Rehabilitating The Third Slave

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, November 19th, 2017

We all know the risk to the environment from CFCs or fossil fuels. But today I want to tell you about a chemical called DHMO, which we may not fully be aware of the implications of and, in fact, which we may be complacent about.

I am certainly no scientist, but from what I have read about this chemical, it has been shown to mutate DNA, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. Known also as hydroxylic acid, DHMO stands for dihydrogen monoxide.

What do we actually know about its dangers? This is what researchers know for certain:

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  • Death can be caused due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities.
  • DHMO is a major component of acid rain.
  • Gaseous DHMO can cause severe burns.
  • Leads to corrosion of many metals.
  • Exposure decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • Within the atmosphere, scientists know for certain that it plays a contributory factor in cyclones in the U.S. Midwest and in hurricanes including the recent deadly storms in Texas and the Caribbean.

Perhaps the most important thing, though, that we can learn from all this is that we shouldn’t always take things at face value. Everything I have told you about DHMO is true, but what you may or may not have realized is that dihydrogen monoxide, or hydroxylic acid, are simply other names for water.

What we see is often what we expect to see. The way we react to situations is so often predetermined by the assumptions that are almost hard-wired into us. What is the mental picture that we have of God? This is how David Lose, Professor at Luther Seminary, St Paul, Minnesota, has to say about this:

“For some God is loving and kind, like a benevolent grandparent. For others God is stern and judgmental. For some God is protective, for others God is always on the verge of anger. For some God is patient and long-suffering, while for others God is impatient and dour. These pictures shape not just how we think about God but how we actually experience so many events in our day-to-day life that we connect — often unconsciously — to God and our life of faith.”

What we see is often what we expect to see. Just now we heard the parable of the talents. It’s a well-known parable. Very well-known, in fact. So well-known in fact that we tend to go onto spiritual auto-pilot when we hear it. I have heard that parable for so long that there is one set of interpretations hard-wired into me. Sometimes hard-wiring is good. I like that my nervous system is hard-wired. It would be, at the very least, a bore to have consciously to make the effort to breathe all the time. 

So, here’s the version of the parable that you are used to. A rich man (that’s God) goes away for a long time (that’s the bit between Ascension Day and the Second Coming). He has three slaves (that’s us), and he gives them each some money (that’s our God-given abilities). The one with the most money goes and trades and makes a load more (that’s good). The second one goes and trades too, and makes a bit (that’s not bad, either). The third one is scared and buries the cash in the ground to keep it safe (he’s lazy, fearful and unimaginative). The rich man comes back and asks for his cash. Slave #1 produces double. The rich man is ecstatic and invites him to share in all his wealth. Slave #2 gives back principal plus profit. Happy rich man invites slave to share in riches. Slave #3 produces original sum, is considered lazy, fearful and unimaginative and is tossed into the dumpster of eternity. Conclusion: God gives us gifts and we need to take risks with them, use them and grow them, and then God will be happy with us and let us into heaven.

 'The Parable of the Talents' by Eugène Burnand (1850 – 1921) reinforces the well-known interpretation of the parable.

'The Parable of the Talents' by Eugène Burnand (1850 – 1921) reinforces the well-known interpretation of the parable.

Since this is the version that I, certainly, have taken at face value for many years, re-reading the text with fresh eyes is not always that straightforward. But here are a few issues that bother me and which, to be honest, I have generally ignored because, like housekeeping, I do like everything to be neat and tidy.

Issue number one. The parable starts ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves’. What is the ‘it’? ‘For IT is as if a man….’ What is ‘it’? Is ‘it’ the Kingdom of Heaven? Could be. But it might be referring to the delay in the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Frankly, it could be either. But which one you choose makes a big difference to the way the rest of the interpretation pans out.

Issue number two: if the rich man represents God, and the slaves represent us, what does that say about God’s view of us, and ours of him? Does God view us as slaves? Do we think of God as an oppressive and harsh master that we live in fear of, and who’s bidding we have no choice but to do? 

Issue number three: Try as we might, we can’t make the Greek word for slave, ‘δοῦλος’(doulos), go away from the original text, and we can’t translate ‘doulos’ as anything other than ‘slave’. What does this say? Does it mean that this is how we should view our relationship with God? Or does it mean that the parable needs to be interpreted differently?

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Issue number four: If the first two servants go out, trade and generally wheel and deal and make lots of money for their master, does this mean that the Bible justifies wealth creation? And, incidentally, let’s be aware of what a talent means: a talent was 6,000 denarii. One denarius was roughly an average day’s wage. A talent was therefore roughly twenty years’ income. So slave number one was investing, let’s say, around $7,000,000 in today’s money.

Issue number five: We are told that the rich man is harsh, and reaps where he does not sow. What on earth are we to make of this, if we stick with the view that the rich man represents God in this story? Even with the most charitable reading, ‘reaping what you do not sow’ sounds awfully like exploitation. Or to put it another way, someone who comes round with baseball bats if you don’t pay up.

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In his book ‘Parables as Subversive Speech’, the American biblical scholar, William R Hertzog, gives us a very different way of thinking about this parable. Hertzog rehabilitates the third slave: the supposedly lazy, good-for-nothing one. This is how he reads the parable: the rich man is indeed a big businessman, and the slaves are his retainers. When he goes away on an extended business trip he orders his staff to make him some money in the ways they know best, through the exploitation of the local peasants and a feathering of not only their master’s nest, but their own too. The third slave, unwilling to collude in this system, chooses not to exploit the local peasants but, prudently realizing that he still needs to cover his own back, does not spend the money either, and returns it in full to the master. I want to quote you a short extract from Hertzog’s book.

The praise offered by the oppressive aristocrat mystifies the ugly realities suppressed beneath the profit margin: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave.” Both retainers are good in terms of the aristocrat’s values because they have proven to be effective exploiters of the peasants, and they have been trustworthy because they have produced a level of increased wealth in line with the aristocrat’s expectations. The sheer extent of the aristocrat’s wealth comes through his follow-up: “You have been trustworthy in a few things.” Five talents! Two talents! A few things! It is hard to grasp the steep curve of wealth concentration in agrarian societies. Those in the ruling class, roughly the top 2 percent of the population, controlled the vast majority of the wealth. In this lofty circle of power, wealth was reckoned in talents, which were but a “few things”. 

Does this sound familiar? Excessive wealth accumulation so exploitative, and so detached from reality that even the crazy sums involved – telephone number sums – are treated like insignificant personal baubles, rather than using that money for truly building up a just kingdom, where those who have help those who have not.

So what does this parable mean? And when I say that what I mean is ‘what does this parable mean for us’? Does it mean that God expects us to like slaves 1 and 2, taking our abilities, using them wisely, and growing them for his kingdom? Or does it mean that we are like slave 3, refusing to collude in a corrupt system, and facing up to the injustices around us?

There is a phrase which is often used to sum up the Anglican position. The via media. Roughly translated this means ‘having your cake AND eating it’. Actually, I just made that up. What it does mean is ‘the middle way’. So, which interpretation is it going to be? The first, or the second? The answer is… the first. And the second.

You see, these parables of Jesus are living, dynamic things. We have to interpret them afresh in each generation. And I think that the Holy Spirit is saying to us that, like hydroxilic acid, we shouldn’t always take things at face value.

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