Monday, January 30, 2012


Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents has nothing to do with pretending you can’t dance, or not following your bliss into your true calling.  It’s a parable about money in trust, and applies directly to today’s breaking news:  Freddie Mac Bets Against American Homeowners. Matthew turns the parable into a judgment against people who don’t have enough faith to wait for Jesus to come again.  But Jesus’ over-the-top joke is actually a blueprint for Occupy Wall Street action. 

“You know,” Jesus says in the Scholars translation, “It’s like a man going on a trip who called his slaves and turned his valuables over to them.”  The master leaves the first slave 30,000 silver coins.  Assuming each coin is an ounce, that’s about $100 million, according to today’s New York spot price.  It’s also not a great deal of money for the 21st Century, given the rate at which the Adelson’s are pouring money into the Gingrich campaign, not to mention Citizens United.  But in the 1st Century of the common era, the first two slaves received a fortune, and the third received what amounts to about 20 years of wages. 

By this time the disciples – who had been with Jesus long enough to know what’s coming – must have been listening closely for the punch line.  Unfortunately we don’t really know what the punch line may have been.  The story certainly reflects the unjust economics of Empire, but as it stands – whether in Luke’s version (Luke 19:12-27) or Matthew’s – the disciples must have just shrugged.  So what?  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Matthew resorts to stating the obvious, then adds insult to injury by having the master throw the slave – who was afraid to invest in the stock market on his behalf – into the utter darkness where, as the NRSV puts it, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Somehow “faith” or “belief” in Jesus acquires some means of being measured, and those who have more will get more, and those who have less will be thrown under the bus by a vengeful God.

But suppose the slave was not acting out of fear, but was refusing to participate in a clear violation of Mosaic law (Leviticus 25:35-37)?  Suppose – in an action prescient of Occupy Wall Street – he pulled off the ultimate insult?  The real story Jesus told as he and his band camped beside the Sea of Galliee, not far from Tiberias probably went like this:

“There was a rich man who was planning an extended marketing trip to the Roman colonies in Syria.  Before he left, he turned over his business operations to three slaves.”

One of the women is cleaning fish poached from the lake and throwing them into a cauldron steaming in the fire. She pauses a moment and says, “I heard something about this from Mary’s uncle Mordecai not two hours ago.”

Jesus looks around at the company.  They have seen that look before.  “To the first he gave 30,000 silver coins . . .”

Several snickers are heard as several more fish find their way into the soup.  The woman starts shaking her head.  A child runs into the group, screaming about some outrage his brother has perpetrated.  Another woman catches him, and quiets him down to listen.

“He gave 12,000 silver coins to the second, and to the third, 6,000 silver coins.  The first slave immediately used his master’s name to buy the most lucrative farm within miles, and sure enough, when the crops were harvested he had increased his investment ten-fold.”

“Sounds like that thief Jered,” grumbles one of the men.  “Put my whole family off the land and here we are.”

“The second tripled his money by seizing all the land bordering the lake and charging the fishermen for access, and requiring that they buy back the fish they caught before selling them in the market.”

Nothing is heard now but the bubbling stew.  This is too close for joking.  They wouldn’t be throwing contraband fish into a pot liberated from someone too rich to miss it if not for the recent edict handed down by Herod Antipas.

“The third slave took his 6,000 pieces of silver and buried them in the master’s kitchen garden.”

Jesus smiles a private smile, reaches for a loaf of bread, breaks off a hunk, chews, and waits.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

First Amendment: Lose the “Prayer” Breakfasts

Ocean City Mayor's Special Guest Says “No Mosques in America,” Invokes Hitler Against Obama, Etc.
It’s likely too late to block the Mayor’s choice of prayer breakfast keynoters – but why do government officials have “prayer breakfasts” anyway?  Jesus is reported to have said that when you pray, “don’t act like phonies.  They love to stand up and pray in houses of worship and on street corners, so they can show off in public.  I swear to you, their prayers have been answered!  When you pray, to into a room by yourself and shut the door behind you.  Then pray to your Father, the hidden one. . . . And when you pray, you should not babble on as the pagans do” (Matthew 6:5-8, Scholars Version).

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who ARE These People?

In the latest issue of Westar Institute’s periodical The Fourth R (for “religion”), long-time editor and member Tom Hall argues with Vanderbilt Divinity School Visiting Scholar Gerd Lüdemann about who can claim the name of “Christian” in today’s post-modern, post-Christian context.  Hall demands, “Who says we must ‘save’ the doctrine of the risen Christ?  Who says we may not disavow clearly obsolete elements of ‘the faith of most early Christians’?”  Professor Lüdemann fires back: “After the bodily resurrection and other supernatural propositions are recognized as fictions, the heritage that remains is simply Judaism.  So why shouldn’t Christians join the local synagogue and become Jews?”

Unfortunately, The Fourth R is not yet published online, and I can’t quote much of it (“fair use,” and all that).  But the question raised is at the heart of Christian identity crises today.  People who have joined the 21st century in terms of cosmology and want to distinguish ourselves from biblical literalists (fundamentalists) can choose between “liberal” and “progressive.”  But what about theologically conservative Christians who staunchly support all of the social justice positions of the political left?  Should they give up the designation “evangelical”?  Is it fair that they get lumped in with the rest of the libertarian right?

My favorite quote from the online discussion at Sojourners God’s Politics is: “With a glass of champagne in one hand and a smile on his face, Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill church in Michigan, answered, “An evangelical is someone who, when they leave the room, you have more hope than when they entered.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Biblical Literacy: Who Cares?

Atheists care.  Mormons care.  “Evangelical” “born again” Christians don’t care.  “Spiritual not religious” refugees from organized Christian churches don’t care.  Unitarians don’t care (unless they are atheists).  Keli Goff ranted on Dylan Ratigan and the Huffington Post that:
        . . . an overwhelming majority of those who believe in God are ignorant of basic Biblical facts, and facts about other religions. A 2010 Pew study found only 2% of those surveyed could answer 29 of the 32 questions asked correctly. Most could answer about half. This means that people who aren’t well-versed in their own religious beliefs, or anyone else’s, are making decisions in the voting booth fueled by prejudice that isn't even well-informed prejudice.
        . . . Atheists were among the top scoring groups on Pew’s religion pop quiz.  Mormons also scored well. . . . So . . . If most of us are not knowledgeable enough of our own faiths to truly know if another faith is at odds with our own, then how can a vote based in part on someone else’s designated religion be rooted in anything other than prejudice?
More important than voting based on religious prejudice is indifference to Christian fundamentalist Zionism, and the fervent desire on the part of Christian fundamentalists to establish a theocracy in the United States. Christian Zionism  poses a direct threat to world peace because of its belief in the literal return of Jesus to establish a “new Jerusalem” and usher in the "Kingdom of God."  Christian Zionism is at the root of right-wing Christian foreign policy espoused by all three Republican candidates still in the race for the nomination.

Liberal and progressive Christians need to bone up on Revelation, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Gospel of John (see John Shuck’s sermons, and my Liberal Christian Commentary Archive), and then join the Westar Institute in its continuing, paradigm-shifting work on the historical Jesus, the development of early Christianity, and – most recently – the Bible itself.  Want more help? provides resources, guiding ideas, and spiritual networking opportunities for progressive individuals, churches, and organizations.

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