A Sermon for Occupy Wall Street

To those of you who asked: Yes, I was thinking about Occupy Wall Street when putting together this re-interpretation/re-telling of the parable of the talents from last Sunday’s lectionary reading. I hoped that putting it in a different context would evoke some imagery that is perhaps lost on us in the more conventional interpretations. It is basically a word for word reading of the text, only placed in the context of the nineteenth century (my exegetical profs might need to give me a break on this one, but I hope not). In addition to the biblical text, it is inspired by a recent speech given by Dr. Cornel West, a hero for justice and a walking, living, breathing saint.

“On the Virtue of Burying One’s Talent”
Matthew 25:14-30

There was once a rich plantation owner living in the deep south, who was about to go on a journey. He had three slaves and he entrusted all of his assets to them.

Now this plantation owner had accumulated so much money by participating in the master-slave system that he was able to give the first slave the equivalent of what would be 80 years worth of pay for an average free man.

Then he gave the second slave 32 years worth of pay for an average free man. Then he gave the third slave 16 years worth of pay for an average free man. Each were given according to their ability.

And then the plantation owner went away.

The slave who had received 80 years worth of pay immediately went to the market and traded with the other plantation owners, and he doubled his master’s money. In the same way, the slave who had received 32 years pay also doubled his master’s money. But the slave who received 16 years worth of pay 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.

The one who had received 80 years worth of pay came forward, bringing 80 more years worth of pay with him, saying, “Master, you handed me 80 years of pay; look, I have doubled your money.”

His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things on my plantation, I will put you in charge of many things on my plantation; enter into the life that I am privileged to lead; enter into the joy of your master.”

Then the one with 32 years worth of pay came forward, bringing 32 more years worth of pay with him, saying, “Master, you handed me 32 years of pay, look, I have doubled your money.”

His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things on my plantation, I will put you in charge of many things on my plantation; enter into the life that I am privileged to lead; enter into the joy of your master.”

But then the slave who had received only 16 years pay came forward, bringing no more with him, saying, “Master, I know what you are. I know that you are a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, gathering where you did not scatter seed, gaining profits even though you have not worked for them, even though you’ve done nothing to deserve them. So I went and hid your money in the ground, refusing to make you another dime. Here—you take what is yours.”

His master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow, and gather where I do not scatter? You ought to have at least invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would receive what was my own with interest. Take this money from him, give it to the one with 160 years worth of pay. And let me be clear about the way this system works: For to all those who already 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, take him out back, teach him a thing or two, throw him into the outer darkness, let there be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

———————-

When we read parables like this we almost instinctively equate the Master to God—and thus the one who does what is right—and we equate the wicked slave as disobedient to God—and thus the one who does what is wrong.

In the process we fail to recognize that the wicked slave can actually be read as the hero of the story—as the one who protests systems that take advantage of the vulnerable and, furthermore, refuses to play a role in them, even though it costs him dearly.

Ultimately in the stories that the book of Matthew tells us about Jesus, Jesus takes on the role of protestor as well—always calling attention to systems at work in society that exploit the weak and take advantage of the vulnerable. Like the wicked servant, he refuses to play a role in such systems, providing an alternative vision that costs him dearly. For in the crucifixion, Jesus is quite literally thrown out into the darkness, where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth…

Yet his call for a different way of being still echoes down through the ages — it is why we are here today — and as we remember his life and his death, we recall the alternative vision for life that he offers us, the dream of God for a world where no system in any place or any time takes advantage of the weak and the vulnerable.

Whether it be the ancient master-slave system or the 19th century master-slave system or the feudal system in-between, the dream of God calls for another world to be born.

When people are exploited by a system that takes advantage of everyday people and robs them of the chance for life, the dream of God calls for another world to be born. It doesn’t matter if the system is communism or capitalism or free-market fundamentalism or socialism, anytime a system hurts the most vulnerable in society, the dream of God calls for another world to be born.

Like Jesus before us, we are called to refuse to play into systems that hurt and exploit the many for the sake of the few, the 99% for the sake of the 1%. Sometimes wisdom consists in refusing to play by the principalities and powers that govern our world, for our hearts stir restlessly for another world to be born, a world where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream, for which we won’t rest until it is birthed. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” There might be a cost involved to be sure; but in so doing we might finally learn what it means to truly live.

1 Comment

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One response to “A Sermon for Occupy Wall Street

  1. Scott Collier

    Cornel does have a way don’t he ! Anyway , nice sermon Phil , I particularly liked the link from slave / master to current corporate / worker . Really creative and pointed use of the old school . As you may have guessed I am an ardent supporter of the OWS endeavor and I believe that it is remarkable that so many from so varied origins have come together in the pursuit of
    God’s better world . While as we speak many of them won’t even recognize this instinctive drive to bring about this reality perhaps exposure to your lecture/sermon could bring them some needed focus . So I’ll be dispensing this great piece of perspective to as many as possible starting with FB .

    Thanks for the fresh and creative use of an old axiom .

    Scott

    P.S. Exegetical …. got a headache just saying it in my head !! Pretty sure the profs will cut you some … exegetical slack !:)

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