“So I Was Afraid…”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
November 16, 2008
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30
“So I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground….” — Matthew 25:25
Changing only the name of the currency from talent to dollar, and the hiding place from ground to wherever, our text for today could be a literal description of the present financial crisis; people are afraid and so, taking their money out of circulation, they are hiding it somewhere they hope is safe. The present reminds me also of another saying of Jesus, in Luke 18:8, “And will not God vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
In this Lukan passage Jesus is speaking of the end of the world and the signs of the times; the flight of faith from the earth is one of the signs that the end is near, and what better way to describe the current congealing of the credit markets than a flight of faith from the world of commerce. Traders do not trust one another and so will not lend; they know how fraudulent their own collateral is and assume the others must be offering the same shoddy stuff, so no trust, no deal, no commerce, no jobs; every one in his own lair licking his own wounds. The captains of industry and commerce caused this situation by gross immorality and fraud; the leaders of politics by ignorance, venality, laziness, and cynicism. Now that the latter class of pest has been temporarily checked I recommend a further fumigation by firing of the former.
I am not one to read signs of the times “prophetically” and so I do not know if the eschaton is near or far. I do know that we are probably seeing a change that might change the financial world, as we know it, a crisis that brings one order to an end and is the opportunity to start another. I also know that we have just seen the transcendent importance of ethical behavior in human life; the ethical failures of our leading citizens, which are simply magnifications and representations of our own moral corruption, caused the flight of faith. Too many proved faithless who should have been faithful and so faith itself dissolved and washed away in a deluge of red ink.
Let there be no mistake, our financial crisis is a moral crisis, and unless leaders are found who are good and true the full faith and credit of the United states and a whole world that depends on us will be long and hard in coming again, and many will suffer just as if, as in the old days the king’s tax collectors came and snatched the food from the mouths of our children.
That this is a moral failure is an index of how difficult it will be to solve. Government regulation will be substituted for personal responsibility, as if the actors had committed felonies and are no longer to be trusted outside of government supervision and so must be incarcerated in a prison of regulations. There is no reason why government regulators should be more honest than private operators, but when the latter have disgraced themselves, only a change of the guard has any chance of restoring faith. We who favor responsibility alone proved to be morally incapable of responsibility, and so the only one whom we all now will trust is someone other than ourselves or one another, namely the government.
Those are some reflections on the moral dimension of the financial crisis, but something else of note happened since last we met, we elected Barak Obama president and handed political leadership to the Democrats, and that is at least the opportunity of a new leadership to restore our moral order. I believe that in the providence of God, when our beloved nation was at the nadir of its moral decline, suppurating with the infection of ignorance, violence and greed, led by the White House and especially the office of the VP, God did not forget us and gave us the leader for these challenging times. You already know my cynicism of politicians of all and every kind so please don’t attribute too much to my words; I know that in a few weeks the cacophony of Washington will be back to normal, but at least there will be at the center a clear and rational voice in place of the stunned silence of a stammering incompetent and the shadowed brutality of a thug.
Jesus’ parable of the talents is remarkable for two reasons: it shows once again the radical freedom of his thought from the tradition, and it advocates risk. Freedom and risk is the way of Jesus, not the usual churchly conformity and caution. Often I think that the churches deliberately sat down together and planned how to subvert the message of Jesus totally, without a scintilla of the real stuff surviving. (The demographic group that gave McCain/Palin a landslide was the evangelical Christians, followed by the age group 65 and up. I am embarrassed to belong to both these demographic groups. The Catholics were 50/50).
Let apply Jesus’ judgment to the present crisis: We must respond with confidence and resume risk-taking. That’s it in a nutshell. The two servants who put the master’s money at risk in the markets were congratulated, the one who for fear’s sake hid it in a hole is condemned. Listen to the condemnation: “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Matt. 25:29-29. Can you imagine the average church morality encompassing that last statement, which is undeniably true whatever might be its moral message.
Perhaps its message is that enterprise is more valuable than equal distribution – a thought anathema to current justice oriented Christians. Enterprise is the action of a free and confident consciousness, of one who trusts life, trusts God and looks for the blessing God has for us in every circumstance. Freedom and confidence is the tenor of the real Christian life, as Jesus lived and taught it.
So what shall we conclude? Paradoxically exactly what that stammering incompetent said after 9/11: “Go out and shop! Borrow and buy!” or words to that effect. These are great times for fortune making. (Solomon brothers made their fortune buying Philippine gold shares on the day McArthur fled from the islands; they believed him when he said, “I shall return.”) In today’s NYT Tom Friedman gives the same advice. Remember that the Chinese character for crisis is the same one as for opportunity. Don’t be a “wicked and slothful servant,” hiding what the master has entrusted to you, but live up to that trust, and act confidently in this world of crisis and especially of opportunity.
“Thank you Lord Jesus that you do not leave us to our fears and confusions but teach us how to live and what to do.”