Thirty Third Sunday of the Year
When reading the scriptures, the backdrop must always begin with God’s loving presence, a God who is passionate about humanity. What we read, hear or experience must be held against this image especially when we read a parable such as the one today that depicts God like the master who locks a door to someone who has failed, made mistakes or done something foolish. The God of Jesus does not have unbending performance standards; who insists that our choices need be the right ones.
This is how the world tends to operate, as has even been encouraged by Christianity. For most of the story, the master comes across as a just, reasonable and trusting. After being away, he returns and enthusiastically praises and rewards the servants who have pleased him by making the right choices. In fact, it is about a world of investment and profit-taking without real work. But, as we will see, one of the characters drops out and does not cooperate with exploitation, finance and self-interest that impacts badly on the poor and working classes. The gospel today contrasts two current understandings of contemporary Christianity. One that endorses an economic system where ‘everyone who has is given more so that they grow rich, while the have-nots are robbed even of what they have.’ The former is embodied in Donald Trump and his supporters. The other is personified in Pope Francis who is trying to distance himself from faith in the capitalist system. Francis is like the servant today who buried his talent in the ground refusing to invest it in a corrupt system that invariably widens the gap between the rich and the poor. Francis repeatedly urges action to secure the basic entitlements the poor deserve such as rights to land, housing and work, living ways, unions and social security.
We have often considered this parable as a call to use our God given talents to achieve, achieve, achieve, to get ahead – or else. It is a weapon often used against people who are poor, unemployed, people with disabilities, people out of prison, or people unable for any reason ‘contribute’ to the ‘economy’. It can also be used against anyone who does not want to buy into the ‘capitalist’ system which condones ruthless and hardhearted business practices and rewards the smart and diligent whilst there are bad outcomes for the unreliable and hopeless. It is like saying ‘God helps those who help themselves’ (which Jesus never used) and that success in life is due to being blessed by God. Human thinking and standards should not be placed over God’s standards. The master, who originally came across as just, reasonable and trusting is now seen for what he is: a modern, greedy business person who accrues wealth at the expense of others, ‘… harvesting where you did not plant and gathering we you did not scatter.’ How can a merciful God be equated with the master who throws the steward into the darkness outside? These actions hardly fit Jesus’ image of God.
Jesus’ world was not like our capitalist system that increases wealth by investment. During the Covid-19, as in the financial world, the rich sought protection and tax cuts whilst the poor, the unemployed and those who were not citizens lost or missed out. Like the master in the gospel the rich wanted something for nothing. The Master does not represent or act like God. The ‘master’ is in contrast to what God is like – unless we want to see God as severe, hardhearted and ruthless. This is not the God revealed by Jesus. The one thrown into the darkness is often judged a failure or lazy or incompetent, but it really one who does have a place in God’s reign because he had no place in the ways of the world - a system that dominates, controls and rides on the back of the poor; that treats people as disposable; where old people sleep in cardboard boxes and children scavenge on landfills.
The parables are hard-hitting but when they are spiritualised they become domesticated and lose their edge. They confirm us in the status quo, prop up unjust systems (capitalism) and justify unjust business practices. We are to see the world differently, to see how the world could be. Our stance in the world is to be vigilant in confronting injustice. Jesus’ audience would have been disgusted at the doubling of the ‘investment’ because greed characterised the rich and powerful who extorted and defrauded others through tax collecting, lucrative trading and money lending at high rates of interest. This is the kind of behaviour that still causes the destructive cycle of indebtedness and poverty in or world – in families and in the developing countries.
The conformists go along with that system which to them has no acceptable alternative. The third steward is a kind of whistle-blower, a dissenter, who speaks the truth and confronts injustice: ‘I knew you were a harsh man’ (skleros, 'hardhearted'). ‘You reap where you did not sow, and gather where you did not scatter seed’. That is, ‘your wealth comes from the backbreaking labour of others’. He will not participate in this exploitation and takes the money out of circulation. At least one more farmer was not dispossessed. So, we cannot see Jesus as endorsing this mercenary economics which leads to the inevitable polarisation of wealth.
In the ‘Joy of the Gospel’ - published in 2014 – the pope has identified the unfettered markets (along with their ‘trickle-down’ ideologies) as homicidal (# 53), ineffective (#54) and unjust at their roots (#59). He sees ‘each and every human right’ (including education, health care, and ‘above all’ employment and a just wage (#192) as intimately connected with ‘defense of unborn life’ (#213). He has condemned the system without equivocation. Unlike most world leaders, he has called us away from the worship of market and money, which is a world of darkness, weeping and grinding of teeth, to reign of light, joy and encounter.
This connects with next week’s gospel – in the story of the sheep and the goats. We find Christ outside the centres of power, in the marginal areas; on the peripheries; in places of pain and marginality; the places of ‘outer darkness’. This is where the hungry, the sick, prisoners, the strangers and the naked are; this is where the indigenous people, the asylum seekers, the mentally ill, the street people, the drug affected, the vilified gay and lesbian people, the whistle-blowers are. This is where we mysteriously meet Christ. The slave who was cast into the ‘outer darkness’ stands in opposition to the dominant system and culture and is brought close to the one who is at the Heart of the Universe and who lives with the poor and the oppressed.
Gospel living and loving require courage and risk taking. We are reminded today that peace, justice and equality are God’s intention for our lives. They come about by taking the risk of being thrown into the ‘outer darkness’. Some things that appear to be fearless or courageous are not. The kind that is ‘real’ risk being ostracised, come out of an attempt to engage in the world where there is positive action for good, transformation, peace and justice. Real hope is fueled by positive action.
So, through a series of parables Jesus instructs and encourages his disciples so that they will be prepared for life after he has left them. They need to be vigilant, not just because Jesus will return at an hour they do not expect, but they also need to be able to distinguish between what is of God and what is of this world. The shocking revelation towards the end of the story of the master’s true nature echoes Jesus' warnings elsewhere, about not falling for false prophets or wolves in sheep’s clothing. And as we see in the following parable, the so-called judgment day, dramatically reveals what is truly please to the true ‘master’. It often is not what people normally expect.