Ars Praedicandi: 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Ed Foley

We have been reminded by NBC for 18 seasons
that America’s Got Talent.
But it’s not only that America’s Got Talent
but Moldova’s Got Talent
Albania’s Got Talent
Cambodia’s got Talent
Iran’s Got Talent
And Mongolia with at least 70 other countries all have talent.

Whether you are a fan or not you probably know the format:
the autistic blind pianist,
the frumpy middle-aged matron,
the acrobatic street kids from Mumbai
nervously take the stage and then electrify the audience.

To some, Matthew’s parable today could sound like
the Gospel according to Simon Cowell:
urging folk not to bury their talent, singing in the shower
or performing for your pets.
Instead, step into the spotlight, show them what you’ve got,
and become a millionaire in the process.

While I admit being a little facetious here,
it is yet common to interpret this gospel
as a mandate to live up to our potential,
parallel to Jesus’ earlier instruction not to
hide our light under a bushel basket.

This interpretation presents the Master as a stand-in for God
who gives each of us certain gifts to be used in his service.
If not, we are to be cast out in darkness
with the wailing and grinding of teeth.

There are, however, some major difficulties
with such a reading of Matthew.

First, “talent” in this gospel is not a personal gift
but a staggering amount of money.
Second, the Master in the parable
is not a stand-in for God unless you long for
a completely corrupt deity!

Third, maybe most surprising,
the treasure-burying servant
is not only undeserving of labels like coward
but might be the most Christ-like person in the parable.

First, we follow the money:
a talent was not a coin you could carry around in your pocket
unless you were Hagrid or Hercules.
This ancient unit for measuring gold or silver
weighed about 75 lbs.
As for its worth, opinions vary widely
from millions to thousands of dollars:
equal to at least 20 years of wages for a common worker.

This stash of cash reveals the true nature of the Master,
who in no way was God-like.
In the blunt assessment of the third servant,
he was a hard man, reaping what he did not sow
and gathering where he did not scatter.

While modern capitalists might call him clever and enterprising,
in the eyes of our Middle Eastern ancestors
he is opportunistic and greedy.

First-century Mediterranean people believed that
all goods already existed and were completely distributed.
There was a finite amount of shared wealth,
so you could not invent something like cryptocurrencies.
The only way to acquire more was to defraud someone else.
So maybe this is really
the gospel according to Sam Bankman-Fried!

As for vice-presidents one and two in the story,
they undoubtedly doubled their Master’s wealth
by deploying his fraudulent ways.

No wonder the Master was pleased:
they not only made him more money
but did so by imitating his bamboozling ways.
Apparently even among criminals
imitation is the highest form of flattery!

Then there was the “bury it in the ground, be prudent and careful,
unwilling to gamble it away” guy
who gets trashed, fired, and dumped on the street.

Ironically, he does what the rabbis of the time would commend:
burying money in the ground
was considered a safe and honorable action.

Servant #3 refused to participate in any shakedown–
lending money to peasants at exorbitant rates
so that they could afford to plant their crops and then
foreclose on their lands when they couldn’t pay it all back.

As his Master points out, he even avoids banking the money
and earning interest on it.

That seems like a perfectly reasonable criticism,
but not to first century Jews, since accruing interest
was forbidden in the Bible.

So the servant who refuses to participate in the graft
is not a coward but a courageous whistle-blower,
Though that doesn’t do him much good
for he gets sacked for his honesty.

This parable must have stunned Jesus’ listeners,
none of whom were venture capitalists, but rather peasants
who could never imagine having that kind of money.

Ironically, this last of Jesus’ parables in Matthew’s gospel,
immediately before his arrest, passion and death,
also signal’s Jesus own unwillingness
to collude with religious and political oppression,
resulting in his being cast out, and
ultimately executed on the garbage heap of Golgotha.
So where’s the good news?

Decades ago I started reading the Harry Potter books.
They were so popular, as a preacher
it was important to be acquainted with them.
Little did anybody back then have an inkling
that they would sell over 500 million copies,
make close to 10 billion from the films, or generate another
45 billion in merchandise and theme parks.
As someone with a classical education, I just thought it cool
that they used a lot of Latin in their spells.

A favorite spell from the third book, the Prisoner of Azkaban
is the boggart-banishing spell Riddikulus,
forcing the shape-shifter to assume an outrageous form
who is thus defeated by laughter.

There is a great scene from the movie version
in which Neville reoutfitted professor Snape
in his grandmother’s ludicrous clothing,
and Ron Weasley obliterates a giant spider
by cladding it in 4 pairs of roller skates.

While Matthew is not J. K. Rowling,
he does have a keen eye for the preposterous and absurd.
I think today’s outrageous story is an example of that.

Hyperbole is a rhetorical device that uses exaggeration for effect
and parables are ordinarily marked by such exaggeration.

I think Matthew’s gospel today is a kind of Ridikkulus charm,
exposing and even ridiculing
oppressive systems that rob people of their dignity
and punishing those who refuse to join the conspiracy.

There are too many ridiculous headlines these days:
unbelievable reports that we pray turn out to be fake news
but end up being soul-crushingly true:
children kidnapped and killed in bombing raids,
migrants fleeing crime and starvation,
air pollution shutting down a national capitol,
and hospitals becoming the front line of a war.

Like Rowling’s menacing boggart, oppression is a shape shifter
across centuries, societies, and economies.
And just as the Riddikulus spell does not destroy the boggart
but only reveals its absurdity,
we will never see the end of destructive prejudices,
or of war-mongering and the abuse of the innocent,
before the end of human time.
That does not mean, however, that destruction should flourish unchecked.

So, this gospel warns us that our ordinary ways
of burying money in the ground
or avoiding collusion with prejudice
are no longer enough …
and something more risky is required.

68 years ago next month, a quiet, bespectacled 42 year old seamstress
took a public stance against colluding with oppression
that also got her tossed out, arrested, and vilified.
Her name was Rosa Parks.
Her resistance to the boggart of racism and prejudice
was a rather unspectacular one:

Already sitting in the “colored” section at the back of a bus,
she refused to vacate her seat for a white passenger.
It was a small gesture, but one that eventually
rocked a city, then a state, then a nation.

The first reading today seems to give a sweet,
maybe even condescending image of a perfect wife:
a pleasant domestic, sitting at home
removed from the worries of the world
happily spinning her flax and wool …

However, this is no depiction of some idle hobby
but a description of strategic economic activity
for this wise woman’s family and community,
reaching out to the poor and unburdening the needy
whose innovative justice echoes across her town.

Maybe she should have been the patron saint
of Servant no. 3 … pushing him to try something new.
And, I imagine her whispering
in the ear of a young Rosa Parks:
time to innovate,
time to rethink the mission,
time to expose oppression and banish prejudice…

something we are called to this day
with the gospel magic we call the Spirit of Jesus.

And the Lord God said, “Go,”
and I said, “who, me? “
and God said, “Yes . . .  you.”
And I said, “but I’m not really ready
and Thanksgiving’s on the horizon
and who will watch the kids
and you know that there is no one to take my place,”
and God said, “You’re stalling.”

And a second time the Lord God said, “Go”
and I said, “but I don’t want to . . . “
and God said, “I didn’t ask you if you wanted to,”
and I said, “Listen, I’m not the kind to get involved in controversy
besides my family won’t like it
and what will the neighbors think?”
and the Lord God said, “Baloney!”

And a third time, the Lord God said, “Go”
and I said, “Do I have to?”
and God said, “Do you love me?”
and I said, “Look, I’m scared,”
people are going to shun me,
talk behind my back, take it out on the family
and I can’t do this by myself,”
and God said, “Who said you’d be doing it by yourself,
where do you think I will be?”

And a fourth time the Lord God said, “Go”
And I said, “Here I am, Lord.  I come to do your holy will.”

On this 33rd Sunday in extra-ordinary times
on this “Old St. Pat’s got Talent Sunday,”
on this “time to step up your game” Sunday,
God also says to us “Go.”

We pray that, assailed by the Word
and nourished at the table
we, too, can wholeheartedly say,
“Here I am Lord.  I come to do your holy will
through Christ our Lord.”