wicked.

Did I mention that this parable is odd?

It gets odder.

As I noted in my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, the Talmud also addresses this kind of situation.  When a master leaves a subordinate (over whom he has power, even the power of life and death), the Talmud advises that a subordinate ought “Take no risks.  Bury the cash in the ground.”  This advice recognizes the reality of the power differential between master and subordinate.  Masters often require subordinates to take risks that will get them fired if things don’t work out.  Have you ever worked for a boss like that?  I have.  Ish.

The Talmud’s advice is even better when you consider this odd little parable.  We are told that the master handed over to the slaves his property.  It does say that this is SOME of his property.  It may just imply that this is ALL of his property.  We ought, therefore, assume that the third slave watches as the situation develops and knows what to expect from the first two slaves: they will play the market, they will feel rich, they will gamble with someone else’s money.  Playing the market makes you look like a genius.  Unless you lose.  Perhaps the third slave knows that the first two won’t think of that.

If this is what is going on, he looks at his (measly) single talent and sees in it the last of his master’s fortune.  And he concludes that someone has to be the backstop for this crazy scheme.  He buries the money so that even if the other two lose everything, the master will still have $1.25 million to start over with.  That doesn’t sound lazy or wicked to me.

In the aftermath of his return and the settling of accounts, the master demonstrates that the third slave had estimated his character pretty accurately.  He was indeed harsh: “…from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” he says.  He seems to have thought that living off the work of others was a virtue, not just a fact of life: “…to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance,” he says.  And then, to cement our impression of the harshness of his character, he throws the third slave into the outer darkness, where he will learn to weep and gnash his teeth.

In the aftermath he also reveals the truth of what often seems true of the over-privileged in any century: he says to the slave who had been given $6.25 million to play with: “You were trustworthy in a few things….”  For almost all of us, 6.25 million of ANYTHING is not “a few things.”  Only the uselessly wealthy would even think to say such a thing.

I have to say it: if there is someone in this parable who is lazy, it would be the one who makes his living by reaping what others sowed.  If there is someone who is wicked, it would be the one who takes from the poor the little that they have.  And if there is anyone who is worthless in this parable….  Well, you get the picture.

 

 

If this isn’t an abusive parable about God’s absolute right to cast slaves into the outer darkness, then the point of this parable (thank you, Adolf Jülicher) appears to be: Don’t expect the return of the master.  We would appear to be on our own, whether the master returns or not.

I must have mentioned, sometime or other, that this parable is odd.  I must have.

A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost: November 12, 2017: Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13
25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

25:2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

25:3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;

25:4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.

25:5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.

25:6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’

25:7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.

25:8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’

25:9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’

25:10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.

25:11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’

25:12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’

25:13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

A Question or Two:

  • Why are there so many stories about weddings?
  • Why are people always excluded in those stories?

Some Longer Reflections:

How odd.

All parables are odd.  That’s what makes them parables.

But Matthew’s parables are really odd.  And in that odd bunch, this one stands out:

  • there is a clear hierarchy of power, with a male holding ultimate power and being addressed as “lord,”  κύριε in Greek;
  • in this clear hierarchy, there is a group of women, identified in English as “bridesmaids” and in Greek as παρθένοι (which means virgins), without power who ask for admission, and are refused;
  • there is another group of women, also παρθένοι, that is not excluded;
  • the first group of παρθένοι is characterized as being μωραὶ, which is weakly translated into English as “foolish,” but means something more like “morons,” a much harsher word;
  • the other group of women is characterized as being  φρόνιμοι, translated as “wise,” which implies to my ear depth and breadth of knowledge, moral virtue, and piercing insight, but the word in Greek is  φρόνιμοι, which means something more like “prudent,” which only means (for sure) that they were good at planning ahead;
  • being  φρόνιμοι apparently does not imply that they are kind or generous, since when the other women discover that their lamps are going out the φρόνιμοι refuse to share with them;
  • as further evidence, both of their lack of influence and their lack of generosity, when the μωραὶ return after buying oil sometime after midnight (quite a feat in a world without 24-hour convenience stores), they do not intercede on behalf of their sisters to help them gain admission to the marriage feast;
  • the “lord”  (κύριε) tells those who have hunted for oil in the middle of the night, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

This is odd.  It is entirely possible that he does not know them, especially if he is the bridegroom and they are “bridesmaids,” since this would imply that they come from different clans.  But why, then, does he not ask the bride to identify them?

Of course, as Jülicher pointed out in the last century, parables make a central point, and they will move heaven and the narrative earth to do this.  So the unreasonable act of exclusion is what allows the storyteller to give Jesus his final line: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  This final line implies that we ought perhaps to be thinking about the “feast that is to come,” and not just some average wedding feast.  But that makes things worse, not better, since now inclusion in the Dominion of God is determined by a gatekeeper who locks the door against those who are not sufficiently prudent, against those who asked for help and were refused.

This is not the first wedding feast in the gospel of Matthew with a master who retaliates, but the last time the invited guests were murderous brutes.  This time the people excluded are little girls.  If women typically married at around 13 years of age, as many sources suggest, then the μωραὶ in this story could be 10 or 12 years old.  Even in a world that expects full adulthood to emerge at 13, this is unreasonable.  

Prudence is a virtue, but this goes too far.  

I am sure that interpreters will, this year as every year, find a way to justify this narrative structure.  Perhaps this is really about the abruptness of the arrival of the Reign of God, so abrupt (they will say) that it seems random, both in its long delay and in its unexpected appearance.

Sure.

Or perhaps this will be about a wider meaning of prudence, one that includes a long-established practice of Torah observance, and this, not the arrival of the Reign of God, is the real point.

That could work.

Or perhaps this is a parable about how a life well-lived is a life that experiences every instant as being charged with the electricity of the aeon.  Read this way, the parable urges a kind of apocalyptic mindfulness.

I kind of like this last option.

But when I finish hearing the parable, I still notice that it does its work by separating and excluding.  The women are separated from each other (by the amount of oil in their lamps) and they do not offer aid to each other.  Those who arrive late have the door shut in their faces, this though it is the middle of the night and they are alone on the street.  Beyond that, this story of separation and exclusion aims its energy at women.

I am suspicious of such stories, and have come to distrust them.  There is danger in narrative schemes that only work if women are made to be morons.  There is danger in any theological structure that imagines that separation and exclusion are the essence of faithfulness.  It is time we pointed these dangers out.

I notice (as I have written before) that at the end of the story Jesus no longer does his work by separating and excluding.  When he appears to his gathered disciples, some “wise” enough to worship, some “foolish” enough to doubt (Matthew 28, only three chapters from this scene), he does not slam the door in the face of the doubters.  Instead, he sends the whole mixed group out to baptize and teach, and he explicitly promises to be with ALL  of them, wise and foolish, worshipers and doubters, throughout the aeon.

I wonder if he apologized to the little girls that he called morons?

 

A Provocation: Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost: November 5, 2017: Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23:1-12
23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,

23:2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;

23:3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

23:4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.

23:6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,

23:7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.

23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.

23:9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven.

23:10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant.

23:12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

A Question or Two:

  • If we are not to be called instructors, what are we supposed to call kindergarten teachers, or chemistry professors, or drill instructors?
  • What does it mean that Messiah is our instructor?  Think about this question slowly.

Some Longer Reflections:

It is so easy to think of people who “do all their deeds to be seen by others.”  It is easy to convince myself that this is because they so obviously intended their deeds to be easily seen.

You see it all the time.

Of course, I do find myself wishing, briefly perhaps, that they would have noticed what I was doing, but I also notice the creepy irony of this development.

But then I notice how people at the mall or on the streets or at public seem to have no ability to walk in crowds.  No one makes room for anyone.

But only then do I remember that the crowds I walk in, for the most part, are on the campus where I teach.  People on campus respect professors, and crowds part like the Red Sea for us.

Even if I don’t wear a broad phylactery or long fringes.

Jesus’ words in this little scene hold up a mirror that I keep wanting to transform into a window.  I want to look through this window and see how other people are doing it wrong.

Whatever “it” is.

But every time I try to look through the window, I see my own face looking back at me.

It would be simple to use this scene to support a theology that spends its energy discovering, over and over and over (and over), that we are inescapably sinful.  That is a simple enough truth.  If “sin” means “missing the mark,” then that is something that we all do.  Some of this “mark-missing” is dull and ordinary, the sort of thing that everyone does everyday.  Some theologies spend their energy requiring us to lament our “most grievous sin” when all they are talking about is our ordinary failings and common clumsiness.  Martin Luther was afflicted by a theology that saw such failings as the cause of divine hatred.  God, he believed, hated every sin, and burned with anger at our faults and failings.  His contribution to the Reformation was built on a rejection of this self-hating theology.

And some of the “mark-missing” that we face is much more serious.  Recently, I was talking with a friend, a physician.  He was describing the skill of one of his colleagues.  A procedure required this physician to insert a large gauge needle into a growth dangerously near to a major artery.  “He was fast.  He was sure.  He was exactly on the mark,” said my friend.  “That’s courage.  That’s real skill.  If he had missed the mark, the patient would have bled out right there on the table.”

Not all serious “missing of the mark” involves needles.  But some does.  And life often hangs in the balance.

This sort of “mark-missing” requires a different sort of theological reflection.  While it is true that our small acts are organically connected to our large acts, to equate everyday failings with life-and-death errors trivializes both the crimes we commit and (from a very different angle) the risks we require people to take for our sake.

Trivializing crimes leads to demands that we forgive them as easily as we dismiss slights and insults.  This leads us to deep misunderstandings of our life together.  We harm each other in big and small ways, and imagining that it is all the same to God leads to the (I think, inevitable) conclusion that God is too far away to understand our life.

And imagining that it is the same thing for me to make a mistake while teaching a class as it is for a physician to make a mistake with a large gauge needle is simply foolish.  We ask physicians to dare to hold life in their hands.  We ask people in the armed forces to learn to kill, and to learn not to.  We ask firefighters and people in law enforcement to run toward danger, not away from it.  All of this comes with a cost, to the individual person and to society.  And when such people “miss the mark,” the outcomes are sometimes terrible.  A physician who handles life carelessly commits a great wrong, as does a military leader who wastes the lives of those under his command.  And a police officer who brutally beats a citizen during a traffic stop destroys our ability to live together and trust each other.

Any decent theology will shine light both on the fearsome responsibilities we ask people to take on and on the ways small sins and large crimes grow out of the same root (when they, in fact, do).

And any decent theology will train us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the God who loves the whole of Creation, us included.  This may be what the Messiah is instructing us to discover.

 

 

A Provocation: Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost: October 29, 2017: Matthew 22:34-46

Matthew 22:34-46
22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,

22:35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

22:36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

22:37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

22:38 This is the greatest and first commandment.

22:39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

22:41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:

22:42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”

22:43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

22:44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘?

22:45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”

22:46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

A Question or Two:

  • What makes the world work?
  • Is your answer the same as the one Jesus gave?

Some Longer Reflections:

It is time to stop punishing the Pharisees for testing Jesus.  If he is to be the messiah, he should be tested.  When I go to see my physician, I want her to have been tested.  I want the same thing when I call an electrician.

Why would you want less for the messiah?

And this test question is the friendliest possible question.  If anything, it is too simple.  But is radically simple.  If Torah is the logic that holds the universe together, the lawyer (read that: Torah expert) is asking about the internal logic of the Torah.  He is asking Jesus to identify the most basic principle at the heart of everything.  This is an important question.

Jesus gives an important answer, and a very good one: “Love the God whose Name is Mercy, love the God who made heaven and earth, love God with your ethical decisions, Love God with your life, love God in all your efforts to make sense of a crazy world.”

He does not stop there, and that matters.  Religious fanatics often assert that they love God.  In fact, they are often sure that they love God more than you do, more than anyone else CAN.  People who love God like that are sometimes ready to burn the world down for the love of God.  Jesus does not stop with loving God.  “Love your neighbor,” says Jesus, which will make it impossible to burn the world down.

Matthew’s storyteller does not tell us how the Pharisees reacted, but history does.  Jesus’ answer is the same one given by rabbis of his own era.  Matthew’s audience will have known this, and we ought to interpret the storyteller’s silence as acknowledging this.  The Torah expert asks a good question.  Jesus gives a good answer.  Everyone in this scene agrees.

Now Jesus asks a question.  This, also, is a simple question.  The Pharisees give a good answer.  “The Messiah is the son of David,” they say, making it clear that they, like Jesus, expect the Messiah to correct the wrongs done in the world back to the time of the Babylonian conquest.  Every promise of God hangs on the mission of the Messiah.  Both the Pharisees and Jesus expect a great deal from God and Divine Promises.

Now Jesus asks another question.  This one is a complicated question: “How can Messiah be both son and lord of David?”  The interpretive principles and practices that make Jesus’ reading of Scripture acceptable are worth reflection.  For the best discussion, see Donald Juel’s Messianic Exegesis.  What catches my eye right now is how large a claim the storyteller has Jesus making.  For Jesus’ argument to work, it is not enough for “lord” to begin with a capital letter (“Lord”).  Jesus’s claim depends on “lord” being spelled with ALL capital letters (LORD).  Messiah, Jesus is claiming that Messiah deserves the “Name that is above all names,” to bring Paul and the Christ hymn into the game (Philippians 2:6-11).  That means that Jesus has just identified Messiah with the Mercy Attribute, the name of God that is used whenever God acts to save, choose, forgive, and bless.

The storyteller informs us that this was the end of people questioning Jesus.  It is not surprising that, in a gospel story, Jesus wins the questioning contest.

But it is worth noting that the Pharisees, just because they cannot answer, do not disagree about the nature and work of the Messiah.  The question that remains for the Pharisees is whether Jesus enacts the saving, choosing, forgiving, and blessing work that has always been central to God’s mission in the Creation.  They will watch Jesus to see.

And our neighbors will watch us to see the same thing: does our mission to be the “body of Messiah” extend God’s kindness?  Or do we devote our energy to burning the world down?

It is a serious question.

A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost: October 22, 2017: Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 22:15-22
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.

22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.

22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.

22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

A Question or Two:

  • So, IS IT allowable to pay tribute, or is it not?
  • Are you really sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

This contest scene is kind of fun.

The basic elements are unexceptional: Jesus and the Pharisees are jousting.  The joust concerns the duties and responsibilities of people of faith in a world dominated by Rome.  Jesus amazes them.  This is all pretty ordinary.

But the specific details of this joust are not at all ordinary.

First of all, the Pharisees make common cause with the Herodians.  This is more than odd.  The Herodians are allied with the Empire.  The Pharisees are most definitely not.  The Pharisees send their students to the Herodians and they cook up a test that could get Jesus in trouble with the Jewish people.  Apparently they want their students to pass for Herodians, for collaborators with Roman power.  Maybe they wore costumes.  They would probably have to, since the Pharisees dressed like observant Jews and the Herodians wore what are called elsewhere “gorgeous clothes.”  So, up walk the Herodians, with a bunch of disguised students (think of them as graduate assistants) in their midst.  They ask their question.

Why did they need to be masquerading as Herodians?

That was so that Jesus might be suckered into playing up to Roman collaborators and saying that it was acceptable to pay tribute to the foreign dominating power.  Or maybe he would give a fire-and-brimstone refusal, and that would anger the Herodians and get him in trouble with Rome.  Either way, Jesus loses.

Except that the graduate assistants aren’t as good at passing for Herodians as they could have been.  Jesus sees them right away and calls them “play-actors” (that’s what ὑποκριταί means, after all).  And it’s important to translate it that way.  The line is hilarious.  Jesus is telling them that they need a better costume department.  Or they need more practice talking with the accent of a Herodian.  Or that their attempts at method-acting are a little weak.  Let the line be as funny as it really must have been.

So he asks for a coin.

At that point, two things could have happened.  Maybe the Pharisee-graduate-assistants-posing-as-Herodians actually had the idolatrous coin in their pockets, at which point they found themselves called out as posers.  Or maybe they did not, in which case I can hear them cursing their props department for not thinking about what Herodians would need to have in their pockets before sending them out on stage.

Either way, Jesus plays with them.

The storyteller does not say that Jesus took the coin.  He just looked at it.  “Whose head is that, I wonder?”, says Jesus.  “It’s the emperor,” the poor graduate assistants say, thus revealing that they not only have an example of idolatry on their hands (literally!), but that they are holding the coin of collaboration.

This is masterful.  They are SO caught.

Jesus then says something cryptic about giving to the emperor and giving to God.  The general meaning is clear enough, but the complications are where the lesson is lodged.  Is he actually advocating paying tribute?  Or is he saying that anyone who has the coin of collaboration might just as well pay tribute?  Or is he saying that, since they all have to pay tribute in any case, they should pay while remembering who it is that called them to be Jews?  Or is it more complicated than that?

As is the case with most decent teaching, the complication and the pondering are more important than the answer.

 

 

A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 15, 2017: Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14
22:1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:

22:2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

22:3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.

22:4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’

22:5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,

22:6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.

22:7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

22:8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.

22:9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’

22:10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

22:11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,

22:12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.

22:13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

A Question or Two:

  • Would you invite people like that to your child’s wedding?
  • Would you GO to a wedding like that?

Some Longer Reflections:

This parable makes no sense.  At the very least, it is offensive.  The king has time to launch an attack on the city of his unworthy guests, kill them all and burn their city, all between killing the fatted calves and serving the appetizers.  Really?  And before that, the unworthy guests kill the messengers that invite them to a feast?  Seriously?  And the substitute guests, gathered off the street randomly, are expected to be wearing tuxedos?  And the one guy who is not so attired is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness?  So now we have the death penalty for the dress code?

There is nothing proportionate or balanced here.  If this is meant to be a picture of how God deals with Creation, this is not a God worthy of the name.

I mean it.

This scene (and many others like it) are what convinced me to pay closer attention to the way Matthew tells his story of Jesus, the messiah who escaped genocide.  I sketched this interpretive line in this blog last week.  And I made the argument at greater length in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.

You can read my argument in those places if you would like.

This week I am fixated on this strange parable.

If we are meant to decode parables by figuring out which character is God, which is us, and which is our opponent, this parable is dangerous, and for obvious reasons.

But parables are not coded allegories, and Adolf Jülicher taught us that roughly a century ago.  Parables, Jülicher taught us, are focused stories that make a single point.  This was a good lesson.  Even when parables seem to make more than a single point, still the parable itself is a crafted story, and works the way any well-told story works.  Stories, even very short ones, project worlds in which the story takes place.  These worlds stand in tension with the world we think we live in.  This is true for every novel, every story, but it is especially true for parables, which are (as John Dominic Crossan taught us 40 years ago) world-disruptors.  Until you have felt the earth shaking, you have not discovered the real force of a parable.

There are other interpreters of the parables whose work we should read, but Jülicher and Crossan will give us a place to start with the parable in this preaching text.  Following their lead, there are a few questions we should ask:

  1. What is the world created by this little story?  It is a world with kings, and therefore it is a world with subjects.  It is a world structured hierarchically, a world in which power holds things in the place that kings want them held.  That goes a long way toward explaining one oddity in this little story: it starts with an occasion of joy (“a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son”) and ends in murderous rage, which is acted out by both the subjects and the king.  The rage reveals that the joy is a veneer, a light coat of paste wax over the crude working of the machinery of power.  The subjects attempt a rebellion and the king destroys their city.The rage is also revealed in the king’s response to the guest (compelled to attend) who did not have a wedding garment.  You can invent any number of explanations for this odd reaction if you somehow need to make the king look justified.  Interpreters have done exactly that for centuries.  But the king’s violent and disproportionate reaction is best read as a revelation of the raw power that makes the world of the parable what it is.

    In that world, the king fails at controlling his subjects and his failure makes him insecure.  Worried monarchs are dangerous monarchs: they are likely to erupt in rage.

  2. What makes the earth shake in this parable?  

For the king, the answer is easy: the king’s world is shaken by his inability to command respect.  When his world is shaken, he erupts in destructive rage.  Even if we judge that the murder of his son is what set him off, still his rage is destructive and unreasoning.  He destroys an entire city.  He throws a man into the outer darkness (bound hand and foot) for not wearing a tuxedo.  When the king’s security is shaken, he reveals that everyone else’s security is an illusion.

For the audience for the parable, the question of the cause of the earthquake is somewhat more complicated.  If the king’s violence offends the audience, then the violence itself is the earthquake, especially when the parable is presented as if we are to identify the king with God.  In that case, the audience is shaken by what the king does, and out of being shaken emerges a resistant interpretation.  Which is unsettling, even for people who have learned to ask hard questions of biblical texts.

But the earthquake is even more unsettling when the audience is NOT offended by the king’s actions.  Then they approve of the anger; then they are sucked into sharing the anger.

On the one hand, sharing the king’s anger will offend people around the audience.  Anger reinforces itself.  That seems true enough.  But anger also divides, splitting communities into groups of Us and Them, with Us standing in sharp opposition to Them.

As a result, anger also isolates.  The edges erode around the group of Us that is defined by our anger at Them.  Having already concluded that there is no possible connection between Us and Them, it is distressing to discover that the group of Us grows smaller, and thus more isolated.

And this increases Our anger at Them.  People leave Us because they begin to conclude that anger is destructive.  This also causes an earthquake.

Eventually, a small hardcore group of Us is left, united only by the purity of their anger, and they have to decide whether pure anger, and angry purity, are enough.

This is exactly the situation that I think exists at the end of Matthew’s story, and the last person to abandon Us is Jesus himself.  When he accuses God of abandoning him at the moment of his death, Jesus exhausts his purity.  When God raises him from the dead, his anger no longer operates.  Given the chance to split his final audience into a group of Us (the remnant of believers) and Them (those who, the storyteller informs us, doubt), Jesus abandons both anger and purity and sends the whole mixed crowd out to train people in grace and forgiveness.

This may be the biggest earthquake of them all.

 

A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 8, 2018: Matthew 21:33-46

Matthew 21:33-46
21:33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

21:34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.

21:35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.

21:36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

21:37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

21:38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”

21:39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

21:40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

21:41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

21:42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

21:43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

21:44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

21:45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.

21:46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

A Question or Two:

  • What is the connection between this parable and its apparent interpretation?
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard….

Thus begins the parable.  And here ends, too often, interpretive attention to the parable itself.  The scene concludes with a clear and obvious attack on the Pharisees and the chief priests.  Interpreters understand that part of the scene well, and they often limit their reading to that attack.

When the parable is read at all, it is used to provide indictments-after-the-fact to justify (somehow) Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees and chief priests.  How did they know that Jesus was speaking about them?  According to customary interpretation, it was because they knew they didn’t produce the “fruits of the kingdom.”  It was because they saw themselves revealed as the murderers of the owner’s servants.

Before preaching on this passage, take a little time to untangle the actual history of the situation.

  • Why attack the chief priests?  They were forced to collaborate with Roman authorities, to act as the “organ of liaison” to manage the population on Rome’s behalf.  As such, they were resented.  They were also well-paid for their work for Rome.  For this, they were also resented.  And all this resentment served Rome’s purposes very well, indeed.  It diverted attention, and resentment, away from Rome to Jewish officials.  When Matthew’s storyteller attacks the chief priests (in a story composed in its present form after Rome crushed the 1st Jewish Revolt), the storyteller is speaking against Rome and against collaboration.
  • Why attack the Pharisees?  They were middle class business folk who believed Torah observance should shape all of life.  Christians seem to have believed that, too.  Certainly they disagreed about details and patterns of practice.  Disagreement was not, and is not, unusual in such matters.  Linking the Pharisees with the chief priests seems at least awkward, and mostly unlikely.  The Pharisees’ strong support of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against Rome (132-135C.E.) makes them unlikely collaborators.  And they (unlike the Sadducees, the priestly group) survived the Revolt against Rome because they were not so tightly tied to the Temple.  But because they survived the Revolts, as did the Christians, they (and the Christians) were among the factions accusing each other of causing the loss of the Temple.  Later rabbis, asked what led to the loss of the Temple, answered that it was factionalism.  When Matthew’s storyteller attacks the Pharisees, it is evidence of one part of the inter-group fighting the rabbis were talking about.
  • The charge that the “tenants” rejected, killed, and stoned the owner’s servants interprets the chief priests and the Pharisees as the modern-day killers of the prophets.

Stop right there.

Are you as weary as I am with week after week of Jesus dividing the world into angels and demons, us and them, the “saved” and “those wretches [that deserve] a miserable death”?  Even if you aren’t, I am exhausted.

 

This last instance is dangerous, and it is long past time for us to say so publicly and clearly.  For one thing, dragging in the “killers of the prophets” is (I would say) a little like painting every opponent as communist or a fascist (depending on your own political preferences).  Pretty soon everyone who didn’t already agree with you quits listening.  That is a rotten outcome, and is evidence of poor thinking and cheap analysis.

But there is a worse problem.  Jesus strongly implies that the priests and the Pharisees are prophet-killers.  The storyteller tells us that the people judged Jesus to be a prophet.  And since Jesus dies near the end of Matthew’s story, readers are being set up to imagine priests (custodians of pre-70C.E. Jewish faith) and Pharisees (leading figures in post-70C.E. formative Judaism) as killers of the Christ.

Stop that.

The Christian faith may never recover from the damage that was done by people who have believed such vicious theologies.

Vicious theologies have many different roots, but Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as rigid and willing to send his opponents to “the outer darkness where people wail and gnash their teeth” provides one set of those roots.  Naïve readings of Matthew’s story, therefore, has led to odd situations: Christian interpreters (who think they are following Jesus) blast Pharisees for being rigid and rejecting, and the Christians gladly (and absolutely) reject them for that.  Christians end up as rigid as their imagined opponents.  Weird.

I have advanced a very different reading of Matthew’s story in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  You can read it for the long version of the argument.

But the heart of my re-reading is in my noticing that Jesus regularly divides the world into the perfect and the damned throughout the story.  Whenever he meets a crowd, he discovers imperfect people in that crowd and sends them to the outer darkness where the fire never goes out.  This pattern suddenly shifts in the last scene in the story.  Jesus meets a crowd after being raised from the dead.  The crowd is made up of those who believe and those who doubt.  In any other scene, doubting would be an imperfection that earns damnation.

Not this time.

This time Jesus sends the whole mixed group out to baptize and teach.

Anytime a character changes, there has to be a reason.  I argue that it was the resurrection that changed Jesus.

Read the book.  See if you agree.

For now, though, stop feeding images of a Jesus who always blasts his opponents.  Just stop.

A Provocation: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 1, 2017: Matthew 21:23-32

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do the chief priests and the elders of the people ask their question?
  • Are you sure that is the reason?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is another of the many conflict scenes in the gospels.  This time, Jesus is in a debate with the chief priests and the elders of the people.

Conflict (whether in stories or in regular life) needs to be handled wisely.  It is easy to make things worse.  In a hurry.

So, some general suggestions for handling conflict:

  1. Pay attention to people.
  2. Pay attention to detail.
  3. Work to solve the problem (whatever it might be), and don’t just fight to win the argument.

So, first pay attention to people:

Who are the people in this scene?  Well, Jesus, of course.  This is not a surprise since this is a scene from a gospel, and in a gospel Jesus is in nearly every scene.  But it is worth noticing what happens to Christian interpreters when Jesus walks onstage.  Immediately we defer to him.  We begin with the assumption that our job is to submit to his authority and meekly agree with whatever he says.  It is worth noting that the gospels themselves do not require this of characters who encounter Jesus.  To cite one important instance, the Canaanite mother who met Jesus in chapter 15 challenged him directly, and did so with the approval of the storyteller.  So even though we know how the scene for this Sunday ends, perhaps we ought not drain all the tension from it by submitting too soon.

And in this scene we meet the chief priests and the elders of the people.  By now we have all learned to recognize that the priestly authorities had been made to cooperate with Roman rule, whether out of greed and boorishness (á là Victor Tcherikover), or out of forced collaboration (á là Warren Carter).  This has been a good thing to learn.  It is clear that the gospel storytellers do not approve of the priestly authorities and cast them as unfaithful opponents of Jesus.  It is important to recognize that tendency.  But if we are to take the conflict seriously, we cannot approach it as if all we need are simple heroes (always Jesus) and obvious villains.  Paying attention to the people requires that we ask what is at stake for the chief priests and elders when they ask Jesus about authority.

So, why might they be concerned about authority?  If they have been charged (by Pilate, for Rome) with the task of keeping the peace by reporting troublemakers, then their question has a sharp edge.  They clearly see Jesus as a potential troublemaker.  If he claims the right to make trouble for sociological or political reasons, they have a pragmatic responsibility.  If, however, he claims a theological justification, then they face a more serious problem.  Either way, they may well have to turn him over to the Roman authorities to prevent Pilate from randomly killing Jews in order to remind people that he was in charge.  But the fact that they ask the theological question means that they (at some level, anyhow) share the expectation that God will anoint an agent (sometime, somehow) who will finally turn the world right-side-up.  But they ask because it is foolish to waste this old, passionate hope on someone who will fail at the task.  Such failure would be devastating.

If you pay attention to the people in the scene, you see that they are asking a question that SOMEONE has to ask.  Faith is too important to waste on a fool who can only fail.

Next, pay attention to detail:

Jesus is challenged not just by priests and elders, as serious as that would be.  He is challenged by the CHIEF priests and the elders OF THE PEOPLE.

Because they are the CHIEF priests, it is clear that they are tightly tied to the Temple, the center of the Jewish world that provides focus and stability in a chaotic world.  That is why they are concerned not to undermine the structures that have kept the Jewish people safe.  That is also why Roman carefully suborned the chief priests and forced them to serve as its organ of liaison, its tool of domination.

But of even greater importance is the storyteller’s choice to identify the elders as the elders τοῦ λαοῦ.  The word, λαος, is not a name for an indiscriminate crowd, nor does it name people in general.  The word refers to the congregation of faithful people.  The storyteller did not have to use this word.  It would have been enough to simply mention the elders.  By bringing in the word tied to the people who trusted the promise that made them Jews in the first place, the elders are tied to faithfulness, and this means that we, the audience, are expected to take their question seriously.  Even if they turn out to be incorrect, they offer their challenge on the basis of faith, not unfaith.  

And, finally, work to solve the problem:

This probably lands in our lap (more than in the lap of the storyteller) because we are charged with advancing readings of this scene that connect with our surrounding world.

Conflict has become the most obvious characteristic of our contemporary scene.  We have a president who fires up his base supporters by throwing them stereotyped calls to arms.  “Don’t you just want to watch football without having to think about politics?,” he shouts.  The answer is a resounding, “Yes!”  “Aren’t you sick of the way liberal sissies have wrecked the manly game of football?,” he growls, smashing his fists together to suggest that what we need is more thrilling head-to-head collisions.  The answer is a visceral howl, “Yes!!”  The next call to arms is a dripping mash-up of dog-whistle flag-patriotism, glad racist insult, and “fearless” profanity.  (Somehow it made him feel all good inside to call the protestors “sons of bitches.”)  “Hell, yes!,” screams the crowd, forgetting that they were supposed to be the good Christian people who just want to bring back public morals and good conduct.

It is easy to yell, and howl, and scream in response to their yelling and screaming.

It is even exactly what we were set up to do, because if we scream back, the good-Christians-who-just-screamed-“Hell, yes” will feel justified in having used crude profanity.  After all, “that’s what happens when you push a good man too far.”

Could we just stop for a moment?

It is easy to make things worse at such a moment.  Just ask Kim Jong-Un.

Too often the present moment feels like we are all Slim Pickens in the movie, Dr. Strangelove,” jostling the atomic bomb loose and riding it, whooping, all the way to the ground and nuclear annihilation.

Could we just stop?

In the scene for this Sunday, Jesus asks a question, a question that reveals to his challengers that he understands their quandary.  As a result, what could have turned into a street fight ends in reflection and puzzlement.  The chief priests and the elders of the people really do NOT know what to make of the movements around John the Baptist and Jesus.  And they say so, publicly.

And the scene ends.

Of course, they will act against Jesus a few chapters later, and Pilate will crucify him as a result.  There are no magic words, no silver bullets, no get-out-of-conflict-free cards.  Sometimes everything goes to smash.  It just does.

Sometimes.  BUT NOT EVERY TIME.  Sometimes when conflict is stopped it is also defused.

It seems to me that just now is a good time to try to defuse the situation, just in case it works.

Just in case.

 

 

A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 24, 2017: Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20:1-16
20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

20:2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

20:3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;

20:4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

20:5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

20:6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’

20:7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

20:8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’

20:9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

20:10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.

20:11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,

20:12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

20:13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?

20:14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.

20:15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

20:16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A Question or Two:

  • Are the workers angry because the boss is generous?  Really?
  • Or are they upset because he is generous to some, but not to others?
  • Does it matter?

Some Longer Reflections:

Notice that there are people standing idle.  Why?  And what do we think about idle people?  And, again, why?

This scene hands us some choices: do we take shots at the lazy people who are not working though there is clearly lots of work to do?  Or do we take shots at people who are clearly not property owners, clearly not accomplished or hard-working?  Or do we notice that the economy is clearly not working well if there is work to do and no sure way to connect labor with need?  It matters.  And that is only the first round of choices.

We will have to think a bit about who it is that harvests the fruit (for one thing) in our fields.  We will have to notice how it is that our economy uses undocumented people.  But that will require that we actually study how it is that our economy uses undocumented people.  Ideological rants will make things worse, no matter what part of the ideological spectrum they emerge from.

And we will have to know something about the economy of ancient Galilee.  There are good studies available.  One thing that emerges from reading those studies is that traditional landowners were being pushed off their family land by newcomers with wealth and connections to Roman political power.  Read from this angle, this parable introduces us to people who stood idle in the marketplace because their farms and vineyards had been confiscated by these newcomers.

So, what if the master in the parable is one of the Jewish landowners who had not (or, at least, not yet) been pushed off his land.  Why does he pay most of his workers more than the customary wage?  Perhaps the master is trying to make things right by hiring people who have been dispossessed.  That might be the force of “pay you whatever is right.”  The “usual daily wage” is what it would take to feed a family.  Those who were not hired would have nothing to feed their children, so the master decides to pay them all enough to feed their families.

Notice that the workers first hired grumbled against the landowner, who might have been trying to help people who were dispossessed.  So, maybe we are to reflect on a basic fact of life: it is not simple to try to make things better than they are, and you should not expect to get cookies for your efforts.  Sometimes you will get insults.  And sometimes the insults will be correct.   Or at least helpful.

Of course, the master could be one of the newcomers who was, in fact, hiring the people who formerly owned the vineyard he was sending them to harvest.  That would complicate everything.  The workers would feel the sting of being hired  (at a low wage) to bring the fruit of (what had been their own) land to the one who had stolen what was theirs.  The master might be playing with them, taunting them, even, when he pays them different wages, knowing that they would have to accept whatever he gave them.  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?,” he says, thus reminding them that he owned the land that God had given to their ancestors.  That does put a twist on things.

No matter where you look, economic and political complications raise their hydra-like heads.

Perhaps the point of this little scene is that we all have some research to do.  It is easy to take cheap shots at the workers or at the master, and it is easy to beatify one or the other, but the complications of the parable will twist any such interpretive effort.

No matter how you understand the politics and economics of this parable and of the world around us. do your research, or this parable will bite you.

A Provocation: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 17, 2017: Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35
18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

18:22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

18:23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

18:24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;

18:25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.

18:26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

18:27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

18:28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’

18:29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’

18:30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

18:31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.

18:32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

18:33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’

18:34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.

18:35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A Question or Two:

  • If you were Peter, would you have said “Seven times”?
  • Would you have guessed a higher number?
  • Or lower?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is another well-known, well-worn scene that delivers an important bit of advice: forgive each other, forgive each other, forgive each other even more still.  As with most of the scenes like this in the gospels, the advice good (but worth analyzing) and the text has been the base for many, many basic sermons.

And like most scenes like this, there are always oddities.

In this scene, the oddities start with the basic advice:

Peter asks a good question: How many times is just too many?

If he is asking how many times he has to forgive minor annoyances, then seven times is a ridiculously small number.  Even 77 times is not too many times to be bothered by someone you encounter frequently.  And so you have to wonder if Peter is one of THOSE people who keeps score and remembers EVERY time you did or said something they didn’t like.  Jesus should have told him to get a life.

But if Peter is asking about real offenses, then forgiving seven serious hurts is in itself already odd and surprising.

How many chances do YOU give people before you just write them off?  I’ll tell you the truth: if the hurt is real, I cannot imagine giving a co-worker 77 chances to inflict pain.  I can imagine giving up on such a person; I can imagine ceasing to take them seriously and thus denying to them the right to hurt me.  But that is not the same thing as forgiving them.

And what if Peter is intending to ask whether we are obliged to be punching bags?

If Jesus’ answer to all of this requires that we absorb abuse and then forgive, and forgive, and meekly forgive, then Jesus gives a bad answer.  As a professor and as a pastor I have heard stories of abuse from my students and parishioners and I have not, do not, and will not tell them that they ought to accept abuse.  Forgiveness may indeed set them free, but not if it comes as a demand that perpetuates the abuse.

But the real oddity comes in the parable that Jesus tells.

Its basic narrative structure is ordinary enough: a king forgives a huge debt, the forgiven slave refuses to forgive a smaller (though still significant) debt.  Don’t be that guy.

But this parable is more than its basic narrative structure.  The debt owed to the slave is sizeable: a denarius was the wage earned in a day by a common worker, so 100 denarii approaches four months wages.  That is a lot for anyone, though it is not a crushing debt.  It is worth asking how a slave (who is NOT paid for his work) would ever pay off even THAT debt, but that is another matter.

The REAL oddity is the size of the debt owed to the king.  The parable says that it was 10,000 talents.  Historians give different answers as to the value of a talent, and it will always be difficult to translate ancient money into contemporary amounts.  The economies are basically different, and currency exchange rates must suppose a basic similarity.

But no matter how much a talent was worth, exactly, the amount is huge.  One source imagines that a talent, as a measure of weight, was 130 pounds of silver.  That would mean that the slave owed the king 13,000,000 pounds of silver.  At the current price of silver, that would add up to something like $2,782,000,000.  That debt is oddly large, strikingly enormous.

It is a good practice when interpreting parables to follow the oddities.  The oddities tend to lead to the heart of the story.

So the question is: how in the world did a slave (who does not own even his own body) come to owe such an astronomical amount to the king?

Not on his own.  No matter what the real answer is supposed to be, the slave would not have been able to fail on such a level had the king not enabled him to do it.

The king set him up.

Maybe the king put him in charge of the royal investment fund and imposed a contract under which the slave would receive a percentage of the gains and (oh, by the way) bear the losses, but “In an economy as strong as this one, what could go wrong?”  Maybe the king did this in, perhaps, late 2007.  And then came September 29, 2008.

Or maybe the slave heard the king and his over-privileged buddies telling lies about their success in the stock market.  The king (who was successful, tremendously successful, and really very rich) gave the slave a hot investment tip, and lent him the money (“Can’t miss!  What could go wrong?”) for the investment.  Of course the slave did not have a daddy with money to bail him out of financial failure.  And thus the slave owes the king over $2 billion.

However the debt came about, the king had to be complicit.

Perhaps this what the oddity in the parable wants us to notice.

But, if so, what, exactly, are we supposed to reflect on?

Interpreters generally leap from the enormity of the debt to the idea that human sin creates an infinite debt to God.  This sets up a theological reflection on some variation on the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement, which is a theological construct that begs the question: “How could a good God create an economy that can only result in every creature failing and falling into infinite debt?”  I know that there are Christians who really like the Satisfaction Theory, and I am sure that they can come up with any number of justifications for their continuing to hold this medieval theory.  I have played those justifications through to their conclusions.  I am not impressed.  In the end, God is either poor at creating, or abusive in governing the Creation.  In the end such theories plant a terror in the heart of faithfulness and thus undermine even joy at the fact of forgiveness.

What if we are to direct our interpretive attention to the king’s complicity?

What if the key interpretive question were: “How out-of-touch IS this guy?”  Or: “What was the king thinking when he through the slave into prison until the debt is paid off?”  Let’s just say that the imprisoned slave earns what an inmate earns in my state (South Dakota): $.25 per hour.  That comes to $10 per 40 hour week, or $500 per year.  That means that the imprisoned slave would work off his debt in a cool 556,400 years.  Which is over twice as long as modern humans have been on earth.  What was the king thinking?

No matter how you answer that question, the king appears to be either a petty dictator who first causes the slave to fall into bottomless debt and then dismisses him by “forgiving” him for falling into the debt into which the king dropped him, or the king is simply incompetent and does not bother to do the math that would allow him to understand his effect on his subjects.

But that would make this scene, and this parable, even stronger, even more incisive.  This is not simply a command to forgive more.  It is an indictment of ANY system that sets God up as the one who keeps score.  Such theological structures, even when they are used to encourage us to forgive and grant release, train us to keep score and preserve the patriarchy.  That is maybe why the slave went out from the presence of the king to whom he owed the debt and demanded payment from his fellow slave.  Perhaps he, too, even intended (after threatening imprisonment) to forgive the debt, just as he had been forgiven.  I suppose we could stop short and say that the parable says that the slave didn’t go far enough, didn’t buy into the system of debt and release deeply enough.  But I’m starting to think that the problem is a twisted focus on debt which (not so) subtly preserves the hierarchy that keeps us apart.  When forgiveness is pictured as the act of a king who counts up, and then eliminates, a debt (a debt, from the parable, that he is free to recall and re-impose), then God models hierarchical domination for us, and we will follow suit.

This parable is a warning against that way of thinking of God, the world, and each other.  Maybe it’s time we started taking the Incarnation seriously, and stopped thinking about “salvation” as the payment of a large debt.  Maybe it’s even time we quit heating ourselves up over “salvation” at all.