Pr28A Becoming Interpreters

Judges 4:1-7
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

There are large gaps between Black and White Americans when it comes to wealth. The racist explanation is that there is something in Black people which causes this inequity. The non-racist explanation is that there is something wrong with the prevailing culture’s practices and policies.

We want to believe that most everyday practices and polices are race-neutral. When it comes to buying a home or a car, applying for credit or car insurance, buying and selling on-line, applying on-line for jobs, etc. it shouldn’t matter if you are Black or White. But it does.

In The Black Tax: The Cost of Being Black in America, (Good Steward Publishing, Southbury, CT, 2017), MBA and corporate executive Shawn D. Rochester documents the financial cost of conscious and unconscious anti-black discrimination. The Black Tax, he argues, has for generations reduced the ability of Black households to earn and save the way White Americans can. Consequently, in 2012, Black Americans owned only about 2% of American wealth.[1] Here are some more recent numbers from the Brookings Institute.

We can believe that this wealth gap is caused by defects in people or defects in policy. The first explanation is racist, the second is anti-racist. There is no in-between. [2] Our eyes are either open or they are closed. In the language of 1 Thessalonians, we are either asleep or awake.

Oddly, Jesus is not sounding very “woke” in Matthew’s story of the slaves and the talents. The slave who received only one talent decided to protect it by burying it. The Master called him “wicked and lazy.” According to Jesus, the moral of the story is that “to those who have, more will be given.”

It’s hard to hear this story without cringing. Jesus sounds so off. What happened to “the last shall be first” and rich people being warned about camels and a needles’ eye? How do we interpret this parable?

My favorite book about exegesis is Biblical Interpretation: A Roadmap (Abingdon Press, Nashville) 1996. Authors Frederick Tiffany and Sharon Ringe recommend a process of biblical interpretation which allows people “to take advantage of the expertise and authority of their own life experiences and context, as well as those of other readers in other cultural contexts – including those of academic biblical scholars.” Biblical Interpretation: A Roadmap at 13.)

Their method starts by inviting us to ask lots of questions, of the passage and of ourselves. Before we pick up someone else’s commentary, they say we should authorize our own expertise and life experience. We should pay attention to how we feel about a passage.

We’ve learned to do that with portions of the Hebrew Bible (for better or worse) and we’ve learned to do it with Paul (especially as regards his teaching on the place of women and slaves), but Jesus seems to be off limits.

I reacted to this parable with disdain and defensiveness. Disdain because Jesus seems to be praising the world as it is: inequitable and unforgiving. A world in which it takes money to make money and in which the system insures that the poor will never win. As a legal services attorney, I learned that nothing that makes the cost of living higher than being poor. The poor pay more for everything: housing (often substandard), transportation (unreliable), groceries (unhealthy) and even medical care, assuming they can get it at all.

The parable also made me feel defensive because I don’t believe that being cautious with someone else’s property is a moral failing or that risk-taking is always a virtue. I had to ask a lot of questions about this passage and about myself. [3] The interpretation I came to was this…

Maybe Jesus was talking to a crowd that included fewer farmers and fishermen and more business people, so he changed his metaphor accordingly. He’s right, after all, about how money works. It does not grow hidden under a mattress or buried in the ground. So, maybe the slave master is not a symbol for God. He is just a business person who knows how money works.

A “talent” was a large sum of money: a fortune, a treasure. Maybe Jesus is not talking about money per se, but about the things we value and hold dear: goods or values or life itself. The moral: As with money, we cannot protect and preserve what we value by burying it. We must put it into circulation, and sometimes, even at risk.

As the collect of the day says, scripture is a thing of great value: a source of instruction and faith and hope. Scripture is at its best when we are in conversation with it and about it. It is not fragile. We can ask questions and challenge it with our experience. We can pass it around to hear what others think and feel. Hopefully, we can listen to what other voices have to say. We will be reliable interpreters then, because the Holy Spirit loves a good conversation.


[1] Rochester’s research is based on secondary sources: government publications and scholarly books and journals. It does not rely on recently discovered caches or archives. Which is to say that the data has been there for White America to see for a long time. We have chosen not to see it.

[2] “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community… is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.” How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi (Random House, New York) 2019 at 17.

[3] Many are uncomfortable with the parable. An interesting interpretation is offered by David Ewart, a Canadian UCC minister and he provides a link to a sermon based on that interpretation. “Matthew 25:14-30″ at, accessed 11/10/2020.

I am taking a week and listen to “other voices” so there will no post for Christ Our King (November 22.) The next post will be on Wednesday November 25 for Advent 1B.

Photo by itsPortAdelaide on Unsplash