In 8th grade, I dug myself into such a deep hole that my dad had to come pull me out! It was all because of Algebra. Me and Algebra didn’t get along. I didn’t seem to have much of an aptitude for it. You won’t find one bone of empathy in my body for Algebra!
It’s not because I skipped class. I just kind-of lost interest, I didn’t really apply myself, I guess. So as it got progressively harder, I found myself in a hole I couldn’t get out of. Even though I studied for the tests, my grades were sinking. I didn’t ask for help when I should have. Didn’t really care, ‘cause, well, I had stuff to do that I did liked! Marching band, jazz band, basketball, the dance at the YMCA on Friday night, and, Confirmation class. I loved Confirmation Class! Got straight A’s there.
But in Algebra, when I got a D-, because I had dug myself so far in the hole, they called my parents. I guess my dad was the one who got elected to come in with me early, before school started one day, ‘cause, my mom didn’t know math either!
It was so embarrassing! First, my dad was wearing a nice suit like he did to go into work everyday, and that just made it seem all the more serious. But mostly, it was because my dad probably knew Algebra better than my teacher. He could do it in his sleep with his hands tied behind his back. When he was in grad school at Northwestern, he taught college level Algebra as a TA! And now I had dragged him back to 8th grade, and he had to try and say something nice on my behalf – for his son, who was about to flunk out of Algebra 1!
So I sat there in my little desk, between the two adults in the room, the two experts in Algebra, in their suits and ties, and it was decided that, Algebra wasn’t that hard – as long as you kept up with it every day! You can’t let yourself fall behind, they told me. And that part was certainly true, I hadn’t been keeping up for weeks now. So my dad became my tutor at home. He would catch me up, and get me back on track. And if I did catch up, then the teacher would consider passing me.
My dad, and my teacher, helped me dig out of a deep hole, because they had enough empathy to give me a second chance. I think I got a C, or maybe even a C+. But my dad found out I was really bad, at his best subject!
We need empathy today, more than ever before! But because we often can’t empathize with those who are not like us, we dig ourselves in a hole, a hole so deep, maybe we can’t even, get out of it!
Well, we’re deep, deep, into Matthew’s gospel on this pen-ultimate Sunday of the Pentecost season. And Jesus’ parables have been our guide of late – seven in a row, all about the end times, the coming of Christ, and what we do while waiting!
Most of these parables function as warnings to be alert, but today, this parable, like the one two weeks ago, these two of seven parables, explain the meaning of the warning, “to be alert,” and what we’re supposed to do with this interim period, and, it’s not a passive waiting, but a responsible action, which directly corresponds to the realm of God’s justice and mercy.
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” He doesn’t tell us, or the slaves, where he’s going on this trip. Is the master going around the world, or traveling on business, or any number of privileged excursions?! Theirs was simply to hold down the fort; keep doing their chores; and take care of his property in his absence. They, the slaves, would never go on vacation, or be wealthy enough to go out on a business trip.
But they do receive a surprising charge in the master’s absence: he entrusts them with a huge sum of money! “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one,” Matthew tells us. Now, a ‘talent,’ is not a symbol for ability in this parable – at least, not originally. A talent was the name of a huge sum of money, an actual weight measuring about 50 lbs., and equal to, something like, 15 years of wages! So even one talent was like winning the lottery!
What do you do with that as one of the slaves? It must have been overwhelming! It’s no wonder that we empathize with the first two slaves in this parable. They’re the ones who get more, and make more, for their master!
The first and the second do what the master does. They take the capital, trade with it, and double it. And when their master returns he tells them, “well done, good and trustworthy slaves… I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master.” That feels good, and has been pretty much what most preachers have commended us to do, too. And from a position of dominance, or privilege – if you come from that, like I do – we see this as the reward for investing well, whether in a money market fund, the stock market, a bank account – or whether it means investing in people, making more of whatever talents we have. We want to do good with what our master has entrusted us to.
But unfortunately, this is not how the disciples of Jesus and his followers would have felt, or how they would have interpreted Jesus’ parable! They would have identified with the 3rd slave, every time, the one who not only received just one talent, but who carefully decides to bury it in the ground, for safe keeping.
To 1st century Galileans, the master was indeed “harsh,” as the 3rd slave describes him. And the master, in fact, never denies that he isn’t! “You knew, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter, did you?” “He openly acknowledges that he steals his wealth, by co-opting the labor of others,” as Richard Ford says. “His behavior is completely criminal [and] he is an unmistakable personification of Roman imperialism.”
It’s a system, you could say, that upholds and insures the continued fortune of slavery. It’s venture capitalism; usury; the work of insipid hedge fund owners.
And that this 3rd slave is afraid, is a very rational reaction! He’s afraid of trading the money and losing it, which would be a disaster. But also afraid if he buries it, without increasing its value, the master will bury him! “It is a lose-lose predicament,” as Audrey West says, “damned if he digs, damned if he doesn’t. He is so far down in the hole, there is no way out.”
That’s the powerless situation all 3 slaves are in. And the decision of the first two, is to “go along, to get along,” with the empire – they’ve lost their ability to empathize. They don’t rock the boat. But they commit the same sin as the master, bowing down to the false gods who rule the kingdom of this world!
The third slave resists the this evil empire – pledging allegiance to the coming kingdom (of Jesus), and pays the price. He doesn’t lose his empathy, for all those other slaves being victimized by the empire of Rome. And his one talent is not only taken away, but to his shame, he sees it given to the one who has the most, the slave with 5 talents (enough for more than 2 lifetimes of wages). “For to all those who have, more will be given,” says the master, “and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” In the fallen empires of this world, as we know, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
But of course, this is exactly where we’ll find Jesus! There among those cast-out, like this 3rd slave. The empathy of Jesus, is unbounded! Jesus, was born in a stable, being cast-out of the inn-keepers motel, and spent his life healing the sick and possessed, he stood up to the powerful being exploiting by the poor, and willingly let himself be handed over to the authorities to be crucified like a criminal.
This, is the penultimate parable of seven, the next to last story, when the night is darkest before the dawn. But the story of Jesus does not end in the deep dark grave, the hole dug for Jesus in an attempt to bury who he was, and his mission of bringing the realm and kingdom of God, to the world, and to us!
The moment of redemption, lies in the power of the powerless and cast-out. In the moment of deepest darkness, a light shined! God will resurrect this project of the kingdom, and let it lose in the world, revealing the abilities of God’s people to live for others, and to live into the power, and promise, of the new-reality of life, on this side of the grave!
With the empathy of Christ Jesus at our side, we will never be lost or forgotten. No grave could hold him. No hole is too deep. Christ is coming! And as St. Paul said, “we are all children of light!”