I spent last Thursday and Friday on retreat with scholars from theology, business, and communication mixed together with Christian leaders in business, film, and various other fields. The APU School of Theology has been given a grant from the Kern Family Foundation to explore how to better prepare ministers to think and teach Christianly about the areas of work and economics and the retreat was set up to help kick off the project.
One of the interesting things about the conversation surrounding work and faith is the inherent tension concerning whether or not the system of wealth and capitalism in which most of us are embedded is good or bad. The conversation is actually quite complicated because the problems and blessings of our economic systems are varied. The conversation at the retreat was certainly lively.
One of the things I wanted to do was to give the group permission to be comfortable with the tension that we often feel as Christians when we think, speak, and write about faith and economics. Not just as a scholar but more especially as a pastor I find myself caught in the tension between the importance of our material nature (especially as it pertains to the importance of our bodies and our work) and materialism (the worship or improper use and valuing of material things).
I shared with the group that I often describe the tension as a conflict between the parable of the talents and the parable of the pounds. Matthew gives us the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) and Luke gives us the parable of the pounds (Luke 19).
The parables are nearly identical and very likely were used by Matthew and Luke from the same or at least similar original sources. In each version the beginning of the parable is almost identical. Matthew and Luke tell their readers (through Jesus) the parable as a story about a master who goes away and leaves three servants or stewards in charge of their resources. To the first he gives five talents or ten pounds. To the second he gives two talents or five pounds. And to the last he gives one talent or one pound.
In both versions of the parable the endings are nearly identical. When the master returns he rewards the fist two servants because they have doubled their resources. But the last servant is punished for having hidden rather than having used his talent or pound. What he has received is taken away and given to the first servant.
Most of the time when this parable is preached it is Matthew's version - the parable of the talents - that is used. I think the preference for Matthew's version of the parable, at least in part, has to do with the ease with which the monetary unit called a "talent" can be translated to include not just our wealth, but our gifts, strengths, and "talents" for the purposes of God and his kingdom.
Matthew places the parable of the talents in chapter 25 among other instructions from Jesus about being ready for judgment. It is found in between the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the sheep and the goats. All three parables have the theme of taking seriously the responsibility that we have to use the gifts, strengths, and resources that God has given us for his purposes in the world and that we will all be held accountable for how we have "invested" those gifts.
So on one side is the responsibility that all humans have as those created in God's image and sharing what some theologians call co-creation powers with God. God has formed as as people with creative bodies and minds and expects us to use those in ways that share in the goodness of his creative purposes. In that way all work can be seen as an act of worship back to the Creator. Our work inevitably forms larger structures of communities, cultures, and economies. So we can't help but be economic beings finding ways to work together for the good of all and for the glory of the God who not only creates us but holds us accountable for our work.
But on the other side is the parable of the pounds. Scholars like Kenneth Bailey and William Herzog have helped me read Luke's version of the parable in what I think are better ways. They argue - and I think the are correct - that Luke uses the parable differently than Matthew.
In Luke the parable is placed in chapter 19 between the story of Zacchaeus' conversion and Jesus' cleansing of the Temple. In both of those stories the emphasis is not on being ready but on the ways that the surrounding economic systems were corrupting the life and worship of God's people.
Therefore, in the parable of the pounds, rather than the third servant being the "bad guy" he may actually be the "good guy." It is possible, given the context, that the third servant recognizes that the world's economic systems are often ruthless (like the power gathering master). And he sees that the ways of gathering more power are unjust (gathering where they did not sow). And the parable also seems to recognize that in the system the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. So he cannot find a way to participate in this ruthless system. What happens? Like many of the early believers, the servant who is unwilling to work for the building up of the "empire" he dragged before the people and slain.
Maybe we can think of the parable this way... Have you ever wondered what happened to Zacchaeus after his confession to Christ when he went back to work on Monday (or Sunday) and told his tax bosses that he could no longer participate in the system of exploitation that he had so cleverly led up until this point? Do you think his boss shared in his conversion?
When Jesus cleansed the Temple he ended up getting crucified. My guess is that Zacchaeus' end was not a whole lot more successful than his Lord's.
And so here we are. Christians called to use their gifts everyday in ways that add value to others and to God's creation. We are accountable to work as unto the Lord. But we are also stuck in systems of injustice and brokenness in which we are called to live prophetically. And as we live prophetically we are called to count the cost of that discipleship.
This is a tension that the earliest disciples of Jesus felt everyday as they took up their cross. Two-thousand years later we are still caught in the tension between the talents and the pounds.