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Look to the Acorns
The "Parable of the Talents" and the abundance of God I The Word in the Wild, Proper 28, Year A
I’m heading out for a retreat this week, so I’m reposting a reflection on this Sunday’s Gospel that I originally wrote in 2017 for the Wild Lectionary.
I have been spending time the woods lately, a short run in the afternoon, or a morning hike along the trails of a forested park. As fall finally arrives here in Arkansas the juncos have returned, twittering as they flash the white of their tails, and the long metallic notes of White-throated Sparrows echo in the understory. Each step along the path comes with a crunch, not only of the newly fallen leaves, but also of the acorns, cracking orange against the gray shale of the hillsides.
I know of no better example of abundance than an acorn. In a “mast year,” which occurs every 2-5 years in the forest cycle, a mature oak tree can produce as many as ten thousand acorns. Viewed from the perspective of continuing the life of its kind, this seems excessive, and yet it follows a pattern not uncommon in nature—a pattern that cycles through many periods of more than enough.
Like other realities of creation, the life of an oak tree is one that gives way to other life, multiplying exponentially. An oak lives not only for more oaks. Acorns mean more squirrels, and more mice, which can mean more hawks and owls. The abundance moves and spreads, creating an economy of enough for the whole of the forest.
This is the kind of economy Jesus praised in the Sermon on the Mount where he tells us to look at the birds that “don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” How different from this economy of abundant sharing is the example we see in our parable today where we encounter a master who not only reaps and sows, but reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed.
The traditional interpretation of the “Parable of the Talents” sees God as the master and the faithful disciple as those who obtain a good return on the master’s money. It is a story that fits our American sensibilities of taking a little to gain a lot, of an economy where there are winners and losers (and we always imagine ourselves among the winners). I like the parable because it fits my own ambition and drive, it tells me that I should take what I’ve been given and get more, all for the glory of God, of course.
When we really read the story, however, we find that it has several elements that should make us hesitant to embrace such a message. The master in this story is one who is involved in aggressive and unjust business dealings and praises usury. Could this really be God?
Commentators I respect have accepted that the master is indeed God, and I would not be surprised at a parable that forces me to troubling conclusions (the Gospel is often a source of agitation, wherever one stands). However, walking along the trail, abundant with acorns, I cannot help but think that the many commentators who offer an alternative interpretation are right to say that this is a parable of critique rather than commendation. The master, rather than a stand in for God, is a member of the unjust elite. The servant who buries the talent, rather than being a lazy slave, is one who refuses to be complicit in the exploitation carried out by his master, critiquing the unfruitfulness of money which bares nothing when planted (unlike the wealth of creation). He is cast into the outer darkness, ostracized for not accepting an economy in which the poor will only get poorer while the rich get richer. In this, he is not unlike Jesus who is cast out, spit upon, and crucified.
I cannot pretend to know the original meaning Jesus hoped to relate by telling this story or by Matthew in relating it. Such are the dark mirrors of interpretation at a distance of time and culture. Even Jesus’ disciples were often confused by the parables he offered and I believe that that is part of the point. They are the kinds of stories that get inside of us and stir us up, moving us toward the life of discipleship. So what I can offer instead of a sure fire interpretation are the fruitful paths of the parable’s agitation in my own understanding, the latent crops that have burst forth when the soil of my heart was stirred by this story.
Like most of my reading, this parable fell into conversation with other books I’ve read or am reading and from that conversation new and hopeful paths for understanding were opened up.
Reading this parable I couldn’t help but think of a passage from William Stringfellow’s Imposters of God: Inquiries Into Favorite Idols. Among those favorite idols is “work,” which Stringfellow calls one of our most alluring and dangerous idols. The danger of work is that it can easily lead us into self-justification and “works righteousness,” we can think that it is by our good labors that we are saved. It’s favorite bible verse is “God helps those who help themselves,” a verse, which of course, appears nowhere in the bible. The only hope for liberation from this idol comes, Stringfellow writes, “when the worker realizes the freedom from the power of death given by the affirmation of life as a gift. Then work becomes a celebration and use of that freedom.” Once we realize that our salvation is a gift, that all that really matters is the daily bread that comes from God, then we can work in freedom knowing that we are now free from having to be God.
No parable has given more aid to the idolatry of work than the parable of the talents. We have even adopted this denomination of currency into English as a word that connotes one’s special skills. It is easy for us to believe that our best value to the kingdom is to earn as much return as we can—in knowledge, skill, or money. As one wealthy Christian once told me, “my job is to make as much money as I can to support the church.” Stringfellow, following Jesus, wants to free us from such a view so that we can instead view our work in the proper context of God’s manna economy and the attendant freedom of that economy. We don’t need the rich to maximize their returns so that our church can survive. Instead, we need the rich and poor alike to live into the reality that our lives are gifts and that our resources are meant to be shared as gifts with all those in need.
When we begin to understand that the way we enter into God’ economy is by way of freedom and gifts, we again see that the economy of the “master” with its demands for maximum return is in opposition to the kingdom of God.
In the next passage in Matthew (one we will read on Christ the King Sunday) we see a counter view of the way one lives toward God, a life of generosity that does not seek a return. Here the gifts of hospitality to strangers, generosity to the poor, and care for the sick are done without expectation of reward or even knowledge of the King for whom they are done. These are acts of free giving from the hearts of those who have learned with God to freely give. These are people who live in charity because they have given up being God for themselves or their community.
In the passage that follows the parable of the talents God shows up as a beggar, before appearing as a king. Reflecting on this contrast, theologian Kelly Johnson remarks in her wonderful book The Fear of Beggars that:
“God is not the powerful one who has granted us the freedom of independent but rule-bound use of resources. God is far stranger than that. The source of all, the ever present sustainer of all, creates a world which is free, and in doing so, is divested of control. God then waits, as a beggar, on the fulfillment of that freedom, which will be the return--gift of love. The freedom granted humanity by the beggar-God does not call for managers to ‘grow his business’ in accord with company policy. The game is not how to make best use of the resources for the purposes of the Owner, but how to give oneself--heart, mind, muscles, home--to the beggar-Lord in love.” (199)
We begin to learn how to live into the ever moving gifts of this beggar-God not by learning from the patterns of the marketplace where extraction and exploitation are the norm and scarcity and fear make those who have want to have all the more. Instead, we should look to the birds of the air and lilies of the field, those who do not reap or sow or toil, but live on the daily manna of acorns and seeds and all of the abundance that flows from them. This is God’s gift to all of us who share in the poverty of our creatureliness and bask in the blessedness of our dependence upon God and one another.