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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 33, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
November 13, 2011

Matthew 25:14-30

Protesting abuse’

A talent is worth more than 15 years’ wages for a labourer ... Jesus is telling a story not about the kindom of heaven but about the need to “stay awake” (v. 13), to perceive and to understand what’s happening in the world around us. His subversive parable – full of provocations – encourages active listening, engagement. On hearing it afresh, aright, it’s unlikely we’ll remain unmoved. It’s unlikely we’ll remain unchanged … A talent is worth more than 15 years’ wages for a labourer. This is a parable about a very wealthy, very powerful –and very abusive – household.

It’s important to bear in mind that lending money at interest is, biblically speaking, unconscionable, unethical. Numerous verses can be cited against usury. It’s also important to bear in mind that in the first century, as in the 21st, wealthy moneylenders made a killing when debtors could no longer pay a loan with interest and, as a consequence, surrendered their properties.

We might retell the parable thus. The head of a large and powerful household goes away leaving three able employees, the Senior Management team, in charge of eight million dollars. The first two managers do what it takes to double their money. “Those evil so-and-so’s. We all know someone who’s lost out to them” is what we’re meant to be thinking. But such unpleasantness is avoided in the polite conversations between the landowner and the first two managers. “You entrusted me with five talents; here are five talents more”; “… here are two talents more”; “Well done! You are a good and faithful worker …” No mention of people thrown off their land. The managers enjoy their boss’s happiness that the millions have multiplied so.

The third employee is the hero in this parable. For whatever reason, he (or she) decides he cannot partake of this any longer. He decides to become what is now called a “whistle blower”. Instead of using the money to make more money, instead of entrusting it to the bankers, he takes it out of the system where it can do no harm. When the boss returns, there’s no polite chit-chat. The third employee says the unmentionable, making plain where the landowner’s wealth comes from. Telling it straight to the boss. “Knowing your ruthlessness – you who reap where you did not sow and gather where you did not scatter – and fearing your wrath, I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here is your money back.” The reaping refers to the taking of harvests and properties.

The boss does not take kindly to this, giving the usual slander of idleness and immorality that accompanies any act of whistle blowing: “You worthless, lazy lout!”

The third employee is stripped of all responsibilities. No longer part of the bureaucracy that has supported him, this one will soon be destitute, living alongside the poor – in the outer “darkness” (we’ve been alert to this place of darkness before) – where people do indeed grind their teeth, in anguish or anger; where there is wailing.

For many of us, the parable is a call to be awake to the realities of the institutions we manage. Is injustice kept hidden behind polite language and euphemisms? Is it time to say, “No more”? Do you have the courage to risk the consequences of speaking out – possibly losing your employment, your reputation?

The Occupy movement comes to mind, of course. Protesters who risk appearing foolish, naïve, misguided, also risk present and/or future employment. I think of the boldness of protesters at St Paul’s Cathedral in London – and recent statements of support (and reforming critique of global capitalism/gnosticism) from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I also think of Bradley Manning, and (not too long ago) of Andrew Wilkie – and, today, especially today, of all those brave souls who name abuse in the churches, schools and institutions charged with caring for young people.

Yesterday in Redfern Park, Pamella Vernon of the Alliance of Forgotten Australians read from a poem written by her sister who spent eight years, in the 1950s, in a Methodist home for “neglected children”. The poem recounts heartbreak, put-downs and devastating abuse at the hands of those in charge, and in the name of religion. One line from the poem was particularly striking – “The love of God, a mere afterthought”.

It’s heart-breaking that a parable like this – with such obvious cruelty – continues to be read as though the landowner were God – as though wrath and delight in punishment were “natural” divine attributes, and divine love a mere afterthought. Or – I’m not sure which is worse – as though there was no evidence of cruelty at all! It’s shocking what we do and don’t see. Most recently, I heard a preacher say that this is a parable about “kingdom values” – he then went on to blame the third employee for faithless fear!

It’s heart-warming that a parable like this – with such obvious cruelty – continues to provoke us into Christ-like acts of solidarity with all those who protest abuse in the name of truth, hope and life. The God of love – let us continue to read and to heed the words of Matthew 25 – calls us into a kindom of peace where the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given something to drink, strangers are made welcome, the naked are clothed, and those who are ill or imprisoned (or in any way afflicted – in any way suffering in darkness) are visited with kindness –loving-kindness – and dignity. May it be so. Amen.