Healing Damage by Unlearning

111520 Pentecost 24 

Matthew 25:14-30


It is as if the owner of three apartment buildings in Echo Park – 1 with 50 units, 1 with 25 units and a 3rd with 10 units – hired three different managers and told them she wants them to maximize profits. The first manager increased rents by 10% and invested the additional income in a separate business to bring in additional income. When the tenants complained that they were paying more rent and the building was falling apart, the manager told them that if they didn’t like it, they could leave. The second manager painted and re-carpeted half the units in her building, spending just enough money to be legally allowed to raise the rents by $300 per month. Most tenants could not afford the additional rent, so they moved out and new tenants moved in who could pay the higher rent. The third manager managed the ten units fairly, not raising rents more than 3% per year, and doing repairs in a timely way.  

At the end of 3 years the owner asked for an accounting from the three managers. The first manager was able to pay her double the amount that she had been receiving as rent 3 years earlier through increasing rents and creating a side business. She gave him a hefty raise and recommended that the chamber of commerce give him an award for innovative business practices. The second manager who rented out the units at a higher rent and only had to spend a small amount on legal fees for lawsuits made by evicted tenants, managed to increase income by 50% for the owner. She was rewarded with a large increase in her benefits package. The third manager presented the executive with the same 10-unit building, with a few improvements, the same tenants, who were all very grateful for their situation, and the same net rental income as three years earlier. This manager was fired and replaced by another manager. 

This is obviously not just a modern version of the Parable of the Talents; it is a retelling with a very different feel, but the same outcome. What did Jesus intend to teach with this parable? On the basis of most of his teaching, the owner and first two managers would be rebuked for their greedy and acquisitive actions, while the third manager would be commended for not adding to the owner’s wealth by depriving others; praised for refusing to play this unjust economic game. The master didn’t dispute the third slave’s characterization of him as “a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed.” The master basically says, You are right; therefore you should have invested it in the bank and gained interest.

The interpretation depends on who speaks the final words:  To all 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ If those words belong to Jesus, as the moral of the story, then the parable teaches the opposite of the rest of his teaching. But if they are spoken by the landlord, they present a stark contrast to Jesus’ vision of society given in the next story – the judgment of the nations.  

Matthew’s and Jesus’ audiences knew the right answer. They understood that the words were spoken by the landlord because they had been listening to Jesus’ teaching. The master’s not caring about how the slaves made more money wouldn’t have come as a jolt to those raised in the Roman economic system. The excess wealth gained by those who perpetuate oppression would be celebrated. But Jesus’ disciples would have seen it as a clear rebuke to the economic system in which they were immersed. They would have been awaiting the next story. And they weren’t disappointed. Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food… Now, that was more like it. 

As a fellow preacher put it, “I don’t think Jesus is identifying the God he calls Abba with the CEO. What if we instead hear Jesus making a comment on standard human economics, in which ‘The rich get richer and the poor get poorer?’ If we hear the parable as a contrast to the parable of the sheep and the goats, we learn that the kingdom of heaven is found among those who suffer from such economics: the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner. Might these two stories be an invitation to follow the third servant into the outer darkness as her partner, because that is where we will find Jesus – with those left out when the rich get richer?” (Libby Howe, The Christian Century)

We have also heard Jesus’ teaching. But it has often been filtered through capitalist lenses. The church has usually taught the Parable of the Talents as a theological justification for capitalism, the system we’ve been raised in. So, at first hearing, the Parable sounded fine to us. To hear a version that says Jesus is rebuking that system may offend and hurt some. That’s what I want to address. 

Last week, Judith Fischer sent me a link to an interview between Ed Bacon and Cynthia Tucker that speaks directly to this dynamic. Ed is a mutual friend who is priest at a church in Atlanta. Cynthia is a Pulitzer Prize journalist who was editor of the editorial page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution for years. Cynthia stated that half of America isn’t happy with the 21st century. They are upset with modernity. She went on to share a conversation she had with a man who had called to critique one of her editorials. After he had vented his anger, he calmed down and said, “What I’m hearing is that everything I was taught as a child is wrong.” Cynthia said she’s never forgotten that comment; she realized he’d probably grown up learning that black people are second class citizens, that a woman’s place is in the home, and that homosexuality is an abomination. Ed replied by telling a similar yet totally different story. He spoke of a member of his congregation who he referred to as a “learner” rather than a victim or a victor. She said, “I am so angry that I’m having to unlearn so much that I was taught.

Do you see the similarity and the difference? Ed’s member shared the anger of Cynthia’s caller. But his anger expressed resistance and resentment for being told that what he learned as a child was wrong. Her anger was that she had been taught them in the first place. She didn’t resist or resent it. She was simply angry that she had so much to unlearn. I wonder if those two responses describe the divide in the country right now. Everyone is angry. How could we not be? I want to be careful not to oversimplify here. But half the country seems to resent and resist the changes being demanded by those who were voiceless for so long. And the other half feels overwhelmed by how much they will have to change to heal the damage that has been done by ignoring those voices. That may not be the only, or even primary, feature that divides Americans, but it reveals that everyone has internal work to do to grow into the new world that is emerging, like it or not.

      The practice of questioning familiar interpretations of biblical texts like the Parable of the Talents has strengthened muscles I need to open myself to the painful process of unlearning social patterns I had been taught as a child. I don’t ask you to agree with my questions. Instead, I hope that hearing my explorations of alternative meanings might strengthen your own muscles for unlearning some things you were taught. Perhaps in that way St. Athanasius might contribute to healing the damage done by ignoring the voices of the voiceless. That may not be what people expect to happen by going to church. But I think it’s pretty consistent with Jesus’ teaching method. And I think healing the damage we’ve done as a society and as a church is important work. For that reason and many more, I am grateful for the ways you support this ministry.