This weekend I took part in the third of a three weekend series of intensive courses on public theology, taught up at Lavern University by one of my professors from seminary, Dr. Scott Holland. Looking at public theology through a number of lenses, we wrestled with issues of politics and religion. We discussed the generational shifts that are changing the face of the religious and cultural frameworks as we see the rise of the “spiritual, but not religious” and those who check the box marked “none” when asked about religion. We analyzed the marker points and turning points of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests, naming and unpacking the overt and intrinsic theological origins and narratives that shaped those movements.
We then moved forward into more recent history, exploring the analysis and prognosis offered by Van Jones of the Obama era in his work, “Rebuilding the Dream,” and the interfaith movement being propelled forward by Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Young Corps. And through each of these conversations, we kept coming back to questions of theology—of how we make meaning in our lives. How can our view of who God is, our exchanges with humanity, the way we work for the common good or against the common enemy be seen throughout history to catalyze or concretize a movement for brief or lasting change?
At about 11:30 yesterday morning, nearing the end of these hours we’d spent together over the last three months I leaned against a desk, where I had been standing to stretch my back, and I had what must have been a troubled look on my face.
“Yes Anna” Scott said to me quizzically, “Do you have a question?”
I took a deep breath, and said,
“So here’s the thing: this is all so fascinating and our study has been grounded in powerful stories of leaders and theologians, prophetic voices who shape the shared narrative, people who changed the arch of history through their reach. And we’re naming the urgent issues in our world today—the polarization and extremism in various cultures, the trauma and harm we are seeing from extremists in various religious traditions who are engaging in acts of terror, threat and war in the name of God and religion. We talked about the way racism and sexism and classism, and so many other -isms divide us from each other and feed the desire to create a barrier and a separation from each other, and we’ve read and discussed a powerful diagnosis of the past and current struggles we face in the world. We have the analysis and diagnosis, and they are profound, inspiring, concerning, and move me to action. And yet, in this moment, these conversations, they are all theoretical.
But I sit here, as I’m listening and engaging the wisdom of the public theologians and I’m thinking, ‘How does this apply to this new church that I’m planting?’ How do I interact with the man who sits outside the post office and greets me most days when I walk in to get the mail, asking for money for something to eat? Or how do I hold the fact that one of the humans I love most is growing up in a country where soon his likelihood of being judged and harmed is exponentially higher because of the color of his skin? How do I lead an entrepreneurial community that cares about social change and work for the common good? How do we bring this theory into reality for personal and collective transformation, for change—for more heaven here on earth?”
I felt myself choking up a bit as I pointed to the books spread out across my desk, “Where’s the five step for the cultural climate we are facing today, November 2014? Where’s the blue print? The one right way? The five best practices? Give me my simple clear marching orders, and I’ll do it.”
Scott looked at me and said, “Ahh…but you are doing it. And the story is being written.”
We read a short story of Jesus this morning, the parable of the talents. This is one of many short stories that Jesus tells throughout his ministry—parables of talents and sheep, landowners and servants, parents and prodigal children, pearls of great price, and the smallest of mustard seeds. When Jesus is asked questions, even direct ones like, “Who is my neighbor?” he rarely responds with a logical scientific answer, or easy and clear three-point plans. His responses often come in the form of these parables, or a short story that de-centers the questioner and rather than answering the query with a simple “Do this. Don’t do this.” He probes and incites something more profound—an invitation into a deeper and more dynamic way of engaging life and scripture, a public theology.
So this parable… Well first, let’s talk for a minute about parables. Parables are not, contrary to popular belief, simply morality tales that Jesus told so that we know how to “be good” or what was “bad.” No, parables are much more confusing, intriguing, and exciting than that.
Theologian John Dominic Crossan, in his book, The Power of Parable, writes about the difference between myth and parable, He describes myths as being agents of stability, while parables are agents of change. In other words, according to Crossan, Jesus wasn’t telling these stories to continue the status quo, or to tell his audience how to be “good religious people.” Jesus was telling these parables to stir things up, to give rise to healthy debate, to engage the Jewish rabbinical tradition of theological banter, and truth being discovered in the conversation, in what might be seen to us as an argument, but often resulted in collective divine understanding as scripture and ideas where thrown back and forth and questioned and wrestled with and explored.
The word parable comes from a Greek word, “parabole”, meaning “to put parallel or cast alongside.” It implies a process of comparison, or two things being thrown together, some translated it “smash together.” So it’s more than saying, “this means this, that means that.”
If we assigned a little post-it-note reminder to this word in our bibles, we might put beside any reference of “parable”: “Remember! Be aware that it doesn’t usually mean what we think it means.”
We are so prone to domesticate our religious resources, our stories, to make them something that confirms what we already know, or reinforces that which makes us right. But maybe, these stories are not actually about a moralistic conclusion, but instead alive texts with deeper meanings and an invitation to interact with the question of the text and life, scripture and culture.
You, like I, may have this desire for the five-point plan, the one way of looking at right and wrong, especially if we always work it to end up right. And there’s a part of us that desires not having to wrestle with how to think, feel, respond, not having to learn new things about other people, or ourselves, or the world, just sticking with our status quo and embedding ourselves deeper into our world-view.
But um, here’s the deal. If you want to do that, I’d recommend staying away from Jesus and the parables. Because it seems that actually, never is a parable—or Jesus’ words in general—a call to status quo, but instead a call to change.
So, what does this have to do with this parable that we read from the Gospel of Matthew, this parable of the talents? I am not suggesting that there is one right way to read this parable; there are many useful interpretations of this text. What I’m inviting us into is to wonder what is it that Jesus is calling forth to wrestle with in conversation, to wonder about, to engage in a dialog with life and culture, the spiritual journey and the way of faith?
If we read this parable as Jesus stirring things up, inciting discussion, challenging the status quo, we may get something out of it that we didn’t see before. And if we read this parable within its historical and cultural context, we also see something there that I for one, don’t read at first glance.
First, what is a “talent”? This is not, as we may first read it, referring to your ability to play golf or paint with watercolors; it’s not even referring to your surgical skills or your strength as a writer. Talents, in this context are referring to an amount of money.
A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth about 6,000 danarii—with a single denarius representing a laborer’s daily pay. In modern terms, we’re talking millions of dollars. Jesus is capturing the attention of the listeners by presenting what would have been a “fairy-tale” amount of money (Crossen, pg. 99). Like, “So there was this land-owner, and he gave his first servant three bazillion dollars.”
So what happens in this story? The first slave gets five talents, invests it, and gets five more. The second slave gets two talents, invests it, and gets two more. The third slave gets two talents and buries them in the ground; when his master gets back, he has some words with him.
He says: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
To which the Master was quite angry, and threw him out and took his money away and gave it to the other one.
So if this is not a simple morality tale, though certainly we can find truths in the simple story. It’s an opportunity for question, debate, to have things “smashed together” as we begin to wonder what in Jesus might have been trying to stir up in the telling of this story.
A couple of things jump out at me; the first is this idea of interest. We hear this story in terms of our modern economics and we can say, “well look, that was the sound business decision, invest and get interest.” But at the time, this was not the whole picture. The Torah, the religious teachings of the Jewish people, brought up a lot of questions about interest and when interest was taking advantage of another person. At the time of Jesus there was mixing and division “between the Roman pro-interest tradition within the empire and the Jewish anti-interest tradition within the followers of Torah” (Crossen pg.105). If Jesus’ intention were to stir up some good conversation, this parable would have done it quickly. “Is the good/right/just thing to get interest? Or is it about following the principles of faith?” But likely this wasn’t the end of the debate, Jesus wasn’t just going for a financial integrity conversation. He was a rabbi, he cared about the spiritual aspects—the kingdom of heaven.
And so we can imagine that he was stirring up a conversation not just about interest, but about the people, the tradition, the empire, their interactions with theology and the world around them. Who benefits from interest and gain? Whose law do you follow? Do you live by the Torah or the practices of Rome? Do you live under God’s laws or Roman Customs?” The parable asks me the question; what do I live for—the things of this world or the thing that last? How do the choices I make now have an impact on eternity?
Our centering quote from Swedenborg, the theologian and Christian mystic that the Wayfarers Chapel is a memorial to says: “Even the smallest moment of our lives involves a series of consequences extending to eternity. Each moment is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so with each and every moment of our lives.” Emmanuel Swedenborg Secrets of Heaven 4690
The choices we make, the actions we take, the way we engage the world, other people, our religion, our work, our lives, they matter. The voices we listen to matter, the questions we ask matter, the willingness to engage the complexity, the ambiguity, the dialog, the parable, they all matter.
In the willingness to engaging the unsettling nature of parables, and the de-centering way that Jesus likes to tell stories and ask questions can lead us to think of things differently. To repent—literally the Greek word, metanoia, is to change our minds—to look at the world differently and change how we think, feel and act. It is in this process that so often, we find the face of God.
We see the nature of God, not in a moralistic code, or in a three-point plan, or in one—and only one—way. No, we find God, the God who is moving and present in all things, when we allow ourselves to put our spirituality parallel, smashed together, with our experience of life, of our current culture. When we commingle the stories of scripture, with the stories of our lives, when we engage sacred scripture and Divine curiosity, seeking the desire for transformation personally and collectively. It’s in this curiosity, in this wrestling and wondering and engagement with the story of God and the story of our lives, that we find a surplus of meaning, we find the call to self-examination, to repentance/change, to a way of being that integrates the force of Divine Love and Wisdom in and through, the culture, the movement, the challenges and maybe we find the courage to keep showing up and asking the questions and engaging change internally and externally.
Because this is how change and transformation happens in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our worlds. When we can engage both. When we can put the ways of the world and the ways of heaven next to each other and question the discrepancies, and then work to change things. When we are willing to look at racism and sexism and classism and superiority and the desire to be right and the desire to have it all figured out, and have those dislodged by the startling and audacious love of God and call to compassion and action. When we’re willing to look at ourselves and be willing to turn, to be changed, to be made new.
A few years ago I was working in Washington DC, doing faith based food and hunger advocacy work. Immersed in the politics of Capital Hill I was constantly engaging this question of public theology from various angles.
One Saturday, I got up super early and got on the metro from the basement room where I was staying in Alexandria. I got off at McFerson Square stop and walked up to the lawn in front of the White House to hear a public theologian who is changing the world—his Holiness the Dali Lama. I found a few friends who I was meeting there and settled down on the blanket they had spread out on the lawn with thousands of others, awaiting the words of this wise teacher.
He talked about how world peace comes through inner peace. He talked about how every human craves for inner peace and seeks it in many ways and he reminded us of our shared humanity and that every person is part of the global solution to peace. He challenged us to look inside and think about how we are seeking peace in our own heads, in our internal dialog, and asked asked how we are treating the people who we share a home with, our spouses, children, parents, our co-workers, the people we meet on the street. And how it is in these interactions that the ripple will start and move outward, meeting other peaceful currents and sweep the nations with a tsunami of compassion and peaceful living.
His Holiness didn’t let any one path off the hook, or offer the “right” way. He spoke eloquently about the variety of religious (and non-religious) paths, the many tools and system changes that can lead to a life and word of compassion. He spoke of the importance of growing an intelligent mind and a warm heart. He spoke of teaching compassion in all contexts, sacred and secular and how embodied compassion is the way of religious life. He reminded me of one of the Swedenborgian teachings I hold dear, “All religion is of life and the life of religion is to do good.” It is the life we live from what we believe that matters. Regardless of our life circumstances, religious holdings, or stages of life, we have a part to play. His Holiness broke down any walls of excuses or “not me,” and with his raw humanity and humility called all of us to a higher place of compassion, justice, and peace.
I can’t remember the specific last words he said. I do remember his smile though, kind and wide on the big monitor and moving with the bright red of his robe that I see getting up from the chair on the stage. It was still shining as he walked down through the crowed and the music began to play. We packed up our things and rolled our blankets. A quiet fell over the crowd. I looked around and I saw the faces around me a little differently than I had a few hours before. I felt the breath of God breathing in us together, and an openness to God working in and amongst us. Open to the Spirit. Open to one another. Open to the life that is in front of us to live. May we live it. Amen.