Shuck and Jive

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Whistle-Blower: A Sermon

The Whistle-Blower
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 7, 2010

Jesus would tell this parable:

You know, it’s like a man going on a trip who called his slaves and turned his valuables over to them. To the first he gave thirty thousand silver coins, to the second twelve thousand, and to the third six thousand, to each in relation to his ability, and he left.

Immediately the one who had received thirty thousand silver coins went out and put the money to work; he doubled his investment.

The second also doubled his money.

But the third, who had received the smallest amount, went out, dug a hole and hid his master’s silver.

After a long absence the slaves’ master returned to settle accounts with them. The first, who had received thirty thousand silver coins, came and produced an additional thirty thousand, with this report: “Master, you handed me thirty thousand silver coins; as you can see, I have made you another thirty thousand.”

His master commended him: “Well done you competent and reliable slave! You have been trustworthy in small amounts; I’ll put you in charge of large amounts.”

The one with twelve thousand silver coins also came and reported: “Master, you handed me twelve thousand silver coins; as you can see, I have made you another twelve thousand.”

His master commended him: “Well done, you competent and reliable slave! You have been trustworthy in small amounts; I’ll put you in charge of large amounts.”

The one who had received six thousand silver coins also came and reported: “Master, I know that you drive a hard bargain, reaping where you didn’t sow and gathering where you didn’t scatter. Since I was afraid, I went out and buried your money in the ground. Look, here it is!”

But his master replied to him, “You incompetent and timid slave! So you knew that I reap where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter, did you? Then you should have taken my money to the bankers. Then when I returned I would have received my capital with interest. So take the money from this fellow and give it to the one who has the greatest sum.”

Gospel of Jesus 4:24-38

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 29, 31. Thomas 41:1-2; Mark 4:2; Luke 8:18; 19:12-24, 26; Matthew 13:12; 25:14-29.

I could preach a nice sermon on this parable. I have before. It would be a sermon based on the summary I wrote for the bulletin:
In this familiar parable of the man who entrusts his servants with different amounts of money to grow upon his absence, we come to a question of the meaning of life itself. What do we do with what has been entrusted to us? How we answer that question depends upon how we view life itself. Do we approach it with fear or with joy? How do we see “God”? Is God a punisher, a “hard-hearted man” or is God generous and joyful? We can choose to live from fear and bury everything burdened with the task of having to have lived at all, or we can live from joy, recognizing that we came with nothing and we go out with nothing, so there is nothing to lose when we give it back or pay it forward as the case may be!
It would be a sermon that would be in line with the themes of stewardship. It would be a sermon about living life to the fullest, about taking our talents and sharing them rather than burying them. It would be a very good message. It would be inspiring.

You have talent! You have gifts! Don’t be afraid of losing them. Invest them and you will see them multiply! Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Let it shine! Don’t bury your talent in the ground. Use it to make the world a better place.

It would be a very good sermon.

I would be very subtle. “Talent” has that double meaning. It refers to currency, but in English it means skill or gift. So I would slip in just a little hint, a little reminder, that your favorite local congregation would be a great place to invest those talents in both senses of that word.

Boy that would be a great sermon.

This happened to me last year too.

I was supposed to give an inspiring stewardship sermon. I had a perfect text for it. It is the scene where Jesus is at the Temple.

He and his disciples are watching people put money in the temple treasury. Rich folks put in large sums. Then a widow puts in two mites—which amounts to a penny. Jesus says the widow gave more than the wealthy did because she gave everything she had to live on.

It would have been an opportunity to speak about percentage giving. I could tell the folks it doesn't matter how much you give, just give it all. I could talk about how valuable every penny becomes when we add them up.

The punchline to the sermon I was supposed to preach would have been:
“Be like that widow. Look how faithful and trusting she is. She loves God so much she gives everything.”
The problem is that really isn’t what Jesus was talking about in that scene. He wasn’t praising the widow for her piety and faithfulness. He was criticizing the temple establishment for ripping off widows.

This past weekend one of the Jesus Seminar guys told us about widows. Widows were not just women whose husbands had died. A rich woman whose husband had died was called a matron. A widow referred to a woman whose husband had died and who had no means of support. A primary function of the Mosaic covenant was to care for widows. Widows and orphans. Provide for those without the means to provide for themselves.

Just before this scene, Jesus criticizes those who are the keepers of the Temple and the tradition. Harsh words he has for the scribes:
‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
How did they devour widows’ houses? The temple tax. It wasn’t a voluntary gift like filling out a pledge card. You paid it or else. Or else what? Or else you lost your land. The scribes kept the records of who owed what. Rather than care for widows, they were sending them into abject poverty. If the temple were doing its job, it should have been providing for these widows, not taking their last literal penny.

Once you hear that, once you hear what is behind the text, it is difficult to use that text to preach on the importance of being like the widow and giving your last penny to the church. The last thing to which a preacher should want to compare his or her congregation is the temple as Jesus saw it. Jesus saw the temple as the epitome of collaboration with Empire.

The disciples gaze at it with open mouths,
What tall buildings!
Jesus tells them that not one stone will remain on top of another. All will be torn down. He tells them:
“If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can tell this mountain to be cast into the sea and it will be done.”
He is referring to the temple mount. In other words,
“Have faith my friends and this oppressive system will crumble.”
The widow giving (or rather paying) her last penny to the treasury is not a stewardship text.

Neither is the parable of the landowner who entrusts his retainers with money to invest on his behalf.

The insights I am about to share with you come from a book by William Herzog, Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. That book coupled with Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder are based on social context criticism of the New Testament.

How does the social world of Jesus inform our reading of the Gospels? You have layers of social worlds. You have the layer of each gospel writer and the layer of earlier traditions under that and the layer of Jesus’ world.

This parable of the talents is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark is attributed to a prior source called Q. We don’t have a text of Q. Q stands for the German word Quelle which means source. It is a scholarly reconstruction. Q is a theory, but it is a pretty good one. The theory is that there was a source that contained speeches and acts of Jesus that Matthew and Luke used. They also used the Gospel of Mark as a source. When Luke and Matthew use Q they shape it to fit their own needs.

By the time Matthew and Luke get a hold of this parable we are in the realm of advanced theological abstraction. Matthew and Luke see the parable as an allegory for Christ’s supposed return. Jesus is the landowner entrusting the gospel message to his disciples and when he returns at the second coming, the parousia, he will be checking to see what you did with your talent. Did you share the message of the Gospel or did you bury it?

That is not how Jesus’ audience would have heard it.

Whenever kings, judges, or landowners appear in the parables of Jesus, we should be very suspicious that they refer to good guys let alone God.

We read this parable through the eyes of modern capitalism. For example, our economy is based on lending money at interest. However the Torah specifically forbids lending money at interest. So it is rather odd for the God figure to tell the third slave that he should have given the money to the banker to earn interest.

But it is worse than that.

In this first century world you had a pyramid of rulers, landowners, and retainers at the top 15% and the rest--merchants, artisans, and mostly peasants--at the bottom 85%.

Landowners wanted to increase their wealth. You did that by controlling the bottom 85%. You kept them at subsistence living by taxing their produce. As money came into the system you could provide a symbolic value for produce. So you lend the peasant seed anywhere from 60-100% interest. In a bad year when crops were sparse, you could foreclose. The peasants would then become sharecroppers on their former land and that would make it easier for them to grow cash crops for you.

Now, to our parable.

A landowner makes no money if he just hangs around the house. They need to go make connections, travel, do business. So the head of the aristocratic household leaves for a long time. He entrusts his retainers, who the text calls slaves, with different amounts based on their power or status.

The first two get busy right away. How do they make money? They exploit the peasants. They lend money at interest, take as much as they can, foreclose when they can, and provide the landowner with an acceptable profit. They keep some extra for themselves.

In the ancient world the rich get richer by exploiting the poor.

Two of the retainers double their investment.

The third takes the talent and buries it, which is probably the safest thing to do.

He doesn’t play the game.

We might ask why?

When the landowner returns he demands an accounting. It is all very polite. The first two retainers show the handsome profit. They demonstrate faithfulness, which is loyalty to him, and enter the joy of their master which means,
“Congratulations, you are on your way up the aristocratic ladder.”
The third, who is the most interesting of all (and as stories of three go, is usually the hero, ie. the Good Samaritan), gives a speech. In his speech, he tells the truth:
“Master, I know that you drive a hard bargain, reaping where you didn’t sow and gathering where you didn’t scatter. Since I was afraid, I went out and buried your money in the ground. Look, here it is!”
He is of course right.

The landowner doesn’t sow. He reaps.
He doesn’t scatter seed. He just gathers profit.

The third retainer is speaking like Isaiah:
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you... Isaiah 5:8
The landowner doesn’t deny it. He simply ridicules the retainer as being lazy. He shows his hand by saying he should have given it to a banker for interest which is against Torah. Then he takes the talent from him and casts him out.

Why does the third retainer do this?
He must know the game.
What is this story about?

Herzog writes that the third retainer is a whistle-blower.

The parable itself blows the whistle on how Empire works.

Jesus rarely took on the Roman occupation directly. Jesus’ prophetic critique was against the temple and its leadership for legitimizing and collaborating with Rome and for participating in oppressing its own people counter to the Mosaic covenant. Jesus’ audience is the 85% of the peasants, widows, villagers, laborers in the surrounding countryside who are taxed to fund the projects of Herod.

He tells this story of a whistle-blower.
  • He tells the story of someone who tells the truth even as it results in the loss of his own livelihood.
  • He tells the story of someone who refuses to cooperate in the injustice and the oppression of others.
  • He tells the story of someone who follows Torah and who suffers for it.
This parable, like others that Jesus told, is open-ended.
  • What happens to the whistle-blower now?
  • Will anyone take him in?
  • What if others also became whistle-blowers?
I think Jesus told this parable to celebrate whistle-blowers and to inspire his audience to take them in. There are good people who blow the whistle on injustice and we need to stick together. Jesus was not only about pointing out injustice. He was about transforming it.

This story reminds me of a modern day whistle-blower, Wendell Potter. Potter was an insurance executive for Cigna. He had a change of heart, perhaps like the whistle-blower in our parable. He came to realize the injustice inherent in the health-care insurance system and his role in it. He realized that insurance companies make profits when they deny coverage. In regards to the insurance business, he said:
"You don't think about individual people. You think about the numbers, and whether or not you're going to meet Wall Street's expectations."
He had his realization when he took a trip to Wise County, Virginia. He visited a health fair. This is what he said about it:
“I borrowed my dad's car and drove up 50 miles up the road to Wise, Virginia. It was being held at a Wise County Fairground. I took my camera. I took some pictures. It was a very cloudy, misty day, it was raining that day, and I walked through the fairground gates. And I didn't know what to expect. I just assumed that it would be, you know, like a health-- booths set up and people just getting their blood pressure checked and things like that.

But what I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they'd erected tents, to care for people. I mean, there was no privacy. In some cases-- and I've got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement.

And I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care. People drove from South Carolina and Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee-- all over the region, because they knew that this was being done. A lot of them heard about it from word of mouth.

There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up at the house down the road, in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.

….It was absolutely stunning. It was like being hit by lightning. It was almost-- what country am I in? I just it just didn't seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States. It was like a lightning bolt had hit me….

…. I had been in the industry and I'd risen up in the ranks. And I had a great job. And I had a terrific office in a high-rise building in Philadelphia. I was insulated. I didn't really see what was going on. I saw the data. I knew that 47 million people were uninsured, but I didn't put faces with that number.

Just a few weeks later though, I was back in Philadelphia and I would often fly on a corporate aircraft to go to meetings.

And I just thought that was a great way to travel. It is a great way to travel. You're sitting in a luxurious corporate jet, leather seats, very spacious. And I was served my lunch by a flight attendant who brought my lunch on a gold-rimmed plate. And she handed me gold-plated silverware to eat it with. And then I remembered the people that I had seen in Wise County. Undoubtedly, they had no idea that this went on, at the corporate levels of health insurance companies.
Since then he has become a whistle-blower. He took heat for it too.

He is not alone. There are other whistle-blowers.

Many of them are sitting in this sanctuary.

They are folks who are telling the truth.

They are telling the truth about climate change, about Peak Oil, about Empire’s wars, about our unsustainable fantasy of eternal economic growth, about homophobia, about torture, you name it…

There are those who tell the truth even when it is not in their interests to do so.
They do it because it is the right thing to do.
They do it because only truth can set us free.
It is Torah.
It is Gospel.

May their tribe increase.


  1. Great Sermon! I'm so glad someone else didn't like those two guys who earned interest on the money just to impress the boss. They remind me of some people I worked with who would do anything to show management they were smart.Unethical,illegal, back-stabbing, no matter. It was all about getting ahead. Not playing the game? "Be careful" was the message. So anyway,I read the sermon while sitting at the pool here in AZ. Thanks for the long distance wisdom. Miss you all.XXXOOO

  2. Thanks for that!

    "sitting at the pool here in AZ."

    Wow! Good for you! We miss you though!

  3. Great sermon, I'm printing it out and studying it, and maybe buying the books. And to think I used to naively think that this was about praise for aggressive speculation. I grew up in the church but lately am finding that much (most?) of what I thought, is actually off base.

  4. Hey Michael, thanks!

    I grew up in the church but lately am finding that much (most?) of what I thought, is actually off base.

    My church background was off base too! I suspect that preachers primarily teach and preach from a theological perspective in which all texts are filtered through that lens. It isn't that a particular theological perspective s wrong, it is helpful to have others too.

    Another book I like from Horsley is The Liberation of Christmas. It is about 20 years old but an interesting way to read the "Christmas story."

  5. Don't you think it would be better to consider the gospel writer's view of the story, rather than Karl Marx's reinterpretation of it? FOOL!