“If I give food to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” – Dom Hélder Câmara
A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked if I would speak at a church service tonight. He asked if I would speak on my involvement with Occupy Nashville because a number of people at the church had questions about the movement and were curious about what was going on. Interestingly, one of the scripture readings for this week was the parable of the talents (or bags of gold) in Matthew 25:14-30. My friend asked if I could use this text as a springboard for my talk which is what guest speakers typically do. I was excited and started working on my homily/mini-sermon (copied below).
This afternoon, as I was finishing the homily, I received an email. The church had failed to include my name as a speaker in their bulletin. Then I got an email from my friend. A church leader had requested that he let them read over the handout we were going to use for one of the prayer stations. Something didn’t feel right so around 4:30 p.m., I called my friend to see what was going on. He said there were “concerns” from three church leaders who thought that perhaps I shouldn’t speak in the service tonight. My friend informed them through an email that my “prepared thoughts [are] no different than what we’ve asked any other speaker to do, which is be faithful to the scriptures assigned.”
The church leaders continued to express their concerns. I emailed my friend a copy of my homily and he sent it to the leaders so that they could read over it. I offered to meet them in the middle and take off the last two paragraphs which mention the Occupy movements until we could have more dialogue. Around 6 p.m., they told my friend that I could not speak; that I should wait until they could organize some sort of panel; that even though I had agreed not to mention Occupy Nashville/Occupy Wall Street, I still could not give the homily I had been asked to give. My friend said that one of the leaders would personally give me a call to talk about this, but I never received a call.
Now from what I understand, this particular Wednesday night service has never been asked to hold off on a speaker and they have had Rabbis, Buddhists, prostitutes, and un-housed individuals as guest speakers. In fact, I have spoken there before on numerous occasions about why my faith compels me to spend my life working and journeying with the homeless community in Nashville. Apparently, when speakers talk about feeding, clothing, and sheltering the poor, they are patted on the back. But as soon as they start a discussion about why so many people need food, clothing, and shelter, they are silenced.
I felt hurt and shut down. I went to the service and wore duct tape over my mouth. I stayed for an hour and a half after the service talking to others who were upset about the decisions that were made by the church leaders. My homily is posted below… I am saddened that I wasn’t able to share what I prepared, but perhaps some important dialogue will emerge from all of this.
One thing I have realized is that when a church becomes a propertied institution, its overriding priorities often become self preservation and self perpetuation—priorities that can be directly opposed to the self emptying, self sacrificing message of the gospel.
This immediately made me think of the way in which many of the white churches responded to the Civil Rights movement. “You’re going too fast,” white church leaders wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. These churches would gladly talk about “loving their neighbors” in their services, but when the conversation came to desegregating the schools, buses, lunch counters, restrooms, etc., they had crossed the line. Conversation that upset the status quo was off-limits. In other words, charity was good but justice was dangerous.
There is a Civil Rights song called “Eyes on the Prize” that we taught to occupiers at Legislative Plaza after the first two nights of arrests. It goes like this:
The first thing that we did right
was the day we started to fight.
Keep your eyes on the prize,
hold on, hold on.
The only thing that we did wrong
was the day we waited too long.
Keep your eyes on the prize,
hold on, hold on.
You can’t tell oppressed people that they should wait until those of us who perpetuate the status quo have a change of heart before they speak out against the oppression. So what if a few toes are stepped on? I can guarantee that a bruised toe heals faster than a body that has been bent and broken for years upon years by oppression.
The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is intriguing to me. To give you a little context, Jesus tells this parable to a group of his disciples while sitting on the Mount of Olives. The disciples had asked Jesus to tell them when the end of times would come and what signs would be given to help them predict the end. After a lot of talk about keeping watch and how the “day and hour of the end are unknown,” Jesus tells a string of parables about the kingdom of God. This is where the parable of the talents fits in.
In this parable, the master gives three servants different amounts of money before setting off on a journey. The first servant receives five talents (which would be worth a lot of money today), the second receives two talents, and the third receives one talent. While the master is gone, the servant with five talents and the servant with two talents both put their money to work and double the master’s talents. The servant with one talent, on the other hand, hides his money in the ground.
When the master returns, he praises the first two servants, gives them a promotion, and invites them to “share in his happiness.” When the master comes to the third servant, the servant explains why he hid the money. He says that he knew the master was a “hard man, harvesting where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed,” and because he was fearful of this, he simply preserved and returned the one talent. In response, the master lambasts him and states that the servant should have at least put his money on deposit with the bankers so it would have gained interest. The master takes away the talent from the third servant and throws him outside into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The master ends with these words: “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”
Jesus, of course, doesn’t tell us who the master in this story represents and what the parable means. He leaves its meaning up to our discernment and interpretation. Most of us have always heard that the master in the parable represents God and that the meaning of the parable boils down to being gainful and industrious stewards of what property, possessions, and wealth we have so that we will be entrusted with more. If we follow in this interpretation of the parable, it is expected that we should take what we have and do whatever we need to do to increase it. If getting more and more is what pleases the master, then by all means, no money-making venture is off limits. Invest it in stock markets, in banks, and in other lucrative projects. Join companies and corporations where making a profit is the bottom line. Double your money and the master will be proud. Triple it and you’ll get the promotion of a lifetime. If you fail to take advantage of systems that “harvest where they have not sown,” you should be fearful because there is no place for you in this master’s house.
If this interpretation of the parable is the correct interpretation, then many of us can rest easy. After all, we like the idea of “stewardship” and we’re good at manipulating the markets. We’re good at being shrewd with our finances and investments. We don’t fear the economic and financial systems that are currently in place because we know them intimately and know how to get the biggest bang for our buck.
Now, one of the main problems I have with this interpretation of the parable is that I think this master looks more like Caesar than the God who preaches good news to the poor and sets the oppressed free. Indeed, the master of this parable looks and sounds very different from the Jesus who overturns the tables of the money-changers, who tells the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give it to the poor, and who chooses the path of a suffering servant only to be arrested and condemned to death in the 26th chapter of Matthew.
As my dear friend Scott Owings has suggested, what if instead of understanding the master in the parable as God, we see him as the epitome of the rulers of this world who encourage us to devote ourselves to consuming and attaining more and more. Thus, when the master says, “Come and share in my happiness,” he is drawing us into the lie that more money, more promotions, and more things have the power to bring happiness. This, my friends, is in direct opposition to the gospel. Let us not forget what Jesus says in the parable of the rich fool who wanted to build bigger barns to hoard his grain: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all forms of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
So what if Jesus is indeed telling this parable to show his disciples what society will look like in the end of times? What if the true hero of the story is the servant who hid the master’s money in the ground? After all, this servant seemed to have a healthy fear of masters who reap what they don’t sow, who profit from the work of others, and who benefit from oppressive systems. Rather than buying into such a paradigm, this servant makes the deliberate decision to keep the talent safe, but also to refuse to play a role in unjust and unethical practices. Not only does this third servant not let the love of money and promotions control him, but he also stands up to the master about why he did what he did. Perhaps in a world such as ours where corruption, greed, and inequality plague our economic, political, and financial systems, we would do well to follow in the critical and even subversive footsteps of the third servant. After all, he was forcibly removed from the master’s house just as Jesus, in his crucifixion, was forcibly removed from the Roman Empire.
It is interesting to me that directly following the parable of the talents is the story of the sheep and goats. Most of us know this story well and have been deeply impacted by it. In this story, Jesus says that when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we are really doing these things for him and that we will receive our inheritance which is the kingdom of God.
I think we can all agree that it is essential for people of faith to be doing these charitable and benevolent acts. But, if we feed the hungry and shelter the homeless without also addressing the systems that oppress them, then we are complicit in their suffering. You see, the theme of justice runs throughout the Old and New Testaments like the threads connecting a beautiful quilt. This thread of justice is particularly visible when we come to prophets like Isaiah and Amos. You see, they realized that the people of God were well versed at carrying out spiritual acts of worship and even charity, but that these things did not translate into the way they lived and organized their society. Consider, for example, Isaiah 58 where God criticizes the Israelites for continuing to perpetuate oppressive systems even while they fasted. God demands a more holistic sacrifice where one’s personal spirituality directly correlates to the way one lives out his or her public life.
So I haven’t said this directly yet, but some of you may know that part of the reason I was asked to speak tonight is so I could share why I’ve been involved with the Occupy Nashville and Occupy Wall Street movements for the last six weeks. So why have I been involved? The short answer is because I believe the people there are doing the work of the prophets and the church. They, like Isaiah and Amos, are speaking out against greed, corruption, and systems that benefit a few while disenfranchising the masses. They, like the third servant in the parable, are refusing to go along with masters and systems that make a profit from “reaping what they did not sow.” Yes, I have slept out on Legislative Plaza. Yes, I have been arrested. Yes I stand in solidarity with these movements. It is my faith that compels me to do these things.
I know that many of you have questions and concerns about these movements, and I would love to talk to you about those after this service. What I can tell you in a nutshell is that these movements are non-violent, non-partisan, and leaderless and that the two platforms that unite us are ending corporate personhood and getting corporate money out of politics. (We can talk more about the specifics later.) I hope this is a conversation that we will all continue to engage in and wrestle with as we seek to follow in the footsteps of a radically loving, radically troubling, and radically transformative Christ.