Shorting the Unreal

Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

The 2011 film, The Big Short follows the stories of a handful of people who made a good investment.  It was a call on the market that had everything to do with their read of reality and  really good timing.  That they ended up reaping the rewards of their investment had nothing to do with luck, or the vagaries of Mammon.  It was a result of watching the signs and realizing where they were pointing, even though at times they seemed wildly out of step with the rest of the financial world.  The Big Short is, of course, the a story of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, a crisis that came when fantasy and illusion came crashing into reality.

The Big Short could be a good way into our New Testament lessons for this Sunday.  The Gospel is that often abused tale of the talents, what Ched Myers calls a parable about a “manager of injustice.”  Though I don’t necessarily share Myers’ read, it is certain that this parable is not about making more money for the sake of the Kingdom, however much such a reading serves the purposes of the church pledge season.

“Once any parable is abstracted from Jesus proclamation of the kingdom, once any parable is divorced from its apocalyptic context, misreading is inevitable,” writes Stanley Hauerwas of this passage.  The apocalyptic context, is of course, a moment when reality is made clear.  All of the illusions about who is in charge, what is valuable, and who is well off are stripped away as the facade built of our pride crumbles under the weight of our ambition. Like a person who has just run out of gas along a highway, the distance that was covered over now becomes painfully apparent.  The reality that this parable is meant to reveal is that what we have is a gift and as such it is never safe unless it moves.

Gifts are tricky things, but as Lewis Hyde has written in his classic study The Gift: “A gift that cannot move loses its gift properties.”  By this Hyde means that gifts are meant not to belong as a possession of one person but are rather a way of building connections, the mutualities of common obligation. If we want to hold onto the gifts God has given us, we will lose them.  What we have received we must offer back to God and over to our neighbor.  Hiding it away to keep it safe is the thing that won’t do.  Myers and others have said that the slave who buries the money is offering a critique money and the unjust master who create abundance only from exploitation and not from organic growth.  Plant money and nothing springs from the ground; it doesn’t grow on trees and that’s the problem.  This is an interesting read and could also support a reading of this parable as one that is focused on the nature of the manna economy and the need for gifts to circulate, albeit from the negative side.

Either way, our reading from Thessalonians offers another important and complementary message.  If God’s gifts are not meant for our possession but are rather to be passed along as a means of forming a new community of abundance, there is an urgency to this truth because God’s reign is arriving.  Imagine how different one would behave with one’s money or investments if one knew that the entire financial system was going to collapse next year?  The tax penalty for early withdrawal wouldn’t seem like much of an obstacle, one would want to get land perhaps.  Or, if guided by the way of love, one might use the money to help others while the money still had the power to do that.  I don’t mean to say, of course, that such a collapse will happen anytime soon (the market economy is amazingly resilient), but in a sense it already has happened.

The reality is that God’s reign is already here and so is the currency of God’s kingdom—the economy of love, of care, of gifts given and moving has arrived.  As in The Big Short, the “market” may not have yet realized that it is based on an illusion, or it is in denial that the sham can’t go on.  But those who are wise, who are awake to reality, know that even if it seems like a ridiculous investment and all are saying “there is peace and security,” betting on reality never disappoints in the end.  And there is no reality more solid that God’s reign.

So what to do in the meantime, while we’re waiting for the truth to come to bear?  We arm ourselves, preparing our lives for what will come, not with weapons but with “faith and love,” “hope and salvation.”  Instead of chattering about the unraveling of the unreal world, we take on the task of encouragement, grounding our communities in the goodness of the truth. Most of all we take the gifts God has given us and let them go, moving through the world, breaking forth with the reality of God’s reign.  The real is no desert; it is a flourishing abundance. How can we live into it?

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