Sunday, November 16, 2014
"The Parable of the Talents" keeps getting retold; indeed "life isn't fair"
Today, Sunday November 16, 2014, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA held its annual stewardship service and potluck lunch, in the contemporary format in the gym. The sermon, by Rev. Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt, “Not just giving – Thanksgiving” took up a passage I’ve talked about before, The Parable of the Talents, one of three parables in Matthew 25. I’ve talked about that here before, such as on Dec. 23, 2007.
I’ll sidetrack myself for a moment on the title of the sermon, “giving”. That recalls to mind a particular confrontation in my life back in 1974, which I take up on one of the Wordpress blogs, here . At a Sunday night talk group right after the Friday night encounter described here, I immediately started with the topic of “giving” without actually doing it.
I’ve always seen the Parable of the Talents as a way of saying, “Life isn’t fair; It’s not supposed to be; get used to it.” Even Donald Trump says that!
Pastor Judy did talk about it in terms of capitalism – we think about it as “stocks and home ownership long term, bonds short term”. Pastors, she said, typically want to use the parable as a rod to prod people into tithing or more. Bu the scripture doesn’t say that.
A “talent” in ancient society and in this context represented a huge amount of labor, which might amount to $300,000 or so in today’s money. So for even the lowest “slave” (and we can take hint from the idea that slavery was accepted in Jesus’s time and in his teachings) one talent was a big bequest.
I can’t help but reflect on the idea that the world is indeed very “unequal”, in terms of basic opportunity as well as income and wealth. People are brought into the world by parents in very different circumstances, and grow up not only with different amounts of financial support, but with varying levels of personal ability whose effectiveness depends so much on parental and community nurture. At this particular church, in north Arlington, all the young people seem to do super well (and I can speak to that from my days in the past as a substitute teacher – in Arlington and Fairfax). The church has a very liberal social and political bias (it would support universal healthcare and same-sex marriage). Across the street, there is a Mormon stake which is the opposite, very conservative. But again, all the young people, brought up by attentive parents with resources, and with some kind of foundation in faith, do well in school in life. Parenting, opportunity, and culture, and some sort of faith and exposure to critical thinking matter; partisan political affiliation does not.
So, with my libertarian background, I talk about “personal responsibility”, Cato-style, as a moral absolute. (So does a lot of the GOP, too.) We get so we talk about it as a shield from having to deal with the real needs of other people with any real personal or emotional involvement. It’s easier to give conscience money (including church offerings) than it is time, or particularly personal attention. Isn’t “minding your own business” a virtue?
In fact, I often find that when someone else not from this “sheltered world” knocks on the door, the person lives in a totally different world, and doesn’t share any of the same cognition. The person does not know how to function in an individualistic society, and was not only given the proper parenting to do so, but lost the ability to develop any idea of “personal responsibility” was we would see it.
Inequality is inevitable, and we indeed need to use our talents “on our own” for a while, to be good enough at something to learn a living and have something to say. To be good at piano, you have to practice, alone. The same goes for math, for skills in computer coding (Zuckerberg) and many other things (like surgery). When individual skills (“talents” in the broadest sense) are developed, we can innovate. Hopefully, innovation raises the living standards for everyone. That’s the libertarian to conservative argument. Western music, if you think about how it evolved from Bach through modern times, provides an interesting parallel lesson in innovation.
Yet at some point, people have to turn attention to the needs of others. If they don’t, inequality leads to desperation and hopelessness, with instability and frank threats to security. There may be less crime today quantitatively in major cities than in the past, but that which does occur sounds more brazen. Even all the international threats (whether from ISIS or North Korea) can be understood as ultimately having a personal component. (In a sense, we are responsible for what our leaders do because we consumer resources from other parts of the world, and we are capable of exploiting the sacrifices of others without realizing it.)
Conservatives, particularly (at least in the past) are used to seeing “interpersonal helpfulness” as predicated on a society that promotes monogamous heterosexual marriage and some personal success with gender conformity. The old idea was that, if you’re a man, to help others you need to be able to protect women and children (and prove it if drafted), and then, prodded by the monopoly marriage was supposed to enjoy on all sexuality, found and raise your own family first – and then reach others. In social capital verbiage, you needed to master “bonding capital” (which used to be gender-based) before moving to “bridge capital”. If you didn’t conform to your gender (even in terms of sexual intercourse), you were less than equal, and so attempts to help others were compromised. The solution for many decades as parity and “urban exile” (a kind of perversion of “separate but equal”).
People “like me”, in a more permissive society, set ourselves separately, outside the usual ties of the family, and with society becoming not only tolerant but accepting enough, were often successful in our own ways. But to remain visible and prosperous, we often did depend on others in unseen and unhealthful ways. We could not always give back, and we might not find the necessary personal interaction with some people we may depend on "meaningful"; so we could stoke the resentment of inequality even further, from those who might find more sense in the system if everyone really did something to earn his station and pay if forward (or back). There comes a point, eventually, that when one does not give back, if challenged, one will share for paying for the sins or crimes of others anyway. Without forgiveness, there is no posthumous honor or comfort in being called a "victim".
So, “giving back” does have something to do with socialization. There are connections between marriage (now including gay marriage), learning to provide for others, reaching into the community, and stepping back from one’s own agenda and being able to fit into the group, even if one does not always like the group’s leadership, bureaucracy, or suppression of critical thinking. There is, indeed, service, and submission (Sept. 30). All of these things (as they come up in national service proposals from people like McChrystal) are interrelated, as if forming some kind of “virtuous circle”. It’s hard to jump on the merry-go-round, and as, in “Strangers on a Train”, easy to fall off.