“Sound Investments”

          A Jewish folktale:

          Once, there were two foolish brothers possessed of a little bit of money and a dangerous amount of time. They had been dispatched by one of their wives to the market in a distant town in order to buy a needed set of pans. On the way there, they reasoned together that these pans were not really necessary at all – they would not make the one brother’s wife any better of a cook than she already was. Instead, they resolved to find some means of increasing their money, by buying something of value and returning to their hometown to sell it at a markup. And the something that they settled on was pillows.

          The bought every pillow they could afford at the market: big pillows, little pillows, soft pillows, hard pillows, and pillows of every color. When their backs were loaded high with pillows, they set out for home. But as they walked they found to their dismay that while one pillow might not weigh too much, a great many pillows together can be quite heavy. They began to long for some means to lighten their load, but could think of none. That was until the wind began to pick up, and one of the brothers realized that it was blowing in exactly the direction they were headed: towards home. Even a strong wind will not carry a whole pillow, of course, but it will carry a feather, and guess what the pillows were stuffed with.

          So, smiling at their own intelligence and good fortune, the two brothers cut open each of the pillows they had bought to resell, and let the wind carry all the feathers inside of each away. When they reached home themselves, they were a bit disappointed that the feathers were not already there waiting for them. But upon reflection, it occurred to them that the wind might not know the way as well as they did. Their solution was to put up a sign: “Feathers: This Way Home.” And so, confident that they would very soon become wealthy through their brilliant business investment, they sat down and waited for the wind to change.

          Today is Groundhog’s Day, the one day a year when our national attention turns – albeit half-interestedly or three-quarters-ironically – to seek the wisdom of a medium-sized rodent on matters meteorological. I am not here to defend the prophetic abilities of the famous animal or his handlers, nor would I begrudge the good people of Punxsutawney their annual moment in the winter sun. But as I search for some underlying reason why this particular animal might have been chosen for the role, rather than any of the innumerable other possibilities, I can find only one tangential reason. A groundhog is a burrowing, hibernating animal. In the normal course of its life it prepares for winter by storing up fat in its body and food in its burrow. It plans and prepares for the hard times ahead, and its survival through the cold, barren months depends upon the quality of that planning and that preparation.

          Much the same could be said to be true for us humans, in the course of our living. The ways in which we plan and prepare for hard times determine how resiliently we can withstand them. When disaster or crisis comes, our ability to weather it often hinges on where and how we have chosen to invest our resources in the past.

          In the Gospel According to Matthew, the teacher Jesus tells a story to his disciples which has come to be called the Parable of the Talents. In it, a rich man goes on a long journey and in his absence he entrusts large sums of money to slaves belonging to him. The money is measured in talents, a unit of value so huge that just one would have represented as much as a laborer would have needed fifteen years or so in order to earn. The first slave is given five talents, the second two, and the last only one. When their master returns, the slaves are brought in to account for the money left in their care. The first slave has invested the sum wisely, and doubled its value from five to ten. The second slave has done much the same, and produces four instead of two. But the last slave admits that he feared the rich man’s temper and harsh judgement, and so in order to be certain that the money would be safe he buried it in a secret place. He successfully retrieves it, but the amount has not grown in the interim – he has only the one talent to present. In the parable, the owner declares his joy for the two slaves who doubled the money he left with them, but shows his anger at the slave who buried his money and announces that he is to be punished.

          There is a plain-text way of reading this story where the master is God and the slaves are stand-ins for humankind. In this interpretation, the meaning is very straightforward and direct: human beings have a duty to magnify and increase the blessings God has bestowed on them. Those who do earn reward, and those who don’t deserve punishment. But throughout the history of Christian biblical interpretation, there have been many voices to point out flaws in this reasoning. Importantly, nowhere in the story itself or in Jesus’ introduction of it is it ever said that this is a story about God and God’s expectations. Rather, the lead-up is about Jesus’ mystical understanding of the Divine state of being he called the Kingdom of Heaven, and the way he introduces this story implies that there is a connection, but doesn’t make it clear exactly what that connection is. Sort of like saying, “This story is relevant to what I’ve been talking about,” rather than, “this story means X, Y, or Z.”

          Given the space for interpretation that leaves to even the most orthodox imaginations, perhaps you can see some of the problems posed by that plain reading. The rich man in this story is not naturally sympathetic – at least I do not find him so, and I doubt that the audience of Jesus’ day – made up mostly of subsistence farmers and other who were either literal slaves or effectively made so by the burden of debt. If God is the ultimate model of justice, certainly the premise of most Christian (as well as Jewish and Muslim) theology, then where is the justice in this story? The rich man appears cruel, avaricious, demanding, and prone enough to harm those he owns that they are rightly afraid of him. Yet at the end of the story he has 15 talents where before he had 8. So there is a relatively popular inside-out reading of this story which says that the rich man is not meant to be a stand-in for God, and we the readers are not supposed to think that all of this is good and just. The poet John Milton alludes to this in one of his sonnets.

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

          Liberation theologians – the loose school of Christian biblical interpretation which reads scripture through the assumption sometimes summarized as “God’s preferential option for the poor” – argues that this story describes the world as it is, not as it ought to be. The rich get richer, and the poor live at the mercy of the rich, and get either some fractional reward or a terrible punishment, according to their whim and caprice. That’s a challenging read, in part, because it asks us to reverse an assumption inherent to every money-based society from first century Judea to contemporary America: that the choice that yields the most money at the end of it isn’t actually the right one. Sometimes the right move is planting your money in the ground.

          There’s a Daoist story about a man who was obsessed with gold. He was so focused on becoming rich that it drained him of all will or inspiration to actually work towards that goal. One day he happened into a store where a beautiful golden platter was on display. He was so struck by it, this visible manifestation of his consuming desire, that he simply picked it up and walked out – not because he intended to steal it, but because his constrained imagination could not conceive of any alternative. He was quickly stopped, and arrested, and thrown into jail. The lesson being not only that our desires can overtake and harm us, but that part of enduring adversity is practicing the self-discipline to restrain our appetites to focus more on what we need and less on the cravings that can diminish us.

          In Mary Poppins, a gaggle of money-obsessed bankers – including his own father – try half to entice and half to bully young Michael Banks into depositing his tuppence in their bank. (It’s not deeply relevant to the story, but just to avoid confusion – tuppence is an alternative way of saying ‘two pence,’ which is one 120th of a pound, from back when the British currency was divided into 240 cents rather than 100.) As part of their hard sell on investing his meager savings with them, the bankers sing, in part:

…when you deposit tuppence in a bank account

Soon you’ll see

That it blooms into credit of a generous amount

Semiannually

And you’ll achieve that sense of stature

As your influence expands

To the high financial strata

That established credit, now commands

          This is the ethos that our economy runs on: the purpose of money is to make more money. The success or failure of an investment is to be measured according to that standard. But just as Michael Banks had other intentions for his coins, there are other things of value in this world than the growth of some money into more money. There’s joy and pleasure, of course. There are lots of things to be done with money that bring those, or at least create circumstances where each might be more likely. There’s the meeting of basic needs. Food, shelter, warmth, mobility – many people go without one or more of these things for simple want of money, including some of us here this morning. But there are also things – emotional, spiritual, existential, transcendental – that money cannot buy. And so, as we begin our annual canvass season, in which we’re each asked to reflect on our stewardship and material contribution to this community, I want to say a little bit about the yield on your investment here at First Parish.

          First of all, it is not like conventional investments, in that its dividend to you as an individual is not proportional to the amount you put in. This congregation’s support and care for you does not rise or fall with how much or how little you contribute to it. But the return on the investment is proportional, at least to some degree, to how much we all put in, collectively. Because we live in a world where money is necessary to maintain a building, to pay a staff, to purchase food and supplies and otherwise navigate the material dimension of life. No church can or should function by money alone, but every church does need money in order to fulfill its functions.

lets talk about those. From the existence of this community, and the opportunity to take part in it, come chances for friendship, spiritual peer-support, and cross-generational connection. Your investment in this church sustains its voice for compassionate justice in the public square, and its work to help people in direct ways, on the level of both the body and the soul. Being a part of this community of memory helps keep alive the hopes and dreams of those who preceded us here, and makes real the promise that when each of us have gone, some of the good in us will be carried forward by others. You do not get out of this church what you contribute to it on a dollar-to-spiritual-currency conversion chart. Instead, the community grows stronger the more that we all give to it, and each gain the opportunity to draw on that strength in times of crisis or struggle.

          The great philosopher, pastor, and civil rights activist Howard Thurman wrote about this strength and resilience to be drawn from religious community, saying:

It is to watch a gathering darkness until all light is swallowed up completely without the power to interfere or bring a halt. Then in that darkness, to continue one’s journey with one’s footsteps guided by the illumination of remembered radiance. This is to know courage of a peculiar kind, the courage to demand the light to continue to be light even in the surrounding darkness. To walk in the light while darkness invades, envelopes, and surrounds. This is to wait on the Lord. This is to know the renewal of strength. This is to walk and faint not.

          In the story of the two foolish brothers, who bought pillows instead of pans and then tore them open when they found them too heavy, winter eventually came. The wind blew hard, and white snow covered the ground. In their separate houses, the two fools each watched out their windows and thought to themselves: surely under all that snow, the feathers we have been waiting for lie buried. When spring comes, our fortunes will be made. The material value of money invested in a bank or a fund or a business venture is always at least a little bit variable, at least somewhat uncertain; often more so, the larger the hoped for payout. Your investment in this place, this congregation, is of a different sort. But if your values match those we espouse here, it is among the most sound investments you could possibly make, because its risk – its chance of being less than you hoped – goes down the more that you give to it. I ask that you keep that in mind as you consider and make your annual pledge of financial support to the church in the next few weeks.

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