Jesus vs. The Wolf of Wall Street

Sermon for 16Nov14  (Matt25:14-30; 1Thes5:1-11; Ps90:1-12)
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The all-too-common take on this parable equates God with the slavemaster and makes the term for money, “talents,” equivalent with our “skills,” and then claims you need to be using them rightly, or else a grumpy God will toss you out, leaving you to grumble and eternally grind your teeth.

If you think that’s what’s going on here, then you wouldn’t need a sermon, because evidently you wouldn’t really need Jesus.  All you’d need is a kick in the pants, to grab a pen and a new pledge card, write 100% on that financial giving plan, and then you’d better head out the door and bust your tuckus getting to work on it.  That’s the only reasonable result if this parable is a reprimand, with God as the biggest taskmaster, the harshest critic, the most demanding loan shark the universe has ever known.  If you didn’t proceed to double the proceeds, to return twice the investment in you, then you’d be out of luck.  God as boss would be just like the old boss, except bigger and badder and eternal and so actually a helluva lot worse.

But this parable is not trying for that view of God.  And I believe you do need a sermon, because you do need Jesus.

To begin clarifying, let’s put it in today’s context, updating what was already a caricature when Jesus told it.  For us, a rich white man, getting ready to leave for his winter home on the Mediterranean, would call in his undocumented immigrant housekeeper.  He gives her control of half a million dollars, and tells her to be careful and not blow it, but to use it as he would.

She breaks instantly into a sweat, knowing he got that money not because of hard work but through shady deals and manipulation and tax loopholes and extortion and buying off politicians and a corrupt system and simply, as Jesus says, because those who have will get even more.  With that money, she can’t dream of playing the lottery or getting a new car or even paying for her daughter’s needed medical procedure.  She can’t risk that, can’t risk a run in with the law, can’t afford this game of monopoly, so she hides it in the safest place she can think of.  And yet she still loses.

Remarkably though, when scornfully accused by the master, she has the audacity to respond with the fiercely negative truth.  The line in the story describes the bullying boss like this:  “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.”  She gives a valid assessment of his greedy maneuvering.  And he doesn’t argue; he acknowledges his immoral behaviors.  That’s perhaps the most shocking part of the story.

But it’s also appalling to know the extreme values.  A talent was worth 6000 days of work.  Imagine our housekeeper slaving away at minimum wage to try earning the $500,000.  She’s legitimately fearful, since she couldn’t possibly be able to repay 20 years’ worth of salary.  Yet for him, he was just toying with his underlings.

The idea of the story, though improbable, is no less familiar for us than it would’ve been in Jesus’ time.  We know those whose greed knows no bounds.  They blow millions on another lavish island mansion or even a single crazy, crazy night out on the town.  For a disgustingly true view of this, watch the movie The Wolf of Wall Street.  Even more disgusting, think about elections in our culture, with big money flying around as a game of trying to purchase even more privilege.  In the 2012 election, one man threw away $53 million on the losing side.

The issue is that in the meantime, at the other end, lives literally hang in the balance.  This week in my office I was visited by numerous people so poor as being unable to make life function, like a woman stuck in the catch-22 of needing a bus pass to get to a new CNA job but not being able to afford the bus pass until a paycheck arrived.

To some extent, it is a zero-sum game, where having means taking from others.  Ancient society saw it as even more limited and finite, so capitalizing only came at another’s expense.  This character would have been further flagged as a horrible boss with his instruction to have “invested my money with the bankers so I could’ve gotten interest.”

Though seeming okay to us, it was against Torah; it broke religious law.  Collecting interest was illegal and shameful since it was always unearned, taking what you didn’t work for.  Our Martin Luther biography described him similarly railing against interest rates, and in his day excessively high amounts meant 3%.  That’s blown out of the water by credit card debt and payday lending.  And our margins are worsening; the wealthiest .1% in this country now have as much as the bottom 90% and the .01% have the highest share ever in our history.  Even more, we could go on to corporate earnings versus employee wages.  The rich get richer.  We know this reality of our society.

But that doesn’t mean it’s God’s will.  This is not what Jesus is promoting in our Gospel reading.  To be clear:  this parable is not an allegory for God and the end times.  You can tell from her harsh critique that the greedy overlord is nobody you’d want to spend eternity with, much less dependent on.  If you still doubt this rich ruler is opposed to God, wait until the next Bible reading, where Jesus says, “as you did it to the least and weakest of my sisters and brothers you did it to me.”

So while we may linger in imagining that God unpredictably throws us into bad things, it doesn’t take much faithful reflection on the Bible to realize the fiend of this parable is not a representation of God, but of our society’s faults.  Jesus critiques these wrongs, even by living and dying to undermine them.  As Mari Mitchell pointed out this week in Confirmation class, in the next chapter after this reading, Jesus gets arrested and crucified.  What he says here leads to that.  The very embodiment of God in Christ was against those perpetrators of injustice and inhumanity dwelling in places of power, and it got him killed.  If anything, this reading says that even when others go along with a corrupt system (like the first two slaves), Jesus invites you instead to resist with him, no matter the cost.
More, it is vital for you to know that rather than a demanding, lurking autocrat, God strives always to be there for you in grace and mercy and love and forgiveness.  For example, even as our 2nd reading encouraged you to be ready and awake and sober, it still promises welcome for those who have fallen asleep.

Notice that kind of abundance in our hymns today also.  Our opening hymn on the Wideness of God’s Mercy tells us God is more gracious than we could imagine, and “there is no place where our failings have such kindly judgment given.”  Contrast that with a tyrant prepared to toss you to the hellish darkness.  Again, as we come to the Lord’s Table, we freely receive his body and blood, without demanding our life in return.   Our first communion hymn realizes that not only this meal but all the details of our existence are “gifts [for which] we did not labor.”  So much for working to double your investment!  And in our sending hymn, it’s not a despot who has abandoned you with threats to return.  It’s a greatly faithful Father who gives “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” and offers his “own dear presence to cheer and to guide.”

God in Christ won’t threaten punishment, but suffers for you and with you.  Not one with all the power in the universe to lord it over you, but so great that he stoops to serve you in love.  God’s investment in you is not to see how much you can gain in selfish striving, but to encourage you to give it all away, to share abundantly following God’s care for the sake of broader benefit and the life of creation.  When it feels like life is just 70 years of labor and sorrow, as our Psalm voiced, know and trust that God stands for something different, something better.

This is not another same bossypants.  You are invited to live into the kingdom or society of Jesus with this “different kind of king.”  But, with that refrain from our next hymn, I want to conclude with a word of caution.  That hymn ends with a risk of getting perverted back to reigning on high, returning Jesus to a typical kind of king.  Even those who recognize his humility of service can still be in danger of corrupting again to the old domineering controllers.

So our calling today is twofold.  First, to be grateful for what we have and find ways to share, to struggle against greed and the desire always to have more.  That’s a reasonable practice for approaching Thanksgiving, but also a challenge to our consumer Christmas patterns, and even more when society is turned against the poor and away from God.

The second calling is to proclaim the good news.  We see today that means rejecting wrong views of God.  With abundant promises of joy, we cannot leave lies that God is violent, capricious, strict, absent, demanding, authoritarian, and so on.  We are called to cling to and to celebrate the God who is merciful, just, compassionate, loving, giving and forgiving, present, serving, and sharing life forever, the God we know in Jesus.  That is why we are here, and that is the sermon for you.

Hymn: O Christ, What Can it Mean for Us (ELW #431)

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