Discover more from The Cottage
The Parable of the Courageous Whistleblower
Sunday Musings is for everyone — the entire community at The Cottage and all your friends and family! Please share freely by forwarding or using the “Share” button.
Today is the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. With today’s text, we’ve reached the end of the Season of Pentecost. Next week is technically the last Sunday of Pentecost — the Feast of Christ the King — and Advent begins on December 3.
And today’s parable is another familiar one if you’ve hung out at church for a while: The Parable of the Talents. But, like last week, it isn’t what it seems. Welcome to the Parable of the Courageous Whistleblower.
The Cottage depends on financial support from its readers. If you can afford it, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. The subscription fee is modest, purposefully so. I’m enormously grateful for your support.
Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
When my father died in 1998, my mother asked if I’d preach the sermon at his funeral. The minister of their Methodist church called me to talk about the service. The text for the day would be Matthew 25:14-30. “You know,” he said, “the ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ passage.”
I don’t know who picked that passage.
Dad was a, indeed, a "good and faithful servant.” But the selection made me wince. My parents were not rich. They didn’t have five talents or two; they were particularly awful at any sort of business and never got any return on the little money they had. They were one talent people, and sometimes less than that.
Dad may have been a good servant, but he was really bad at investing.
I sighed, resigning myself to the task.
In his funeral sermon, I changed the ending of the parable. I didn’t talk about money (as the parable clearly does). Instead, I preached on “talents” as gifts and spoke of my dad’s one remarkable talent — artistry with flowers — and how he multiplied it and spread joy. Even those of us with one talent could hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant” at the end. Dad did.
Everyone cried. Including me.
This passage brings that memory back. And it also reminds me how limited our theological imagination is regarding most of the parables — including this particular one. If you read it in context with Jesus’ teachings on poverty, it makes no sense. Yet, we persist in the conventional interpretation — that this story is about wise investments and preach it during stewardship campaigns and at funerals.
But what if it isn’t that?
Last Sunday, I suggested that we were wrong to understand Jesus (or God) as the Bridegroom in the parable of Ten Bridesmaids. I asked you to imagine that it was a story about showing up at the wrong wedding party — and that the invitation to the divine banquet would be extended to the bridesmaids who wound up on the streets. Instead of being a “Boy Scout” tale of “Be Prepared,” we might rename it the parable of the Tardy Bridegroom. The point was that conventional wisdom sometimes misses Divine Wisdom.
Today’s Parable of the Talents immediately follows that of the Tardy Bridegroom. For the first time, I realized that both stories were making the opposite point of what I’d been taught in Sunday school. Like the story of the bridesmaids, this tale of the talents actually contradicts other sayings of Jesus. How does this one square with Jesus’ consistent priority for the poor and outcast?
What if the “master” in the Parable of the Talents isn’t God? What if, like the bridegroom in the previous parable, he’s just a bad actor?
As it turns out, I’m not the only reader to wonder this. During the week, I stumbled across this thoughtful reflection by Debie Thomas, a columnist at Christian Century. Her “The Good Kind of Worthless” is based on William Herzog’s book, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.
Here are several paragraphs from her piece that makes more sense of this text than any sermon I’ve ever heard on it (including my own!):
In Jesus’s day, “talents” were not coins or small wads of cash. They were hefty precious metals (usually gold or silver) that weighed somewhere between 80 and 130 pounds. A single talent was worth approximately twenty years of an ordinary laborer’s wages. In other words, a talent represented a staggering amount of money to Jesus’s peasant audience.
An unthinkable, lottery-jackpot-sum that only the wealthiest elite might possess.
How did the elite amass that kind of wealth?
They lent money to the farming poor at exorbitant interest, and systematically stripped those debtors of their land. Often the people who took such loans — at rates between 60 and 200% — did so out of desperation, putting their fields up as collateral in last-ditch efforts to save their livelihoods. Inevitably, their efforts would fail. Drought would hit, or a debtor would grow ill, or a crop would yield too little. At that point, the staggering interest rates a farmer agreed to would kick in and force foreclosure, and the poor man would have no choice but to surrender his ancestral land, watch as the wealthy elite repurposed his fields for profit, and join the multitudes of landless day laborers who couldn't know from day to day where their bread would come from.
This, Herzog writes, is the situation Jesus describes in the Parable of the Talents.
The three slaves in the story are the wealthy master’s “retainers” or household bureaucrats — essentially, the middle-men who oversee the land and the workers, collect the debts, and keep the profits coming while the master travels on business. It is understood by everyone involved that the slaves are free to make a little extra on the side — by charging the farmers additional fees or interest — as long as they keep the money flowing for their master. In this scenario, the slaves’ status, wealth, and well-being are inextricably tied to the master’s. The more money they make for him, the better and more comfortable their own lives become.
What happens when we read the parable of the talents through the cultural and economic lens Herzog offers? A member of the wealthy 1% gives three of his most trusted workers a jackpot to play with. They know the rules — the more they make for the boss, the more they’ll get to keep for themselves. The name of the game is exploitation — no questions asked — and the only rule is: turn a profit. Turn as huge a profit as possible.
Two of the slaves do exactly as they’re told. They take their talents out into the world and double them on the backs of the poor. Who knows how many fields they seize, how many farmers they impoverish, how many families they destroy? It doesn't matter: they fulfill the bottom line. They make a profit. When the master returns and sees what they’ve accomplished on his behalf, he’s thrilled. He invites the two enterprising slaves to enter into his “joy” — the joy of further wealth, further profit, further exploitation.
But the third slave?
The third slave in the story opts out.
He decides that his master’s character is greedy and corrupt, and that he no longer wants to participate in a dishonest system of gain, a system based on oppression and injustice. Knowing full well what it will cost him, the slave buries the heavy talent in the earth. He hides it, literally taking it out of circulation, putting it where it will do no further harm to the poor.
Is it any surprise that the master abuses and banishes the third slave when he returns from his journey? In Herzog’s words, the slave is more than a quiet hero; he is a whistleblower. At great cost to himself, he names the exploitation — the same exploitation he colluded in and benefited from for years. He relinquishes his claim on wealth and comfort, calls out the master’s greed and rapacity (“I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed”), and accepts the ostracism and poverty that must follow from his choice.
And there you have it: The Parable of the Courageous Whistleblower.
He told the truth. He’s cast out. He lost everything.
But Jesus loves outcasts and the poor. It is among them where the Kingdom can be found. In Jesus’ own words: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
* * * * *
That’s it. The long season of Pentecost ends here. As mentioned above, next week is technically the last Sunday of Pentecost — the Feast of Christ the King. Advent begins on December 3.
The final weeks of Pentecost are sometimes known as “pre-Advent,” as they point toward the themes that will emerge more strongly next month. These last weeks make little sense unless we understand that they prefigure the arriving commonwealth of God.
But they also make little sense without looking back to the arc of recent readings. The last three gospel readings all come from Matthew 23 - 25, a section sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse.” Those chapters are filled with dreadful images of war and suffering, woes and warnings, and lament.
The troubling parables of the bridesmaids and the talents do not stand alone. They are part of the larger “last days” context. And together they illustrate the point of this whole portion of the gospel, as stated in Matthew 23:12: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Instead of referring to these chapters as the “Little Apocalypse,” the Spirit may be inviting us to reimagine them as the “Inverted Kingdom.” For in this extended section, Jesus explains the Kingdom (Kin-dom, Commonwealth, reign — whatever word is best for you!) and does so in a backwards, upside-down kind of way. These aren’t discrete stories. Rather, the whole section is an extended recitation about hypocritical religious and political leaders (Matthew 23), the unexpected signs of the end of the age (Matthew 24), and the injustice of conventional wisdom (Matthew 25:1-30). Throughout, Jesus uses hyperbole and rhetorical opposites to make his points. He was a good storyteller.
The longer narrative — of which these short parables are a part — comes to its literary climax next week with the ultimate inversion in one of the most dramatic stories in the Gospel of Matthew.
In the meanwhile, be awake to the Reign of Reversal: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Maybe Pentecost, which began months ago with the words, “Follow Me,” has been an invitation to the holy upside-down.
How you hear a parable has a lot to do with where you are hearing it from.
— Barbara Brown Taylor
ADVENT IS COMING!
During Advent, The Cottage will host a paid subscriber special series — a thematic Advent calendar from December 1 - Christmas. I offer these for the paid community in order to create a more intimate experience with a smaller community. I’m looking forward to it — lots of visuals and mini-reflections coming your way. As many of you know, the winter spiritual seasons — Advent, winter solstice, Christmas, and Epiphany — are my favorites. Something in my soul awakens in the dark.
As a paid subscriber, you’ll receive invitations to Cottage Zoom gatherings, a monthly-newsy personal note about what’s going on behind the scenes with my work, and other surprises throughout the year. I hope you’ll consider joining me “inside” the Cottage.
Just click the button below for information and to upgrade.
If you can’t afford a subscription but would like to join in for Advent, email us. No one is ever turned away for lack of funds.
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
– John Milton, 1625
God is Change
And hidden within Change
Is surprise, delight,
Opportunity, and growth.
And to be shaped.
- Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Talents
The clearing rests in song and shade.
It is a creature made
By old light held in soil and leaf,
By human joy and grief,
By human work,
Fidelity of sight and stroke,
By rain, by water on
The parent stone.
We join our work to Heaven's gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy
Of widest worth.
High Heaven's Kingdom come on earth.
O Dust, arise!
— Wendell Berry, Sabbath Poem VII (1982)
Let us give thanks
for the whistleblowers / of our faith:
express our gratitude, as deep and pure
as the underground lakes / of the world.
Let us breathe in their pain / and exhale
our sensitivities, opening / our arms wide enough
for all the worlds / that be…
Let us give thanks
for our whistleblowers, who gave / themselves
for our faith—fools, all of us
for martyring ourselves / for a dream,
for this dream, for congregations
who have hurt us / too many times
to count, for the cracked / and broken path
we tread / that we hope / will lead
to Beloved Community: to that place
we have never seen, and yet still / pursue,
that rainbow / that touches the ocean’s
horizon, a distant gleam / of the acceptance
we have never / found.
— Unitarian Universalist Association, from “Let Us Give Thanks for the Whistleblowers”
NOVEMBER GRATITUDE NUDGE
While writing this, I remembered how, more than thirty years ago, a clergywoman acted as a whistleblower on my behalf. I hardly knew her. Yet she risked everything standing up for justice. And she lost her job as a result of her actions. In the short term, her bravery seemed to do little since my cause wasn’t ultimately helped by her testimony. It seemed so sad and hopeless to me.
But, in the longer run, her courage changed my life. I’ll never forget my final conversation with her. She insisted she’d made the right choice and repeated to me the words of Julian of Norwich: “all shall be well; all manner of things shall be well.” She taught me fearlessness and how to speak on behalf of others. That private conversation might well be the most powerful “sermon” I’ve ever heard.
You wouldn’t be reading these words without her — because I never would have become who am I without her courage. She’s part of my story, even if I can never reveal her name. You might say that much of my work is done “in memory of her.”
I’m so grateful. I hope and pray she prospered in life. She made such a difference.
Gratitude nudge: Has anyone ever taken a risk for you and yet lost something in that risk? Have you ever told the truth to power and been cast “into the outer darkness” for doing so?
SOUTHERN LIGHTS: IN PERSON OR ONLINE
January 12 -14, 2024
Our theme is Reimagining Faith Beyond Patriarchy and Hierarchy — and many in the The Cottage community have signed up to gather in person!
Last January, almost 700 people gathered at St. Simon’s Island in Georgia for a packed weekend of poetry, theology, and music.
JOIN US THIS COMING JANUARY!
YOU ARE INVITED to join me and my dear friend Brian McLaren as we reimagine our faith beyond patriarchy and hierarchy in our interior lives, in our communities of faith, and in the Scriptures. We’ve asked three remarkable speakers to take us through this journey: Cole Arthur Riley, Simran Jeet Singh, and Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader Polczer (our “resident” Mary Magdalene guide!). Our special guest chaplain for the weekend will be the Rev. Winnie Varghese (St. Luke’s Episcopal, Atlanta). And you’ll be treated to the amazing music of Ken Medema and Solveig Leithaug.
IN PERSON: Please come and be with us in Georgia. SEATS ARE INCREASINGLY LIMITED and hotels are filling up!
ONLINE: If you’d rather be with us virtually, you can choose that option as well. It is helpful to our planning if you sign up for the virtual option EARLIER rather than later.