“Buried Treasure”

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, she weaves together scientific and indigenous ways of knowing. As I wrestled with today’s parable of the talents, the following passage spoke to me. She writes:

I once sat in a graduate writing workshop on relationships to the land. The students all demonstrated a deep respect and affection for nature. They said that nature was the place where they experienced the greatest sense of belonging and well-being. They professed without reservation that they loved the earth. And then I asked them, “Do you think the earth loves you back?” No one was willing to answer that. It was as if I had brought a two-headed porcupine into the classroom. Unexpected. Prickly. They backed slowly away. Here was a room full of writers, passionately wallowing in unrequited love of nature.

So I made it hypothetical and asked, “What do you suppose would happen if people believed this crazy notion that the earth loved them back?” The floodgates opened. They all wanted to talk at once. We were suddenly off the deep end, heading for world peace and perfect harmony. One student summed it up, “You wouldn’t harm what gives you love.” Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond. (124–25)

Jesus’ parable of the talents portrays a world in which people exploit each other and the earth, treating what is sacred as a commodity. I’m struck, in contrast, by Kimmerer’s paradigm of reciprocal love. In today’s parable, we have a guy who was so rich he practically owned the whole world. He was the 1% of the 1%. A “talent” represented an absurd, obscene amount of wealth. And this man had eight of them. His talents were clearly too heavy to carry on a long journey. So he had to leave them at home, in the hands of his servants. While he was gone, he expected the servants to increase his net worth, by whatever means necessary. The Jewish law generally forbids lending money with interest, as we heard in today’s reading from Leviticus. And the law looks especially unfavorably on the financial exploitation of the poor. I think we can be fairly sure that Jesus, who was himself a Jew, speaking to other Jews, did not intend for their impression of the rich man to be positive. I do not think Jesus was comparing this tyrant to God.

It seems that Jesus was simply describing the world he lived in, the world we live in. Those who have too much already are driven to get more at all costs. Those who have very little have yet more taken from them. People who find themselves in a position to play along with the schemes of the wealthy and powerful might get rich themselves. They might get invited into an inner circle and that might bring joy. But they are being used. The price for their wealth and happiness is that they must help create and enforce a climate of fear, division and need in the world around them.

The parable is structured in order to emphasize the actions of the third servant. When the master returned from his journey, the first and second servants made identical speeches about how they doubled his money. And the master responded to them both with exactly the same words. No doubt, the audience was getting bored. But then story took a surprising turn. The third servant confessed to the master that he acted out of fear. He knew the master was harsh man, a thief and a bully who harvested what he didn’t plant. So he buried the master’s money in the ground. What was the servant’s fear about, I wonder? Was he terrified that if he gambled with the wealth he would lose it all? Was he worried that if he made money by cheating, those he harmed would come after him?  Or was he afraid of doing what he knew was wrong, of violating his own moral compass? Whatever the motivation of the servant, all the energy of the parable focuses on his lack of cooperation and the master’s anger.

The third servant acted in a way that disrupted the master’s plans. And the master’s rageful response unmasks the ugliness of what those in power will do to protect and preserve the systems that advantage them. And yet, the servant did not really go far enough with his disobedience. He buried the money. He did not find the courage or wisdom or vision to invest those funds  in transforming reality.

I wonder if by showing us the global climate we don’t want to live in, Jesus was attempting to create a space in which his listeners could listen for God’s promise of a different world and way.  And I wonder if that climate looks something like the indigenous practice of the Honorable Harvest, as Robin Wall Kimmerer describes it. The Honorable Harvest is grounded in reciprocity. Though the guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not usually written down, the gathering words that were read today communicate the essence of the practice. “Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.” Such reciprocity is not a quid pro quo. It is loving mutuality and respect. We love the earth and the earth loves us back. Such love guides us in our actions toward all beings, including the rest of humanity. “Imagination,” Kimmerer declares,

is one of our most powerful tools. What we imagine, we can become. I like to imagine what it would be like if the Honorable Harvest were the law of the land today, as it was in our past. Imagine if a developer, eyeing open land for a shopping mall, had to ask the goldenrod, the meadowlarks, and the monarch butterflies for permission to take their homeland. What if he had to abide by the answer? Why not? I like to imagine a laminated card, like the one my friend the town clerk hands out with the hunting and fishing licenses, embossed with the rules of the Honorable Harvest. Everyone would be subject to the same laws, since they are, after all, the dictates of the real government: the democracy of species, the laws of Mother nature. (p. 184)

The truth is that those of us whose ancestors are white, European, and Christian haven’t imagined this way of reciprocity, haven’t lived this way of reciprocity, haven’t prayed this way of reciprocity for more than 1,000 years. We’ve twisted our own sacred stories to baptize an ever-expanding economy of exploitation. We’ve constructed lies—like the story we invented around Thanksgiving—in order to hide the truth of our complicity in theft and genocide, our broken relationship with the land and with each other.

Yesterday, at the ISAIAH meeting, we discussed the strategy we will use to bring the values of our faith into our political process. How do you feel about this moment in our politics? we were asked. I could just feel the deep sigh, feel the tension go up in the room and in myself. It was all swirling through my body—the anger, frustration and fear, the temptation to give up and ignore it all, the heavy awareness that these times in which we live are critical and that what we choose to do right now will determine whether our future is one of life or death for our children and their children.

We’re so far from living in a world shaped by the honorable harvest, by reciprocal and mutual care, that it’s a stretch to even imagine it. And yet, I can honestly tell you that along with all my hard and heavy feelings about the world, I also feel profoundly hopeful and joyful. I am full of stirrings about what’s next— =for my own spirit, for our democracy, for our planet. I am aware that something new is emerging as I continue to learn about centering prayer and to make this contemplative practice a daily commitment in my own life. I see this new thing coming among us as I watch a different kind of intentionality develop in our congregation around caring for each other. As Marilyn has said about her experience over the past few weeks, amid the terrible reality of Gary’s swift illness and death, there are angels who embody God everywhere. That’s all of you, and many more.

I feel the newness, too, as we join a stream of change, as we link hands and move forward with hundreds and thousands of other people of faith to inject our politics with reciprocal love, to cast a vision for an inclusive and just Minnesota. It’s very weird, this mingling of despair and hope, this sense that God’s gift of a new world is both far away and very near. I often feel torn in two. I think that’s because we’re at a tipping point, on the cusp of a paradigm shift. As you look at your life, and look at the world . . . What do you see? How do you feel? Where is God at work?