A reflection on the readings for Proper 28A by Janine Goodwin
"Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud."
I have been thinking of this Psalm since the first news of the Occupy Wall Street movement. As one of the 99% in the USA, I have been feeling for some time that I have had enough of the contempt of the proud. In my lifetime, I have seen the opportunities for education and stability eroding for everyone but the rich. Wealth gained responsibly is not a bad thing, but it is wrong to deny the chance for a decent living to many and waste so much human potential so that a few may profit hugely. I am angry when huge and powerful corporations that have been given the status of people pay a tax bill that is proportionately tiny compared with mine. I am furious when houses stand empty and people are homeless. I am worried about what will happen to my spouse and myself if his job is lost in the next round of budget cuts.
It is sobering to realize, however, that when we look outside the USA, I am among the relatively few people who have spent a lifetime living in a dependable shelter, with uncontaminated water, refrigerated food, my own vehicle, and access to public education and (so far) to medical care. To much of the world, I am "the proud"—at least until the end of this paycheck. This is very uncomfortable knowledge. Over the last several years, my spouse and I have begun to simplify our lives in many ways in response to it, and we live in an uneasy mixture of increased awareness of our relative prosperity and the fear of catastrophe.
As we approach Advent and prepare not just to welcome a beloved baby but to recognize the physical presence of the reign of God among us, we might all do well to ask ourselves: in what ways are we the people praying this Psalm, and in what ways are we showing the contempt of the proud? What happens when we are the proud? Dare we repent? Certainly the 1% or 2% of Americans who hold far too much of the material wealth ought to share more than a pittance with the country in which they live. What do we all need to share with the world? Dare we look at ourselves? If we ask for a more equitable distribution of wealth, or if we hold wealth, can we look at our poorer siblings across the world and accept the need for more simplicity so that they may survive? How much is enough, and how can we not just have enough for ourselves but share with others? Where are we being called to repentance individually and collectively?
Does this sound too political for a theological reflection? I oppose any movement toward theocracy, which is never anything but the use of faith to gain power. None of us should try to impose our version of our faith on each other. I also believe that our actions, including our politics, show what we believe. We don't just vote with our feet or our wallets: we act out our beliefs with them. Countless daily decisions show our real values, our ethics, what we trust and what we believe. What we buy shows our faith as clearly as what we give. What we say in casual conversation is as important as what we say in prayer. Politics, the life of the community, is related to the life of faith.
I have long believed that the real besetting sin of the USA is greed. Greed is responsible for the mistreatment of workers, the pollution of the land, water, and air in pursuit of a fast buck and with no consideration of the long-term effects, the loss of jobs as corporations kill living wage jobs and move to places where sweatshops are not regulated. Greed leads people who already have more than enough to pay for lobbyists who can get the attention of politicians whose poorer constituents do not have the means to reach them. It has always puzzled me that I have heard a lot of sermons preached against various deadly sins, particularly lust, but very few against greed. The Occupy movement seems to be preaching that sermon out in the streets.
How does this relate to the parable of the talents? This is a parable that uses earthly prosperity as a metaphor for the reign of God—a metaphor, not a one-to-one correspondence. Too often the fact that it is a metaphor has been forgotten, and the parable has been warped to suggest that material wealth is God's reward for good behavior and that people who are rich must therefore be beyond reproach. Some people take this parable to say that if you use your talents well, you will be rich. They believe God likes rich people, and poor people must therefore be wicked and lazy by definition, so the poor must be undeserving of help. But that is not what this parable says, nor does not say that the poor are always virtuous and the rich are always evil. Jesus never confused wealth or poverty with the presence or absence of virtue or responsibility. This parable is not about money, but about the coming reign of God. It is the third in a series of parables on that theme. The first was the parable of the master on a journey and his faithful servant, who feeds the other servants, and evil servants, who abuses his fellow servants and wastes resources. The second was the parable of the ten maidens, some of whom were prepared for a long wait and some were not. The theme of all three is being ready to answer to God. Have we acted justly toward God and others? Have we prepared ourselves to endure a long wait for the coming of the reign of God? Have we used everything God gave us—not just our money, but our whole selves--wisely and well? This parable is not about playing the market vs. putting money under the mattress. It is about who we are and how we relate to the One who made us and who came to live among us. It is not an endorsement of the materialist version of American Way, but a call to ask ourselves whether we are following the Way. Are we?