Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 19, 2017
“Taxes and Immorality”
Matthew 24: 14-30 – New Revised Standard Version
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 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. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ 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 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 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? 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. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“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.”
Finally, an explanation that makes sense. Finally, an explicit declaration for tax policy. I just wish they’d say it. Be loud and proud. Those who have more deserve more! Those who don’t, those who are literally “worth-less,” throw them into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It finally makes sense.
I swear, I never sit down to write a sermon and think, gee, how can I be political. Honestly, it isn’t my intention to be always be controversial. But take today’s lectionary text, the Bible in one hand, and read it with the newspaper in the other hand, and I don’t see how we have choice. One of our visitors in the past year asked, as they left the service visibly unhappy, “Are you always so political?” I said, “No. I just read from the Bible. It speaks for itself.” I attempt to ground the Christian faith in our lived reality.
This is a text that is often only given spiritual meaning, without consideration of a social justice interpretation. There is nothing wrong, of course, with a spiritualized interpretation, unless it’s meant to avoid something more difficult to accept – like the justice and moral implications of the gospel.
In today’s parable, all kinds of preachers – and I most definitely include myself; I have taken the word “talent” in this passage and talked about something more akin to abilities, gifts, and skills. I happen to like the idea that in this parable Jesus is saying “Don’t bury your talents,” as in, “get out there and sing,” paint, sculpt, write poetry, and so forth. Or, you’re good with numbers, so “use your talents for the Lord.” You’re a good leader. You’re a good administrator, teacher, caregiver. You’re good with your hands. All kinds of variations on “You’re so talented, so gifted, you should…”
Surely all of us have had someone – grandmas and aunties and neighbors – someone who encouraged us to break out of our shell so that we can shine for the world to see and hear and appreciate. You know, use your talents so they aren’t wasted. Although, hopefully grandma didn’t add, “And if you don’t, go to hell.”
Other interpretations encourage us to take risks, to not be so cautious that we’re paralyzed from doing anything, from making any difference in the world. It’s true that helping someone risks getting more deeply involved than we may want. Loving someone risks getting hurt. That doesn’t mean, never love.
There is nothing wrong with a spiritualized interpretation that says “take a risk, don’t waste your talents, don’t bury them in the ground.” But we can’t overlook the reality that in this parable, talent means money. When the Bible talks about a talent, it’s talking about an amount of money roughly equivalent to 15 years of wages. Which means we have to talk about money, not just talented people.
So, a talent is worth roughly 15 years of wages for an average laborer. Let’s figure out what this would mean today. The median income in America is roughly between $50-60,000 – half make more, half make less. Take $50,000, multiply by 15, and it equals three quarters of a million dollars. So, in the parable, this “man who went off on a trip” left one guy with $3.75 million dollars, left another guy with $1.5 million, and the other with $750,000. At the end, the man returned home to the modern equivalent of over $11 million dollars. I have no “talent” for math, so it took me a little while to figure that out. My dad, with only an eighth-grade education, had the talent to do it in his head.
But wait a minute, I do know this: in an economic system as limited as theirs would have been, where many transactions would have simply involved bartering for one another’s services, no matter how long the man was on his trip, how in the world could $5 million turn into 10? How could this have happened without cheating or some dirty work to achieve those results, sort of Bernie Madoff style?
It’s absurd, right? Well, as I’ve said before, the parables of Jesus are often meant to be absurd, to suspend disbelief. It gets the crowd’s attention, riles them up. Jesus is never too far from drawing unwanted attention to people like this in his world and ours, such as one man would have 15 talents! People standing around listening to the story would have looked at each other incredulously. Just like we shake our heads at the 8 men who are “worth” the same as 3.6 billion people – half of the world’s population. 8 men.
Jesus didn’t refrain from calling people broods of vipers and snakes. And while he doesn’t say that here, this parable is surrounded by one accusation of hypocrisy after another. Therefore, a basic question I have is whether Jesus is praising these investment gains or criticizing the moral absurdity of such wealth inequality.
Some people claim Jesus was a proponent of the free market. The gospel of Luke has a parallel story about which Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council writes: “While the story lacks specifics on whether he invested the money in a herd of sheep or a hedge fund, we do know that he made his gain by engaging in business transactions of some sort. He used a free market system to bring a tenfold return on investment. No doubt such a return took a lot of diligent, dedicated effort.”
But, only a crook, or someone working for a guy who the parable describes as “reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he didn’t scatter…” Only a thief or a scoundrel or a congressman could turn some extra herds of sheep into millions of dollars. And yet, it was the third slave “cast into outer darkness?” (Perkins would call the first man an entrepreneurial genius and the other lazy, and probably demand a drug test.)
I don’t think Jesus is offering praise for this scheme as much as he is criticizing what happens when the world is dominated by power and wealth. Was the third slave lazy or inept? Or did he get down on one knee and refuse to participate in this system of oppression, unwilling to make a corrupt man even wealthier. And for doing that, was abandoned and condemned to a place of suffering.
But, c’mon God. It’s Thanksgiving, for God’s sake, (oops, I mean for Your sake). This is a little too heavy for today. Can’t you give me something like a text about gratitude and counting our blessings…
Something like the song,
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God has done;
You know the rest.
But, no instead, Jesus said,
Count your millions, make them even more
Count your millions, stick it to the poor
Count your millions…
Well, you know the rest.
You read the papers, follow the news, and watch as student loan interest, child care, housing costs – the stuff of the one talent person – is taken away so the rich can deduct their vacation home. Bills for the benefit of corporations who are persons but not actual human persons. For corporations to take full advantage of massive deductions while the deduction is taken away from the school teacher who spends his or her own money to buy supplies for their students.
I’m not interested in the specifics of tax policy, or health care policy, which party “wins” or any other such thing. Not questions of policy but of ethics. As people of faith, we don’t need to examine the minutiae, but the morality. Eventual tax increases for those making only $10,000 and tax savings for those now free to inherit an extra billion dollars… Pulpits around the country this morning should be proclaiming, “That is immoral!” Proponents of this crooked investment scheme should be worrying about their soul cast into outer darkness with the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Where is Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas ghost when we need him? Taxes themselves are morally neutral. How they are applied, who is affected, who loses, who gains – those are the moral questions that so far deserve a failing grade.
Matthew placed the parable of the talents as one of the very last teachings of Jesus. In the next day or two he will be found in the garden and carried off by soldiers for his sham trial and execution. His end is near. Matthew loves telling apocalyptic stories, so this must be placed within that context too. It really isn’t a story about using our talents or taking a risk. Well, risk, but the risk is that if you don’t get ready for Jesus to return, you won’t be ready for judgment day. The parable taken in isolation sounds like the rich win. And that the rich should win. But this isn’t really even a story about money.
To be honest, I’m a little stumped by this parable and what it means. It is so inconsistent with the message Jesus has been preaching all along. After all, he said, what good is it to gain the whole world but lose your life?
On its own, this seems like a terrible parable. However, as a progression of the bigger story, maybe it has some merit. I’m thinking out loud here, but remember how the third slave buried his talent in the ground? He was condemned and abandoned. Well, in a few days, something else, someone else, will be buried. In a tomb. And buried with Jesus, all the hopes and expectations of his followers. But remember, that terrible story doesn’t end there either. God raised him.
The first two slaves may have doubled their investments, but the buried savior became a movement of love and compassion that expanded a million-fold. The earliest Christians, or actually, before Christianity became a thing, the first followers of the risen Christ sold all their possessions and created a common pot from which anyone could take who had need. There were no more rich or poor. It’s the story of Pentecost.
In the end, what I know is that the short-term investment gains of the first two slaves pale in comparison to the richness of a life whose meaning is found in love and acts of compassion. A life of justice seeking. Does your life have meaning because of what you own?
I give thanks to the One from whom we have received life, not mere money, to whom we owe thanksgiving, a debt gratitude for all the blessings we can count, one by one by one.
 Audrey West, The Christian Century, October 13, 2017
 Matthew 16:26
 Acts 2:43-47