Some portions of Scripture seriously tempt me to abandon my Christian faith and go on the lookout for another religious tradition that more unambiguously represents what I understand to be the truth and efficacy about the God proclaimed and demonstrated by Jesus of Nazareth.
Biblical texts that approvingly identify religion generally and the Christian faith in particular with violence and injustice – pronounced inequality and the violation of basic human rights – fit that category.
So do those that limit God’s love and care to only some and condemn others, maybe even most, to exclusion, suffering and damnation now and forever.
Yes, given my commitment to having Scripture be a primary source of divine revelation, I try to keep an open mind to the possibility that there could be some, even tiny, redemptive dimensions to such texts.
And sometimes, through large leaps of imagination or great contortions of interpretation, that works.
Often it doesn’t.
Then I’m left to be befuddled by – and to pity – many of my Christian sisters and brothers who confess biblical infallibility.
I think to myself: God help them in their attempt to be faithful to the One who they must know in their heart of hearts is love itself.
What a shock then when I learn that a text I’m quite confident could never pass the test of being anywhere near the authentic words of Jesus is found, by the most critical of scholars, to be pretty close to what Jesus probably said.
Take, for example, one of the stories Jesus is reported to have told his disciples during the last week of his life in response to their question about the timing of God’s full reign.
It’s the one about the 5-2-1 distributions of the talents by a demanding slave owner who will be away for a period of time and entrusts the slaves with his wealth.
The slave who is entrusted with five talents puts those talents to work, doubles the investment, earns the high praise of his returning master and is assured that still more will be entrusted to him going forward.
The same thing happens with the slave entrusted with two talents. That slave also will “enter into the joy” of the slave master.
But the slave who received only one talent buries it in order to keep it safe from being stolen and, therefore, earns no appreciation on the investment.
When this is reported, the master is outraged: “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own (what, that is, the slave owner himself had sowed and scattered) plus interest (what the master reaped from what he had not sown and scattered). So I’m taking the little I entrusted to you and giving it to the one(s) who have more.”
If this story is interpreted in the context of Jesus’ teaching about the standing and fate of the wealthy and the poor, then it surely falls within those biblical texts that test our Christian faith and make us question whether there is any possibility at all that this is an authentic (or near authentic) narrative of Jesus.
My guess is that I’m not alone among many Christians who cringe when we read this text for its discrepancy with the Jesus who teaches that those who have are to give to those who have not and that the poor will be truly blessed in God’s kingdom while the rich will be left without consolation.
And even more, we express outrage when this text is used to justify a claim about the compatibility of the Gospel of Jesus with competition-drenched free market economics.
But is it too large a leap of the imagination or too great a contortion of interpretation to see that this is an authentic teaching of Jesus not about the gift and investment of money or wealth but of the gift of faith and how we, as his disciples, are to use that gift?
To be sure, there is still the problem of inequality that we’ve got to live with: the suggestion that God gives some the equivalent of five portions of faith, and some two portions, and still others only one portion of it.
For a soon-to-be-departing Jesus, however, the issue was not just what he had sowed and scattered of faith during his earthly life, but what he could realize, upon his return, if his disciples now were themselves to sow and scatter that faith.
Playing it safe by burying that faith would never do. Keeping that gift of faith secure from risk and even theft would never be acceptable.
No, that gift of faith from the God of inclusive love always had to be invested – scattered and sown – even if it meant standing up against, challenging, and, yes, bringing down those who try to gain the whole world and lose their own soul.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.