Unlikely Hero in a Familiar Parable?

“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.'”
Matthew 25:29-30

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news

… So sang Billie Holiday in 1941. The song “God Bless the Child”* sold over a million records, on the force not only of “Lady Day’s” achingly lovely voice, but also the blunt realities of the world to which it attests:

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

In her autobiography, Holiday recounted an argument with her mother over money that seared these words into her psyche as a young girl, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” Holiday went on to get her own, largely raising herself and going on to make millions in her brilliant career – though the final arc of her life ended with less than a dollar in her bank account and not a friend by her side.

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone, spending ends
They don’t come no more

Holiday’s spirit clearly longed for something else, a different sort of world, and glimmers of it flashed in the wistful songs she favored.

I confess, as your Word From Below correspondent this week, to wrestling even more than usual with the meaning of this text the lectionary offers from Matthew’s gospel. Wrestling in mind and spirit. Many cross-currents here. One consolation is that if we’re baffled, we’re hardly alone! Jesus’s first hearers commonly were, and every generation since. Another consolation is that sowing confusion actually seems to be a key strategy for Jesus – agitating us from ruts of the status quo.

And what is the status quo? The default way of the world is clearly what Billie Holiday heard from her mother, and what we’re conditioned to hear at first impression from this gospel story: “Them that’s got shall get/Them that’s not shall lose.” Better get your own, because if you don’t, this world will shred you and spit you out. If you do, as Lady Day found out, the world may bless you – buy a million records and shower you with adulation. Jesus found that out too.

A few chapters back in Matthew, Jesus couldn’t even escape the fawning crowds when he tried. A chapter or two ahead, and he will be utterly abandoned. In between, he laments how the true prophets have been killed in the name of God (chapter 23), and warns of calamity when the faithful will be once again hunted down and terrorized (chapter 24). In fact the graphic-novel-style apocalypse of the previous chapter escalates the horror to the highest level, as the lords of violent power in heaven and earth claim their place as God.

Yes, Jesus knows how all this works. He knows what’s been building these three years. Soon it will crush him, and he will be thrown by the powers outside the city gates to the “Place of the Skull.”

The “Parable of the Talents” here in chapter 25 depicts three house slaves who have been entrusted with their master’s possessions. The stakes are high; the slaveholder is known to be a violent, “harsh man” (verse 24). One hides the money (a “talent” being the name of an extremely valuable coin), while others invest. The investors are rewarded with favor. The guy who squirrelled away his single entrusted coin is brutally cast out.

I have loved ones crushed by the powers of the world and thrown out. They’re struggling. Sometimes they are faithful, sometimes not. Me too. Sometimes my loved ones think it’s God crushing them, casting them aside. I’m not so sure about that, but my arguments are not always convincing. Together we hunger for good news. We talk about Jesus, a lot.

Is Jesus the voice of Billie Holiday’s mother here?

Is God the harsh slaveowner, ruling by terror?

Does God simply sanction the status quo, the way of the world – playing by its rules of rewards and punishments with even higher cosmic stakes?

It seems a tremendous stretch, given what Jesus has taught on the Sermon on the Mount, how he has lived and loved, how he will die, and how he will rise. It seems farfetched, if in him we truly have seen the glory of God.

Or could it be, as a small minority of interpreters has suggested, that the hero of this parable is actually the slave who is cast out and crushed? Crushed not by God, but by God’s imposters? Like true prophets through time, this slave has subverted the status quo through an act of resistance – and paid a terrible price. Could it be that like the prophets, he points through his faithfulness to another sort of world? Could it be that the slave in fact has paid this price for his allegiance to the “kingdom” Jesus has spoken of and modeled? Could it be the brutal price Jesus himself knows he will pay, at the hands of harsh men, so that these very dynamics of power might be dismantled and transformed?

If so, it would be a glimmer of very good news not only for the poor but for all people, as Jesus boldly announced from the beginning. Is this what Jesus wants us to see? But oh my – what stunning courage it calls forth. We are headed with Jesus for Jerusalem.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

P.S. Listen to “God Bless the Child” on Spotify here or YouTube here .